Reflections On The African Cup Of Nations (1957 – 2004) – By Fabio Lanipekun

ON the 7th and 8th of June 1956, seven football administrators – three from Egypt, three from Sudan and one from South Africa – met at the Avenida Hotel in Lisbon, Portugal, and agreed to form the Africa Football Confederation (CAF) and create a competition for African national teams from 1957. The mission was accomplished.

At that time Nigeria was in the throes of fighting for independence from Great Britain and very little attention was given to international football apart from the annual bilateral friendly against West African neighbour, Ghana, which began in 1951. Nigeria therefore did not participate in the first three editions of the Africa Cup of Nations – 1957, 1959 and 1962. Having gained independence in 1960 and with Nigerians themselves now fully in charge of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), attention shifted to continental competitions and Nigeria started her quest for glory in 1963. But first, let us reflect on the first three tournaments.

SUDAN 1957:

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia were the only three countries that pioneered the Africa Cup of Nations which took place in Khartoum, capital of Sudan. Organized football began in Egypt way back in 1921 and the Egyptians had played in the FIFA World Cup finals in 1934. So, their experience helped them to win the maiden edition of the Africa Cup of Nations by beating Sudan 2-1 and Ethiopia 4-0. South Africa could not participate in the championships as a result of her apartheid policy.

EGYPT 1959:

In the second edition, the venue shifted to Cairo, capital of Egypt with the same set of opponents. Egypt pounded Ethiopia 4-0 and Sudan 2-1 to retain the Cup.

ETHIOPIA 1962:

Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia was the venue of the third edition which saw newcomers Tunisia and Uganda, with Sudan dropping out. Hosts Ethiopia beat Tunisia 4-2, defending champions Egypt pipped Uganda 2-1 and, in the final, Ethiopia defeated Egypt 4-2 in extra time.

GHANA 1963:

The Nigeria Football Association, NFA, after a series of tumultuous instability which saw five chairmen within a short space of two years, eventually got a national team ready for the 1963 championships which took place in Ghana. By now, more countries had become interested and six finalists were grouped into two with Accra and Kumasi as the venues. It was a disastrous debut for Nigeria as Egypt walloped the then Red Devils 6-3 in Kumasi. Four days later Sudan added salt into the Nigerian injury with another 4-0 thrashing. Ghana lifted the Cup by beating Sudan 3-0.

TUNISIA 1965: 

For the 1965 tournament, the NFA was again rocked by instability as three chairmen occupied the seat between 1963 and 1965. Hence Nigeria did not participate in the preliminaries. Ghana retained the Cup by beating hosts Tunisia 3-2 after extra time.

ETHIOPIA 1968: 

The NFA enjoyed some stability when Chief Godfrey Amachree took over as the Chairman in 1967. He stayed in office till 1971 so the NFA found time to play in the preliminaries of the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations. Grouped with Ivory Coast and Togo, Nigeria finished second and thus missed the finals held in Ethiopia. By 1968, CAF had increased the finalists slot to eight. Ethiopia, Uganda, Ivory Coast and Algeria played in Addis Ababa while Ghana, Senegal, Congo Kinshasa and Congo Brazzaville played in Asmara. Congo Kinshasa beat Ghana 1 -0 in the final.

SUDAN 1970: 

Having qualified for the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games where Brazil held Nigeria to a 3-3 draw, expectations were high that Nigeria would do well at the 1970 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in Sudan. But the NFA withdrew the Nigerian team from the zonal preliminaries, apparently to concentrate on the 2nd All Africa Games to be held in Lagos in 1973. In the end, Africa Cup of Nations host, Sudan beat Ghana by a lone goal, which the Ghanaians hotly contested, refused the silver medal and were penalized by CAF.

CAMEROUN 1972:

With the National Stadium, Surulere under construction, Nigeria’s major matches were shifted to the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan and Ogbe Stadium, Benin. In the preliminary of the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria played a goalless draw with Congo Brazzaville in Ibadan and lost 2-1 in Brazzaville. So Nigeria failed to qualify for the finals which took place in Cameroun. CAF retained the eight nation format – Cameroun, Kenya, Mali and Togo in Yaounde group; while Congo, Morocco, Zaire and Sudan were in the Douala group. Congo won the cup beating Mali 32.

