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Christian Hazes

Christian Hazes HOMEWARD - May 2018

Ilunga’s Game

Photo by Edgar Chaparro

Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer

Unintentionally, Zaire defender Mwepu Ilunga achieved football immortality during one of the group-stage matches of the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

Having lost against Scotland and Yugoslavia, Zaire had already been eliminated from the tournament. On the other hand, Brazil had already reached the second stage of the tournament after picking up two convincing wins. In other words, the final game between the two countries would be a mere technicality. While in the concluding minutes of that last game of group B, tournament first-timers Zaire were down two to nothing against reigning champions Brazil.

In these final minutes, Mwepu Ilunga succeeds in doing the impossible: leaving the divine team Seleçao flabbergasted. The Brazilians are preparing to take a free-kick, while Zaire forms a wall to attempt to block the shot. Shortly after the whistle by the referee that signals Brazil is good to go, defender Mwepu Ilunga breaks free from the wall, sprints towards the ball and before the Brazilians can blink, kicks the ball away as far as possible. Brazilian football gods Roberto Rivelino and Jairzinho looking on with their jaws dropped remains a unique scene. One of the strangest moments in football history just took place.

The fact is the reason for Ilunga’s action had nothing to do with ignorance concerning the rules of the game. No, Zaire’s players, nicknamed the Leopards, are perfectly aware of the rules. Instead, the daunting fear of going home is what drove Ilunga’s action. The clearance was simply a tactic to buy some invaluable time as well as an act of protest.

Zaire was a Belgian colony up until the year 1960, officially known then as Congo. As is the case for the vast majority of the exploited colonies on the African continent, the legacy left behind by former European rulers is far from convenient. Five years after gaining independence, Mobutu Sese Seko cunningly turned the precarious and inchoate Sub-Saharan state into a dictatorial regime. Mobutu’s Popular Movement of the Revolution dominated the one-party state that Zaire had become for over three decades, leaving the country devastated. Under the aegis of “the Father of the Nation”, the people of Zaire had been trapped in a totalitarian system dripping with Mobutism.

Mobutu’s influence also reached Zaire’s football culture by virtue of recalling players that had moved to Belgium, prohibiting playing abroad, and pumping huge sums of money in the game’s development. It must be admitted, though, that Mobutu’s intervention was highly fruitful, in addition to snatching the only African ticket for the contest after a grueling group-stage, the Leopards also became victors of the 1974 African Cup of Nations. As a sign of gratitude, the benign Mobutu awarded every team member with a house and a green Volkswagen car.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Zaire arrived at the World Cup ‘74 on a high. Some bookmakers even deemed the Africans potential outsiders.

The start of the tournament proved to be promising. Under the supervision of a vast Zairean delegate, including important ministers, high-ranking army officials and a battalion of witchdoctors, the team held up remarkably well against a strong Scottish equipe. Nevertheless, Zaire’s world cup debut culminated in a 2-0 loss.

Unfortunately, the close loss against the Scots turned out to be the apex of Zaire’s participation during that World Cup. Ahead of their next game, financial problems surfaced that proved to be the last drop to make pot boil over. The Zairean players did not receive their match payments.

In stark contrast with the present-day conditions, several decades ago football players often lived in financially uncertain circumstances. The fact that corruption was common in Mobutu-led Zaire made the players suspicious of the Zairean entourage. Mwepu Ilunga and consorts could assume the delegate had seized the match payments.

Photo by Jannik Skorna

The players of Zaire decided to strike back. Not merely because of the unreceived match bonuses, but also to address the larger problems of their home country. The World Cup would be the perfect stage to raise awareness concerning the fact that they were living in a full-blown dictatorial regime.

According to some sources, as a last resort to avoid a tarnished image of the tournament, the FIFA promised to pay 3000 Deutsche Marks per player as a means of compensation. All-out mutiny by Zaire was circumvented, but the tension didn’t fully dissipate.

The second match of Zaire with Yugoslavia as the adversary was amongst the worst in the whole history of the tournament. Exhaustion after days of arguing amalgamated with feelings of anger and resentment left the Leopards extremely demotivated. The result? Zaire experienced complete annihilation: 9-0.

This is when the situation really got out of hand. Mobutu was furious, Zaire had experienced humiliation on the international stage because of the players. Presidential guards were dispatched to threaten the team with a clear message: lose with 4 or more goals to Brazil and you better not come home.

The message surely resonated with the team. Knowing that their lives were at stake, the Zairean footballers gave it all they got against those Gods in yellow. In order for himself and his teammates to survive, Mwepu Ilunga was even willing to make a joke out of himself in front of the whole world.

The sacrifice made for survival is large. Abruptly breaking free from the wall of men in green, with a feral gaze that radiates determination, and hoofing up the ball across the pitch resulted in being universally ridiculed. But, when being able to see your family and home again are at stake, the “by any means necessary” mindset prevails.

When the final whistle had been blown, a score of 3-0 in favor of the Brazilians stood on the scoreboard. Mission accomplished.

Despite being allowed to go home, many of the ‘74 Leopards did not go home for the simple reason that they did not wish to live under a dictatorial regime which considered them pariahs.

After becoming aware of the true underlying motivations for Ilunga’s clearance, it might seem inappropriate to laugh about the incident. I do not fully agree. Obviously, the state of 1974 Zaire is not funny at all. Nor did Ilunga’s sudden action do much to increase the chances of not conceding a goal. But, the free kick farce is one of the best examples of political protest through sports. The metaphorical middle finger towards Mobutu is not only unique; at the end of the day, it is mostly very heroic.

