All Together Now Africa part 4 - The Democratic Republic of the Congo

When Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during The FA Cup Sixth Round tie at Tottenham's White Hart Lane in 2012, supporters soon appreciated the gravity of the situation. The medical teams of BOTH clubs, were swift to react, which played a major part in saving the Congo born player’s life. This generosity of spirit was replicated by other fans up and down the country laying aside club rivalries to express support for, and then celebrate the recovery of, a young man who at just 24 years old was forced to retire from the game.

It is really true that the spirit of football has a power to unite and even halt wars. A football inspired truce (which many dismiss as an urban legend) occurred in 1969 in the Congo. The Kinshasa (the former Belgian Congo) and the Brazzaville (the former French Congo) governments were engaged in a war when Pelé and Santos arrived at the Kinshasa airport to play against the Congo National Team.

After playing their previously arranged match, the team returned to Kinshasa (escorted by the militia) and met the Congolese president, who told them that they would only be allowed leave if they played against a local team. On January 21, 1969 Santos played against a quickly assembled Congolese juvenile national team and won 2 - 0. The President forcefully demanded a rematch and two days later, Santos played against Kinshasa Leopards, ‘losing’ this time 3 - 2. After that, the team were freed and allowed to take off, but while the tensions for the footballers had been simmering, the actual war had been halted on both sides of the border.

Five years after Pele’s visit, the eyes of the world turned to Kinshasa again to see another sporting legend, Muhammad Ali.

It's 1974, Muhammed Ali is 32 and thought by many to be past his prime. George Foreman is ten years younger and the reigning Heavyweight champion of the world. Promoter Don King wants to make a name for himself and offers both fighters five million dollars apiece to fight and when they accept, King needs to come up with the money. He finds a backer in Mobutu Sese Suko, the President of Zaire and the "Rumble in the Jungle" is set. An estimated 50,000 spectators are crammed into the Stade du 20 Mai for the 4am start necessary to accommodate primetime schedules in the United States. It was hot and humid, and the atmosphere was charged with excitement and expectation.

President Mobutu, who had offered an extraordinary $10m to bring the fight to Kinshasa and put the country he had renamed Zaire on the map, joined the stadium’s four distinctive banks of lights in towering over the crowd. Mobutu had left little to chance. He allegedly rounded up 1,000 of Kinshasa’s leading criminals before the fight and held them in rooms under the stadium before executing 100 of them to make his point. Unsurprisingly, the city was virtually crime free for the event.

The crowd famously chanted "Ali boma ye" but Ali didn't kill anyone and instead allowed Foreman to hit him repeatedly and ferociously. It was a tactic intended to sap the strength from Foreman's big arms, but Ali knew he'd have to endure serious pain for it to succeed. He admitted later he was never hit so hard in his career. By the end of the eighth round, Foreman was drained and really only pawing at Ali in the corner. Even so, the end was shockingly sudden. Ali decided it was time to leave the ropes and come out fighting. An exhausted Foreman struggled to defend himself, a left and right to the face sent him spinning towards the canvas. Ali had the chance to throw an extra punch but poignantly stopped himself, realising there was no need. Like so much of the event, Ali's performance was a poetry that spoke to millions.

Today, we perhaps can’t comprehend the enormity of this event on world culture. Ali spoke his mind, followed his own path, was intelligent and articulate and backed up everything he had to say inside the ring and outside. Director Spike Lee makes the point that people didn’t really understand much about recent history until that fight, even the previous year. The event, organized by promoter Don King, staged both the fight and a three day music festival, Zaire '74 featuring James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Spinners, The Jazz Crusaders and The Pointer Sisters as well as African stars Miriam Makeba, TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars and is captured in the Academy award winning 1996 film, When We Were Kings directed by Leon Gast WATCH HERE and Soul Power, a 2008 documentary film directed by Jeff Levy-Hinte WATCH HERE


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