EGYPT 1974:

A recurring decimal that seemed to plague Nigeria’s football was the ever changing leadership of the NFA. Between 1971 and 1974five different men occupied the chairman’s seat and when the national team met Sudan in the preliminary, Nigeria edged past them only to be walloped by Zambia 7-4 on goals aggregate. Zambia joined seven other finalists in Egypt where Kenya, Zambia and Ivory Coast and Egypt were in the same group; Zaire, Guinea, Congo and newcomers Mauritius were in the other group. Zambia got to the final only to be beaten by Zaire 2-0.

ETHIOPIA 1976:

Nigeria finally made their second appearance at the 10th Africa Cup of Nations, and the story behind it is as gripping as a Hollywood movie. There was internal revolt by some national team players, the authorities responded with an iron fist, diplomatic face-off between Nigeria and Zaire spilled into the group match, the Nigerian coach imparted psychological warfare into the Green Eagles, and a Senegalese referee played the joker which saw Morocco win the Cup at the expense of Nigeria.

Nigeria scaled over the qualifying hurdle fairly easily, by walking over Central African Republic and rolling over Congo DR home and away. It was while on their way to the final tournament in Ethiopia that trouble erupted. Some Rangers International of Enugu players revolted that unless some of their team-mates were included in the squad, none of them would play. A furious National Sports Commission (NSC) instructed the Yugoslav coach, Father Tiko to drop all the rebellious players and look for alternatives, which he did.

Several weeks before the finals, Nigeria had taken some political and diplomatic measures to free Angola while Zaire danced to the tune of the colonialists. The Nigerian government and that of Zaire were not directly at war, but relationship was at the lowest ebb. So when the finals in Ethiopia pitched Nigeria in the same group with Zaire, everyone expected war, off and on the pitch.

It was my first coverage of the Cup of Nations, and I watched from the “ring side.” Zaire, who were the defending champions, brought tons of arrogance to Dire Dawa Hotel and refused to even reply greetings from their Nigerian counterparts. Sudan and Morocco also shared the same hotel with them. In the Addis Ababa group were the host, Ethiopia, Uganda, Egypt and Guinea.

There was no football match that the government and people of Nigeria wanted to win as badly as that against Zaire. Coach Father Tiko plotted the victory. Zaire, in 1974 had been massacred 9-0 by Yugoslavia in the World Cup finals, and Father Tiko, being a Yugoslav, knew the Yugoslav strategy and tactics and employed them against Zaire. In addition, he told Muda Lawal, Nigeria’s best ever midfielder, to continuously taunt the Zaire key players with the 9-0 World Cup bashing, as the Zairians would react angrily and lose concentration. It worked like magic. Before they knew it, Nigeria were 3-0 ahead, and by the time Zaire woke up, it was too late. Nigeria defeated them 4-2 and there was wild jubilation at the Dodan Barracks, Lagos then the seat of the Federal Government.

The 1976 finals were the first and only one played in a double league format. Nigeria and Morocco emerged the top two in Dire Dawa while Egypt and Guinea won the Addis Ababa zone. It was in the final league that grouped the four qualified teams together, that the Senegalese referee, Yusuf N’diaye, who handled Nigeria/Morocco match allegedly received a bribe of $2,000 from Morocco to assist them beat Nigeria, 2-1, and thus win the Cup. CAF, after investigation, found N’diaye guilty and penalized him, but the result stood. Nigeria finished third behind Morocco and Guinea, thus winning their first medal, a bronze.

It was a thing of joy that after calling off the bluff of the rebellious Rangers players, the coach was still able to raise a team. Two of the players won continental recognition. Muhammed Baba Otu was adjudged the best right winger, and Kunle Awesu, the best left winger in Africa. If Nigeria had won the Cup, Muda Lawal stood to be named the African Footballer of the Year for the spectacular goal he scored against Egypt, which Diego Maradona of Argentina re-enacted at the 1986 World Cup against England.