And that is worth a smile.

Christian Hazes DRUGS - February 2018

Up in Smoke

Photo by Ahmed Rizkhaan

Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer

I have had the privilege to enrich my life with numerous fascinating trips. Be it the vast and pristine landscapes of arctic Norway or the quaint, calm and sun-soaked French villages; every journey is unique and provides a different experience. Lately, however, I started to realize that all these trips have one thing in common: that there is one ever-recurring question that is dropped shortly after telling people that I was born and raised in Amsterdam. I am talking about the simple and obvious question, fired at me before I can finish my sentence:

“How is the trip?”

I refrain from snapping and answer politely that the trip is amazing, ditto for the country and people, before being bluntly interrupted again:

“No dude, I’m talking about the drugs! You’re from Amsterdam!”

In my mind, images of me facepalming myself play; I ought to know by now this is to be expected. It’s proof that the Netherlands, and predominantly Amsterdam, are still the very embodiment of everything that comprises vice and complete liberty for many outsiders. Question is, for how long will I be confronted with drug-driven curiosity?

Without a doubt, the marriage of Amsterdam with weed is largely a result of the coffeeshop – and they are an endangered species these days. Despite still being omnipresent in the typical streetscape of Amsterdam, the number of coffeeshops is in swift decline.

In 1995, there were 350 coffeeshops in Amsterdam. Since then, 183 Amsterdam coffeeshops had to shut up shop, predominantly due to political pressure from governing bodies. That’s about half. In The Hague, the Dutch political capital, ferocious plans have been devised to combat the soft drugs industry in the Netherlands. However, in the case of Amsterdam, the approach has merely led to the deterioration of the situation and, due to its numerous adverse effects, cannot only be characterized as deeply flawed.

Amsterdam has a reputation for being one of the most liberal and progressive places in the world, which has a long history. The Netherlands was a hub for early enlightenment thinkers, among them Baruch de Spinoza, Erasmus of Rotterdam or Hugo Grotius. Already in the 17th century, the Dutch embraced individualism and had a dynamic entrepreneurial class. And the harbor town had state-enforced laws to make its diverse citizenry engage in their different religious practices and respect other faiths. So one would assume that some core liberal principles such as tolerance are embedded in Dutch culture.

Notwithstanding the fact that there is some truth to the claim, this point of view is not wholly correct. Especially in relation to the present-day Netherlands and Amsterdam. When it comes to soft drugs, tolerance has its limits, and they are tighter than one might expect. Many refer to the supposedly detrimental effect of consumption on society and particularly abhor the cannabis industry that attracts tourists to Amsterdam en masse. Amsterdammers are sick and tired of tripping over and confronting the near-comatose tourists that overflow the streets. Even Eberhardt van der Laan, the beloved-and-habitually-permissive former mayor expressed his concerns back in 2014, saying to the then-incumbent mayor of London, Boris Johnson, that he should visit Amsterdam and watch his compatriots loudly running around scantily clad. Despite the subliminal mocking sentiment, it is clear that the situation is getting out of hand and it is hardly to be denied that the soft drugs industry is mainly a tourist attraction.

And yet, the number of tourists that visit the Dutch capital is rising. One in four of these tourists will visit a coffeeshop. The perceived negative effects of soft drugs and surging drug tourism in the Southern parts of the Netherlands, have pushed the Dutch government to come up with an action plan to eradicate drugs tourism, and reduce the scale of the soft drugs industry. A policy that forced many coffeeshops to close makes it compulsory for coffeeshops located in Amsterdam to be at least 250 meters away from schools. Allegedly, young people would then be less exposed to soft drugs. Furthermore, a project called “Project 1012” aims at improving the image of the area of de Wallen, the center of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, required the closure of multiple coffeeshops. Also worth mentioning, the city council of Amsterdam employs a “no-growth policy” which means that the city will not give out any licenses for new coffeeshops at all.

Amsterdam’s coffeeshop supply is rapidly declining as a result of the advocacy of those that seek the end of the weed industry. On the other hand, it’s not blowing smoke if we say that the path chosen by the Dutch government is not heading in the right direction. In part because the demand for coffeeshops is skyrocketing to unparalleled heights.

But isn’t the elimination of competitors a blessing for the surviving coffeeshops? At first glance, yes. In reality, the decimation of Amsterdam-based coffeeshops has numerous grave drawbacks. The remaining coffeeshops are unable to facilitate the enormous demand. Increased appetite for the good stuff culminates in several undesirable consequences, such as people smoking on the streets due to a lack of space and coffeeshops turning into cannabis supermarkets instead of being cozy and serving a social function. Moreover, imbalanced supply and demand increases the number of illegal street dealers and this exacerbates the degeneration of neighborhoods; exactly what Amsterdam was trying to prevent. Lastly, the amount of cannabis a shop is allowed to have in store is limited, so shops must resupply multiple times on a busy day, increasing the probability that couriers will be robbed. The current policy approach is simply riddled with cracks.

Amsterdam prevails when it comes to attracting tourists and having a reputation for being one of the most tolerant, open-minded and liberal places in the world. So the only way I can see to avoid the “How is the trip?” question is to never bring up my roots, but I’d rather do that than see the city continue on its restrictive path.