Matchday 1: Mobutu Sese Seko

The African Five-a side podcast continues to explore the stories of five African heads of state and their influence on football. This week, we introduce our striker.

FairPhone soccer team from Likasi, Congo. Credit FairPhone on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.

Following a humiliating 3-0 loss to the Ghanaian Black Stars in May 1966, and after consolidating power in Congo-Kinshasa during the Congo Crisis, Mobutu Sese Seko utilized a spike in copper to invest in the national football team. Mobutu’s first point of order was to recall the “Belgicains,” Congolese footballers that were poached by European clubs during the Congo Crisis. He also instituted his doctrine of authenticité to rebrand the national football team and rename them the “Leopards,” after the leopard-printed abacost that he always wore.

The “Belgicains” helped Congo-Kinshasa win the 1968 African Cup of Nations. This was the golden era of Congolese football as clubs such as TP Mazembe became the first African club to win a treble (League, Cup, and Champions League). After a disappointing exit at Afcon in 1970 and 1972, Mobutu’s team controversially qualified in the final round of qualification for the 1974 FIFA World Cup against Morocco.

Before flying out to West Germany for the tournament, Zaire—as Congo-Kinshasa was now named—won the 1974 Afcon in Egypt. Although expectations were high, Zaire’s participation at the 1974 FIFA World Cup remains a sore subject in the Central African Nation. Three losses in the group stages, including a record 9-0 against Yugoslavia, so embarrassed Mobutu that he decided to divest from football. The Leopards never again rose to the heights that they did during that seven year period between 1967-1974.

In retrospect, very few heads of state enjoyed as much success in such little time as Mobutu did with the Leopards. Very few heads of state also named their national football teams after their favorite piece of clothing. Mobutu’s spurring on Congolese football makes him a natural choice for our African heads of state five-a-side team.

Also, in this week’s African Football Roundup we recapped the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Africa, and outlined some of the good we saw, as well as some of the bad. Egypt, Senegal, and South Africa displayed reasons for optimism. Egypt under Rui Vitoria are one of Africa’s most coherent sides. Senegal have a new midfield pairing with Pape Matar Sarr and Lamine Camara—that’s not fair. And, with the Sundowns boys, are Bafana back? The bad comes from West Africa. Nigeria come away from the qualifiers with just 2 points in 2 matches, while Ghana look a bit stale under new coach Chris Hughton. Despite their recent win versus Madagascar, we think they might struggle to make the 2026 World Cup in the Americas.

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Further Reading