Nigeria’s performance in 1976 resulted from the stability of the Sunday Dankaro-led NFA which remained in office till the 1980 triumph. One should also mention the selfless services rendered by the Green Eagles Team Manger Major Ray Ibikunle-Armstrong, who led the kitchen in preparing Nigerian meals for the entire Nigerian contingent throughout the two week duration of the championship in Ethiopia.

GHANA 1978

The 1976 performances of the Eagles served a long warning notice to other African countries. So, when Ghana hosted the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations, they developed a phobia for the Eagles that was unprecedented in the history of international football. As host, Ghana did not have to play any qualifying matches, which Nigeria took in her stride by eliminating Sierra Leone and Senegal. At the finals in the Accra zone, Nigeria were drawn along with Ghana, Burkina Faso and Zambia. In Kumasi zone, Morocco, Tunisia, Uganda and Congo fought it out.

The Ghanaians were scared of facing Nigeria. In our first group match against Burkina Faso, the hosts did everything possible to frustrate the Green Eagles including deliberately switching off the floodlights when Nigeria were three goals up. Predictably, the next game between both countries was tensed but ended 1-1. Somehow, Nigeria escaped all the landmines laid on their path but when we got to the semi-final in Kumasi against Uganda, the Eagles virtually self-destruct.

With scoreline at 1-1, and Nigeria clearly having the upper hand, it was as if Adokiye Amiesimaka responded to an evil force. He picked the ball from the left side of the center circle, dribbled all the way back to Nigeria’s corner kick area, and lost possession of the ball. A Ugandan player quickly crossed the ball to their rampaging attacker Philip Omondi who slotted home the winning goal.

With Nigeria out of the way, Ghanaians celebrated throughout the night till the following day. They then reduced Uganda to mince-meat to win the cup for the third time. Nigeria picked the bronze after Tunisia walked out in the third place match.

NIGERIA 1980: 

It was only fit, proper and fair that the Dankaro-led NFA and the massive support of the National Sports Commission under the Director of Sports, Mr. Isaac Akioye, should be rewarded with Nigeria’s first Africa Cup of Nations. Under Brazilian coach, Professor Otto Gloria, the national team were well prepared for the championships, at home and abroad.

As hosts, Nigeria skipped the qualifiers and were in the Lagos group with Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Egypt. In the Ibadan group were defending champions Ghana, Algeria, Morocco and Guinea. By general consent, the team’s in Ibadan were the best four countries in Africa at that time.

In Lagos, Nigeria didn’t have much problem beating Tanzania 3-1 and Egypt 1-0. In between those two matches, the Ivorians proved a hard nut to crack. The match ended goalless, but Nigeria eventually led the group and qualified for the semi-final. In Ibadan, what the Ghanaians did against Nigeria in Kumasi in 1978 was a child’s play compared with what Ibadan fans did in retaliation. They taunted the Black Stars to no end, and despite their prodigious talents, the Ghanaians failed to progress at the Liberty Stadium. Nigerians also jubilated that their arch-rivals, Ghana, had been eliminated from the race.

In the semi-fmals, Morocco who “cheated” in Ethiopia in 1976, proved stubborn but Nigeria still overcame them 1-0. And in the classic final against Algeria, Nigeria gave a clinical display of magnificent football. Algeria, who had become one of the major forces of African football at the time, were beaten 3-0.

LIBYA 1982: 

Following the departure of Sunday Dankaro’s regime and the arrival of retired military officers on the scene, the rot began to set into the NFA again. The Mike Okwechime-led NFA bungled Nigeria’s qualification for Spain ’82 World Cup finals, just as the defence of the Africa Cup of Nations in Libya was done wishy-washy. Professor Otto Gloria had left and by the time Nigeria travelled to Libya, there was no national coach, except an expatriate part time coach of Julius Berger, then a struggling division one club in Lagos.

