AS Vita fail in grand mission
Harare – Forty years ago, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) toasted its finest sporting year – hosting the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, winning the African Cup of Nations in Egypt and playing at the World Cup finals in Germany.
Two weeks before that golden year opened, AS Vita had set the ball rolling by staging a spectacular comeback, after losing the first leg 2-4, to thrash Ghanaian giants Asante Kotoko 3-0 in Kinshasa for a remarkable 5-4 triumph as they were crowned champions of African club football.
But, on the 40th anniversary of a special year that DRC will never forget, AS Vita failed in their bid to provide the fairy-tale that this vast country needed to cheer its spirits and provide a reminder of those bygone days when the grass was green.
AS Vita lost their brave battle, to be crowned champions of Africa for the second time, in cruel fashion in Algeria on November 1 xwhen they ended at the wrong end of a 3-3 draw, in a titanic two-legged final, with Algerian side ES Setif winning the grand duel on away goals.
Having been held to a 2-2 draw at home at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa, where boxing legend Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in eight rounds of the Rumble of the Jungle on October 30, 1974, the odds were heavily stacked against AS Vita going into the second leg in Algeria.
Their opponents had lost only once at home, since making their debut in Africa’s premier inter-club tournament in 1987, winning 20 games, drawing five and keeping 18 clean sheets but two clubs – Canon Yaoundé and Orlando Pirates – had proved that drawing 2-2 at home in the first leg wasn’t a disaster by going on to win away in the final to capture the title.
The Kinshasa side, whose players provided the soul of the Congolese national team that won the Nations Cup in 1974 and also played at the World Cup finals in Germany in the same year, battled gamely in Bilda, about 50 kilometres outside Algiers, but the 1-1 draw was not enough to help them lift the trophy for the second time.
“Tonight there is a lot of disappointment. We did not start well and that’s the only thing I can blame my players,” AS Vita coach, Florent Ibenge, told the official Confederation of African Football (CAF) website.
“The second half we did what we could with the resources of the team and our opponents were lucky. We lost on a final twist of fate. I am very sad for my players, even if they were less sharp than usual, they did a fantastic journey.”
Forty-one years ago legendary striker, Ndaye “Volvo” Mulamba, and his teammates completed the fantastic journey as AS Vita team won the 1973 African Cup of Champions Clubs trophy with their 3-0 destruction of Asante Kotoko at the Tata Raphael Stadium to overturn a 2-4 first leg deficit and kick-start a golden year for Congolese football that would see the country win the ’74 Nations Cup, in Egypt, and play at the ’74 World Cup.
Mulamba was again the star of that ’74 Nations Cup finals, scoring a record nine goals, to power his country to glory, beating neighbours Zambia 2-0 in a replayed final, with the AS Vita forward scoring both goals, after the initial tie had ended 2-2.
Named Player of the Tournament of that finals, Mulamba returned home to a heroes’ welcome and was awarded the National Order of Leopard by the then President Mobutu Sese Seko for his services to the country’s national sport.
An AS Vita triumph in the CAF Champions League this year would have helped heal the wounds of the tragedy, earlier this year, when 15 fans were killed in a stampede during an explosive league match against bitter rivals TP Mazembe at the same Tata Raphael Stadium where their 2-2 draw in the first leg of the Champions League final eventually cost them dearly.
“I think having conceded two goals in Kinshasa disturbed us,” Ibenge noted.
It was at the Tata Raphael Stadium, four decades ago, where Ali sparkled, in the Rumble in the Jungle, and knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round of an event dubbed the greatest sporting event of the 20th century, a huge cultural influence that has influenced a number of songs and films.