Mick Slatter looks back at the highs and lows of Africa’s Cup of Nations which ended with Cameroon being crowned champions following a controversial penalty shoot-out

Maybe Victor Ikpeba will wind up wearing a brown paper bag over his head and advertising stuffed-crust pizza (or whatever the Nigerian equivalent might be). But he doesn’t deserve such ridicule. His penalty hit the crossbar and crossed the line. There was no need for video replays or freeze-frames or any other visual jiggery-pokery; it was clearly a goal. But the Tunisian referee saw it differently and his (obscured?) view cost the Super Eagles the African Cup of Nations.

For the hosts, this was not how it was supposed to be. For a start, Nigeria’s team sheet was full of reassuringly familiar names like Nwankwo Kanu, Finidi George, Taribo West and Sunday Oliseh. It was a squad which appeared to have quality to spare when com­pared with Cameroon’s. Nigeria also had a clear home advantage with the stadium at Surelere resembling a bear pit, packed as it was by a small army of fanatical supporters, many of whom had stripped to their un­derpants and painted themselves green and white.

More importantly, for 19 years the Super Eagles had been unbeaten at home. Even then it took 120 minutes and a penalty shoot-out for Cameroon to end Nigeria’s amazing run. Rigobert Song, who lifted the cup, echoed the feelings of his nation, saying: “We have again climbed to the top in Africa. Cameroon is back.”

His words revealed something of a national sore point. Since their exploits at Italia 90 – not least running England ragged – Cameroon have regularly disappointed. Although they qualified for the next two World Cup finals, they felt they didn’t do themselves justice. In fact, the Lions still harbour a particular grudge about France 98, feeling that bad luck and bad refereeing cost them dear. But this time around Cameroon didn’t disappoint and in the end they deserved their win, edging it in just about every aspect of the game.

The response from the Nigerian fans was nothing if not predictable. As the crestfallen home team made for the tunnel, bottles and stones rained down on them from the terraces. Hundreds of supporters invaded the pitch, but were soon seen off by police firing tear gas and wielding batons. Machine gun rounds were heard outside the stadium.

Nigerian fans are a wildly fickle breed; fiercely proud of their team in victory, dangerously threatening in defeat. After Nigeria’s first round match against Congo – which ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw – an enraged mob surrounded the Nigerian team bus. Efetobore Sodje, the Luton Town defender who was on board, said: “The window smashed right next to me. All the players ducked down to the floor. But that is how Nigerian football is. After we beat South Africa in the semi-final, it took the bus an hour and a half to get back to our hotel. There were hundreds of people lining the streets and stripping off their shirts so they could clean the bus with them.”

That fervour only hints at the importance attached to the Cup of Nations. In Africa it means everything, outside the continent is means next to nothing. But on this occasion – perhaps because of the bids by South Africa and Morocco to host the 2006 World Cup – the tournament attracted serious attention. The merchants of doom (in other words the rival bidders) were waiting expectantly for examples of organisational ineptitude to confirm their suspicions that Africa really isn’t up to holding such a high level tournament. To an extent they got what they wanted; the telecommunications were shambolic, the security arrangements were woefully inadequate, a power cut plunged the Morocco v Congo game into darkness and a generator failed during the third place play-off, though luckily the match was being played in daylight.

South Africa were quick to distance themselves from the chaos. “Nigeria is a sovereign country,” pointed out Danny Jordaan, South Africa’s World Cup bid director. “It’s rather like saying that what happened in the former Yugoslavia has a bearing on the infrastructure of England.”

And then there was the golden goal fiasco, which had nothing to do with impoverished African infrastructures and everything to do with the legendary incompetence of CAF, the Confederation of African Football. At the end of normal time in the quarter-final tie between Nigeria and Senegal the teams were level at 1-1. Two minutes into extra time, Julius Aghahowa scored for Nigeria. Mayhem ensued, with many in the crowd convinced the game had been won under the golden goal rule. There was a pitch invasion and the Super Eagles players celebrated. Except that the game wasn’t over. While most of the world has adopted the golden goal system, CAF have stuck with extra time. The trouble was, this had not been made clear and sup­porters, match commentators and even the odd CAF official were convinced that Nigeria had won. It took 15 minutes to get the fans off the pitch and for the referee to restart the game. It was perhaps lucky that Nigeria hung on to win.

Aside from the foul-ups, the tournament produced a couple of gems to savour. There was the moment Egypt’s Hossam Hassan ran out against Tunisia to claim his 152nd international cap. That would be a world record, except that FIFA have dismissed 12 of his caps for “lack of evidence”. That’s hard on Hassan, since the real problem lies not with his maths but with the slapdash way the Egyptian FA have recorded international matches. Far fetched? The secretary-general of the Zimbabwean FA once told the Observer: “Africans don’t keep records... ours is an oral history.” FIFA are a little more meticulous, and reckon Hassan has 140 caps, four short of the official world record held by Lothar Matthäus.

If world records (official or otherwise) are not enough, another high point in the tournament was Nigeria’s 19-year-old striker Julius Aghahowa. He was not a first choice player to begin with, but he had the happy knack of coming off the bench and scoring just when required. He scored three goals in as many games, two of which rescued Nigeria at the 11th hour, and celebrated each time with five somersaults.

But perhaps the best thing of all about the African Cup of Nations is that it happens every two years. Mali is the next venue. Expect your club’s scouts to be there.

From WSC 158 April 2000. What was happening this month

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