As the defending champions, Nigeria did not pass through the qualifiers and in the finals we were in Benghazi group, along with Ethiopia, Algeria and Zambia. Hosts Libya, Ghana, Cameroun and Tunisia were in the Tripoli zone.

The Nigerian team were in disarray but found Ethiopia weak enough to beat them 3-0 before losing 2-1 to Algeria. In the third group match against Zambia, Nigeria needed a draw to move to the semi-final. But the Eagles lost scandalously by 3-0, and there were talks that some players sold out. Following that disgrace, the Sports Minister, Chief Adebisi Ogedengbe, who led the Nigerian delegation, invited me and some four other journalists to his hotel room in Benghazi to rub minds, during which we suggested the formulation of a National Sports Policy, which eventually saw the light in 1988.

Ghana and Libya from the same group qualified for the final and since Libya footed the entire bill of the Ghanaians, including their journalists, the Libyans expected reciprocity from the West Africans who did not oblige. The marathon match ran into extra time and eventually Ghana triumphed in the penalty shoot-out, to win for the fourth time.

COTE D’IVOIRE 1984: 

The engagement of an indigenous coach, Adegboye Onigbinde in 1983 turned Nigerian national team around. They qualified for the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations finals by eliminating Angola and Morocco in the preliminaries.

The military coup in December 1983 almost scuttled the efforts of the coach. The incoming NFA administration, led by the military, had no time for preparation as the Green Eagles trained without balls and trekked from the Games Village in Surulere to the National Stadium, a considerable distance unbecoming of a national team. Nonetheless, the Green Eagles squad, comprising home based footballers forged ahead and were grouped with the defending champions, Ghana, Malawi and Algeria in the Bouake zone, while the hosts Ivory Coast had Togo, Egypt and Cameroun in the Abidjan zone.

Nigeria recorded their first victory on a neutral ground over Ghana, 2-1, drew 2-2 with Malawi and drew 0-0 with Algeria to reach the semi-finals. It was Nigeria’s turn to take a revenge over Egypt who had rough handled them 6-3 in the 1963 championships in Ghana. This time, Nigeria beat Egypt 8-7 in a marathon penalty shoot-out after scores remained 2-2 at regulation time. In the other semi-final, Cameroun and Algeria also battled to a goalless draw, but Cameroun triumphed 5-4 in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.

Thus the stage was set for a titanic final between Nigeria and Cameroun who were reaching the final for the first time. Cameroun won 3-1, thanks largely to an arrogant and selfish Nigerian attacker who saw himself as another Pele and wanted to score spectacular bicycle kick goals, and thus wasted several Nigerian scoring chances. Nigeria ended with a silver medal.

EGYPT 1986:

As runners-up in 1984 when Nigeria paraded talented young players, Africans looked forward to seeing greater performance from Nigeria in 1986 when Egypt hosted the 15th Africa Cup of Nations. But alas, Nigeria failed to qualify. In the preliminaries, Tanzania withdrew, paving the way for Nigeria to ease to the second round where they crashed to Zambia.

The NFA Chairman, then Group Captain Anthony Ikazoboh had told the nation that qualifying for the Nations Cup had become Nigeria’s “birthright.” But after playing goalless with Zambia in Lagos, the Eagles received their death certificate in Lusaka. Zambia, Cameroun, Algeria and Morocco lined up in Alexandria while the hosts, Egypt, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mozambique slugged it out in Cairo. In the final, Egypt beat Cameroun 5-4 in the penalty shoot-out after the match ended goalless after extra time.

MOROCCO 1988:

The hosting of the championships remained in North Africa, and for the first time in Morocco, who had won global admiration for their sterling performances at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Nigeria qualified fairly easily, using Togo and Sierra Leone as sacrificial lambs.

By now Nigeria had returned to inconsistent football administration, with an Air Force Officer as NFA Chairman sharing power with an Army Colonel as team manager with powers to vet the list of the Green Eagles. Playing at the Rabat zone, Nigeria broke no sweat in beating Kenya 3-0, followed by a 1-1 draw with Cameroun and a goalless draw with Egypt. Nigeria qualified for the semi-final, which ended in our favour after a 9-8 marathon penalty shoot-out win against Algeria.

