When Congo and Angola were Europe

Dec 26, 2010 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Vladimir StankovicVeteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

This week there was a suspended game in the Eurocup. Montenegrin champion KK Buducnost could only get as far as Frankfurt, Germany, as bad weather conditions in central Europe kept the team from reaching Las Palmas in the Spanish Canary Islands for its scheduled contest against Gran Canaria 2014. The Canary Islands, by mileage, are much closer to Africa than to Europe. This travel incident is what sparked the inspiration for this week's entry in a blog that looks at the history of the European Cup and Euroleague Basketball. Today's entry is about useless trips or tourist journeys.

I have mentioned several times that at the beginning of the former Champions Cup, the teams from Northern African countries competed in Europe because they belonged to FIBA Europe the way the territories were assigned. In the early years of the competition, we could regularly see the champions of Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia... In 1961, in the middle of the Cold War, a very specific case took place in Congo due to political reasons and riots. Congo was not really part of the European zone of FIBA and had more important things to think about than basketball, but Belgium, the country that had colonized the territory for many years did have political problems. That year there was a revolution in the country and in the first Congolese democratic election, Patrice Lumumba and the Nationalist Party won. However he lasted only eight days as Prime Minister! After a coup d'etat, Lumumba had to ask for help from the United Nations, who didn't help much. His political rival, Moisee Tchombe proclaimed independence for the Katanga province. Lumumba ended up in jail, where he died in February of 1961 under unclear circumstances.

Roundtrip to Belgrade

So what does the political turmoil in Central Africa have to do with the basketball European Cup? The Soviets, who were friends with Lumumba, blamed the death of the Prime Minister on the Belgian secret service, the former colonialists of the country. This caused hatred for Belgium in the communist countries to escalate. In the middle of the crisis, the Belgian champion, Antwerpen, had to travel to Belgrade to play the eighthfinals against OKK Belgrade. The team reached the city, but needed a police escort all the way from the airport. Yugoslavia was not a part of the Soviet Block, but there were protests by groups in front of the hotel were the Belgian team was staying. The police told the scared Belgian party that they could not guarantee their safety during practice, and recommended that the game not take place at all. Negotiations went on through the night and the decision was made in the morning: the game was not to be played. Antwerpen returned to the airport and took the first flight home without breaking a sweat. The game was registered as a 0-2 technical victory for Antwerpen, but OKK didn't receive any sanctions because it was not to blame for the situation.

Field trip to Luanda

Seven years later, Africa was the protagonist in the European Cup again, but with no political problems this time around, even though politics have something to do with what happened. In his excellent book about the history of the competition, Carlos Jimenez reminds us that Angola was still a Portuguese colony, and as such was still considered a province of the country. Therefore, Benfica Luanda was a regular in the Portuguese League and earned the right to represent the "mother country," Portugal, in European competition. There were some complaints during the draw because of the length and costs of the trip to Angola, but everyone hoped it would be another team that would deal with that bad luck. The team that had to cope with it was Racing Malines, again the representative from Belgium. Much to everyone's surprise, the Belgians accepted the result of the draw as a normal thing. They took it as an attractive, tourist trip without a real sporting risk. They traveled to Luanda, where they won 59-90, while in the home game in Belgium, Malines won by 97 points, 171-74. Curiously, that was not the biggest margin in a game that season as AZS Warsow of Poland defeated Vauxhall London of England 143-41.

The exotic trips of the European teams to African soil lasted until 1984, when FIBA, finally, ordered the Northern African teams to play in the zone of their continent. FAR Rabat and Zamalek Cairo were the most usual rivals for the European teams. The last somewhat tourist trip was for Cibona Zagreb, who during the 1982-83 season had to play against UE Cairo and won 58-65 on the road and 89-52 at home. Since then, only European teams have competed in the European Cup and the Euroleague, with the exception of Maccabi Tel Aviv, of course.