Congo DR

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The country

Quite possibly Africa’s least appropriately named country, the “Democratic Republic” of Congo has endured decades of ruthless dictatorship, political corruption and hellish violence, not to mention enough war, famine, death and disease to send the four horsemen of the apocalypse straight to the nearest dole queue. Between 1885 and 1908 the area came under the personal rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II after his Royal Cuntiness convinced the other European powers that allowing him free reign over the area and its lucrative rubber resources would bring significant economic benefits for the natives, specifically for local funeral directors and whip manufacturers. Once old Leo’s true motivations became glaringly obvious – what with having worked half the population to death and all – the country passed over to direct rule from Brussels, re-branded itself as the “Belgian Congo” and would go on to serve as the setting for Herge’s controversial 1931 ‘Tintin in the Congo’ comic strip, which definitely wasn’t racist, not even a little bit.

  

   

In 1965, a mere five years after independence from Belgium, the Congolese found themselves subject to the deranged whims of military dictator Joseph Mobutu who, having seized power in a violent coup, decided that a few changes were in order. Judging his young nation to be too colonial, the crackpot despot rolled out a national policy of Africanisation that involved renaming the country “Zaire”, the capital “Kinshasa” (from Leopoldville) and reinventing himself as “Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga”, which translates as “Mobutu the all powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” I’m guessing that sounded so much better in his head. Under this regime, European influences were widely suppressed and couples caught baptising their children with western names often faced imprisonment or even torture, a tad harsh perhaps, although parents of any nationality who label their offspring Hugo, Miles, Rupert or Pandora could quite frankly use a good waterboarding.

Following Mobutu’s death in 1997, the country reverted to its DRC moniker and promptly collapsed into a protracted civil war that cost the lives of up to five million people, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War 2. Amongst the war criminals subsequently tried and convicted was former army Colonel Kibibi Mutware, a rapey, stabby sort of fellow whose habit of killing monkeys and eating their hearts as a show of intimidation, earned him a fearsome reputation with his soldiers and opponents, as well as a lifetime ban from Whipsnade Zoo. Speaking of animals, should the Congo ever stumble fully back to its feet, the country has a wealth of wildlife with which to entice ecotourists, including gorillas, leopards, chimpanzees and the bizarre looking okapi, a close relative of the giraffe featuring a stripey arse, giving the impression that it’s just been rear-ended at full whack by a speeding zebra.

 An okapi inspects the damage, while the zebra dolls out some heavily-muffled insurance details.

Despite all these problems, the DRC has a long and distinguished footballing history. In 1974, under the name “Zaire”, the national team became the first ever black African nation to play at the World Cup finals, although what ultimately went down in West Germany will live in infamy, with the “Leopards” suffering a 9-0 annihilation against Yugoslavia (the biggest defeat in World Cup history at the time) before a meeting with reigning champions Brazil brought about this innovative, if somewhat illegal, piece of defending from right-back Ilunga Mwepu, recreated here on Fantasy Football by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and of course the man himself.

As amusing as this clearly was at the time, the story actually has a very sinister underbelly and is emphatically NOT the example of innocent African naivety that it was, and often still is, presented as in most western media. According to Ilunga himself – as told in Jon Spurling’s excellent book “The dark history of the World Cup” – he and his teammates had been threatened by Mobutu’s goons following the Yugoslavia thrashing, who accused them of bringing shame on their country and promised they would never see home or their families again if they lost by more than three goals to Brazil. Given their leader’s violent mood-swings and genocidal temper, this threat was understandably taken very seriously and so, with the team already 2-0 down and facing a Brazilian free-kick, Ilunga’s mad dash from the wall actually represented a desperate bid to put off the taker and waste some time. Viewed through this lens, the whole thing doesn’t seem quite so comical. Well, maybe a little bit.

Apart from this one World Cup appearance, no Congolese/Zairian team has really come close to a second. At the time of writing their chances of making it to the 2018 tournament are technically still alive with one game to play, however matters are firmly out of their hands as they must beat Guinea and hope rivals Tunisia contrive to lose at home to Libya in order to leapfrog them and win the group. Not too likely I’m afraid. They have won the African Cup of Nations though, twice in fact, in 1968 and 1974, though seeing as both of these victories occurred during the same era as the ill-fated World Cup expedition, it’s debatable as to whether this time period is remembered with much fondness by the country’s football fans, or indeed the players.

The shirt

DR Congo shirts really are rather splendid. Most of the team’s recent kits have been supplied, somewhat randomly, by Dublin based designers O’Neills, who have been utilising the already lively national colour scheme of sky blue and red in a variety of inventive ways, including the always welcome sight of a big fuck off leopard splayed across the front of the garment. See below.

 

O’Neills’ brilliant contributions to the Congolese kit cupboard. The current 2017 version is on the far right and features a map outline of the country instead of the leopard. 

As you can tell from the picture at the top of this post, my own DRC shirt clearly dates from before this period, manufactured as it is by Italian sportswear company Errea. As with many of my favourite garments, this smashing design can be traced back to my friend and shirt collecting legend Nick Warrick, who managed to import a limited number at a time several years ago when Congo shirts were scarce to say the least. Indeed, its arrival into my collection actually carried a special significance as this marked the conclusion of my original quest, i.e. to own a shirt from every nation to have played at the World Cup finals. For this I’m willing to overlook the badge being on the wrong side of the shirt, as well as the leopard on said badge looking less like a fearsome jungle predator and more like it has its tongue poking out in the manner of an eight year old in a cheap Halloween mask who has just been offered gluten-free, soy based sweets and chocolate by their stuffy hipster neighbours.

Lastly, in case anyone was wondering, yes, replica shirts of the 1974 Zaire World Cup team can be found in various online stores. Obviously these are retro reproductions rather than originals, but they’re a faithful enough copy to make me want one. Oh well, maybe for Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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