At the Casablanca end, host Morocco was grouped with Zaire, Ivory Coast and Algeria. Cameroun, who qualified as runners-up in our group, eliminated the host in the semi-final to earn the right to face Nigeria again in the final. That final is still a talking point up till today. Cameroun won 1-0, though some Nigerians believed the referee was unfair in disallowing a goal scored earlier by Henry Nwosu. I ran the live commentary for the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) and I must say in all honesty that, seconds before Nwosu’s header, the referee’s whistle had been blown, picking Nwosu off-side.

ALGERIA 1990: 

Once again Nigeria qualified for the 1990 edition which took place in Algeria. A civilian, Alhaji Yusuf Ali had taken over as NFA Chairman and was determined to inject discipline back into the national team. When Stephen Keshi and Samson Siasia demanded $20,000 before reporting to camp, Ali called their bluff, saying that the country could do without players like them.

A new coach, Dutchman Clemens Westerhof was just a few months on the job and took the team to play in the Algiers zone along with host Algeria, Egypt and Ivory Coast. Nigeria survived a 5-1 bashing in the opening match against Algeria to reach the final. In the Annaba zone, there were the defending champions Cameroun, Kenya, Senegal and Zambia. But the two finalists came from the Algiers zone – Algeria and Nigeria. Algeria won by a lone goal, and Nigeria got yet another silver.

SENEGAL 1992: 

Nigeria were establishing themselves as regular fixtures in the Africa Cup of Nations, and with every edition expectations were high that they would be among the top finishers. So it was in 1992 in Senegal. By defeating the host, Senegal in the opening match, Nigeria fired strong signals to others, but in the semi-final against arch-rivals, Ghana, Stephen Keshi, who had since repented and was forgiven, could not hold out with his troops and the Eagles were beaten 2-1.

Meanwhile, Ivory Coast went on to win the cup for the first time, to erase their tag as the worst under-achievers in African football. They did so by creating a record in the penalty shoot-out against Ghana, winning 12-11. Even though Nigeria lost out in the semi-final, most fans were happy that the Eagles defeated our arch rivals, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun in the third place decider. Nigeria returned with a bronze medal.

TUNISIA 1994: 

The championships which began on a modest note of three countries in 1957, and gradually rose to eight, came of age in 1994, as CAF introduced a 12-nation format. Group A had host Tunisia, Zaire and Mali in Tunis; Group B featured Nigeria, Egypt and Gabon also in Tunis; Group C comprised the defending champions Ivory Coast, Zambia and Sierra Leone, played in Sousse and in Group D, Ghana, Senegal and Guinea also in Sousse.

By the time Nigeria got to Tunisia, a World Cup ticket for USA ‘94 was already assured and the team, still coached by Clemens Westerhof, were brimming with huge confidence, although some internal power play between Keshi and top striker Rashidi Yekini was palpable. Nigeria finished second behind Egypt in Group B and went on to meet the winners of Group A, Zaire, in a renewed confrontation of the Battle of Dire Dawa.

Nigeria again triumphed 2-0 to progress to the semi-final where Ivory Coast were lying in wait. Mother luck smiled on Nigeria to scale over the Ivorian hurdle in a penalty shootout and in the final Nigeria defeated a determined Zambia 2-1 to win the cup for the second time since 1980.

To a few of us who covered the Tunisia championships, Rashidi Yekini was able to garner enough support for Emmanuel Amunike to play, and as it turned out, Amunike was the match winner with our two goals against Zambia.

