6 January 2013

Nigeria: The African Cup of Nations and I - Going Down Memory Lane!


Orange Afcon 2013 is upon us.

I am caught already in the usual championship fever. That's what usually happens to me every two years - understandably!

My relationship with the African Cup of Nations has been long and remarkable. In 1976 I was a close observer of what my colleagues in the Nigerian national team then went to do in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. That would have been my first Nations Cup but for my academics which took precedence.

Nigerian players returned from that championship for the first time in our history as genuine African football heroes. Before 1976 Nigeria had not made any significant imprint on the African championship. Then came along a generation of players in the mid-1970s that changed the face of Nigerian football forever.

By the end of the 1976 championship Nigeria came third in an event they could have won with a little bit of luck, and the players returned with individual awards for their exceptional performances. Muda Lawal was Nigeria's highest goal scorer; Kunle Awesu emerged the championship's best left winger; and Baba Otu Mohammed was declared as best right winger.

Half of the team was made up of players from Shooting Stars International FC of Ibadan, Nigeria, that were also at the verge of winning that year's Africa Cup-winners Cup championship for the first time in Nigeria's history - Samuel Ojebode, Zion Ogunfeyimi, Idowu Otubusen, Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal, and Kunle Awesu. I was not in the team to Dire Dawa only because I had waited to sit for examinations without which I would not have graduated.

Third place was the highest position ever attained up till then by the Green Eagles (as the national team of Nigeria was called at the time) in the African football fiesta.

It was such a great achievement for Nigeria that it served as psychological boost for the country's footballers, igniting the belief in themselves that they had the capacity to win laurels at continental level. It completely changed Nigerian football and footballers. They stopped playing second fiddle. By the end of that year the national team qualified and represented the continent at the Montreal Olympics in Canada, Shooting Stars won the Africa Cup winners Cup, and the country was solidly on the march to an authentic attempt to qualify as Africa's sole representative to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

It is also no surprise that two years later in 1978 Nigeria were favourites, with Ghana, to win the championship hosted by Ghana. I was a solid member of that team, indeed one of the championships biggest names and, with three goals, the second highest goal scorer in the championship. Although Nigeria, once again, came third they left the championship without a doubt that they were potential future champions.

It did not take long. Two years later in 1980, Nigeria almost strolled to victory and to winning the most coveted trophy in African football for the first time. With three goals I emerged highest goal scorer of the championship, and moved up from third best player in African football in 1977 to second best in 1980!

That was the end of my involvement in the African Cup of Nations as a player.

From the 1994 edition, up till the present, I have been an integral part of all but two three of the championships serving in different capacities and in the various roles.

In 1994 I returned to the national team, now the Super Eagles, as team manager, a back seat position that required taking care of the welfare of players and being the link with administrators. That year in Tunisia, Nigeria won the championship for the second and last time.

Since 1994, I have been a reporter, a researcher, a television and radio producer, a match analyst for the BBC, a member of the CAF delegation as a member of the Football Committee and as part of the Nigeria's official government delegation. Any way which way I have been a very close observer of the African championship, and I can testify that although every championship has been different and remarkable, they all leave me with experiences and nostalgia that are unforgettable.

So, I go to Afcon 2013 with the authority of my 37 years experience. You cannot buy that in any supermarket. Yet I still have the goose pimples and fever before every championship just as is setting in now.

Being a Nigerian, with limited details about many of the players of the other 15 African countries at the championship, my view of Afcon 2013 cannot but be diluted. I can only preview Afcon 2013 through the obviously jaundiced eyes of one looking through the prism of the Super Eagles and how they fare in this championship.

Nigeria and Stephen Keshi have been very interesting to watch. Keshi is sticking to his game plan and embedding several players from the domestic league in his emerging team, particularly in defense where the team appears to have some weakness. But to have survived against a Barcelona FC-loaded Catalonian team last Wednesday (the friendly match ended in a 1-1 draw) is indeed a great feat.

The Super Eagles continue to look strong. The only distraction has come from one or two players that have been ranting over their exclusion from Keshi's list of invited players. Otherwise the Eagles will storm Afcon 2013 as the real dark horses of the championship - unknown, mysterious, difficult and dangerous!

In the final two weeks before the championship, we have started to see a few of the teams a little bit better through their results and performances during their friendly matches.

The friendly match between the Tafa Stars of Tanzania and the defending African champions, the Chipolopolo of Zambia is revealing. Before that match not many knew that Zambia's records since winning the championship last year have not been as impressive as assumed by all those that have declared them favourites again to retain the trophy. I guess the shock 1-0 loss which adds to their previous 4 losses and 4 victories in all competitions in 2012 has thrown the team into contemplative mode.

That defeat speaks volumes. It could bring the Zambians down to earth and to the reality and enormity of the task ahead, or serve as a wake-up call for the team not to take things for granted and assume they could ride on the back of their 2012 victory to win again in 2013. Without doubt the Zambians must now know that the honeymoon of 2012 is over. It is a new year, with new teams and a brand new championship! The more I peer at my now infamous crystal ball the less I see of the Chipolopolo.

Cote D'Ivoire, with their team of ageing players, are still lumbering along. Their last friendly game, a drawn match against Russia, was flattering. That result confirms that the team is not completely spent as a force. But everyone knows that we saw the same team one year ago, at their best, and they could not complete the job. With several of the players now past their prime they do not look as strong as they did last year.

I have been listening to the sound bites from the Black Stars of Ghana the other day. The players are sounding rhetorically confident as usual but without the backup of visible, measurable and convincing performances in their pre-tournament matches.

South Africa's Bafana Bafana have continued their steady, little heralded preparations. I still see them as the surprise team to beat in this championship (unless they meet Nigeria any time before the final match).

Through past championships I have seen too many players from Europe fail to 'raise' their game to the standard of the rough and tumble of African football and made to look ordinary and to collapse under the weight of excessively high expectations. Playing in Africa is a different ball game. It is hard, rough and tough, as Afcon 2013 will prove to be in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, I am still putting my wager where I started several weeks ago. Go check it again!

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