SOUTH AFRICA 1996

As the defending champions, Nigeria did not have to go through the rigours of qualifiers, but as the Eagles were preparing to defend their title in South Africa, a political storm blew open between Nigeria’s maximum dictator, General Sani Abacha and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa over the appalling human rights violation in Nigeria. Abacha, in a fit of anger, commanded that Nigeria should not go to South Africa, and despite pleas from all over, he stuck to his gun. In retaliation, CAF punished Nigeria by suspending the country from the 1998 African Cup of Nations hosted in Burkina Faso. In Nigeria’s absence, South Africa, the host, won the final 2-0 against Tunisia, and the question across Africa was: would South Africa have won if Nigeria did not boycott?

BURKINA FASO 1998

For the second World Cup finals in succession, Nigeria qualified for France 98, but had to serve out the African Cup of Nations ban imposed by CAF. In the absence of Nigeria, arguably the strongest African soccer team at the time, Egypt rail-roaded others and won the cup by beating South Africa, the defending champions, 2-0 in the final in Burkina Faso.

GHANA/NIGERIA 2000

Zimbabwe had been given the rights to host the 2000 edition, having successfully hosted the 6th All Africa Games in 1995. However, political and economic considerations made their hosting unrealizable, and CAF settled for the first ever, joint hosting by Ghana and Nigeria.

This was a country that CAF had just suspended and the same country was now being persuaded to host. Nigeria, as the “Big Brother,” took it in their stride, especially as the Head of State, General Sani Abacha, who precipitated the ill-feeling, had passed on.

The 16-nation format was divided into two – eight in Ghana, eight in Nigeria. The major surprise was the defeat of Ghana by South Africa in Accra in the quarter-final. But Nigeria confirmed their superiority over South Africa with an emphatic 2-0 victory in the semi-final in Lagos. The championships however ended on a sour note for Nigeria, as she went down to Cameroun, once again, in the final in front of a full house at the National Stadium in Lagos.

This third loss in the final of the Nations Cup to Cameroun was particularly painful as it ended in a penalty shoot-out, and what appeared to be a penalty kick scored by Victor Ikpeba was disallowed by a Syrian referee. But again, in all fairness, Ikpeba’s kick was so fast that, human eyes (except electronic) may not have seen it cross the goal line. So Nigeria collected a silver, yet again.

MALI 2002

Mali, the West African country which should have hosted the 2nd All Africa Games in 1972, but reneged, had the resources to host the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations. This time around, the NFA relied on Nigerian coaches led by Amodu Shaibu, but with almost all the players working abroad as professional footballers. Controversies over bonus, players/coaches relationship, players/Sports Ministry officials relationship, and breakdown of camp discipline caused endless crises in Mali.

By the time the Super Eagles met Senegal in the semi-final, some players and officials were no longer on speaking terms. And with Senegal playing with ten men (due to a red card offence) for 80 minutes of the match, they were still able to beat Nigeria 2-1 in extra time en route to meeting Cameroun in the final, which the latter won 3-2 on penalties after a goalless draw in 120 minutes. In the third place match, Nigeria, yet again secured a bronze medal by beating the host Mali 1-0.

TUNISIA 2004

The return of the championships to Tunisia brought sweet and bitter memories for Nigeria and Tunisia. Nigeria’s last victory was on Tunisian soil in 1994, and having hosted twice in 1965 and 1994 without success, the Tunisians expected 2004 to be the turning point. It was. Nigeria were in Group D with Benin, South Africa, both of whom we dusted easily after we surprisingly lost to Morocco. Tunisia topped Group A where Congo DR, Guinea and Rwanda also featured. 2002 World Cup revelations, Senegal shone brightly in Group B over Burkina Faso, Kenya and Mali. In Group C were the defending champions, Cameroun, Algeria, Egypt and Zimbabwe. As it was becoming the norm, Nigeria’s journey terminated at the semi-final and in the third place match, the Eagles defeated Mali to collect the traditional bronze medal. Host, Tunisia finally buried their ghost as they soared to defeat Morocco 2-1 in an epic final.

About The Author

1 thought on “Reflections On The African Cup Of Nations (1957 – 2004) – By Fabio Lanipekun”

  1. Who was the Arrogant Nigeria striker that was playing bicycle kick and selfishly flaunt our chances in 1984?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *