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Classic Match: Nigeria 1-1 Tunisia (February 11, 2004)

Nigeria v Tunisia 2004

On February 14 2004, the mood in (most of) Tunisia wasn’t so much love as it was elation. The country’s national team, the Carthage Eagles, thanks to Ziad Jaziri pouncing on opposing goalkeeper Khalid Fouhami’s error in the 52nd minute, had seen off Morocco to win a first-ever African Cup of Nations tournament. There was more than enough ecstasy to go around for the North Africans, but from a Nigerian perspective, watching on, there was definitely a feeling of ‘that should have been us’.

It’s the typical sense of what might have been, which isn’t infrequent when it comes to Nigerian football, but in this case, it was rather apt. Because, three days earlier, when Nigeria played against Tunisia at the same 7 November stadium in Rades in the semi-final, if there was an overwhelming favourite to win 24th AFCON, it was definitely the Super Eagles.

After all, the biggest gun had been vanquished, by none other than the then two-time champions of the continent. It didn’t quite vanquish the Victor Ikpeba shaped ghost of 2000, but Nigeria beating the back-to-back defending champions Cameroon in the quarter-final that year seemed very much like a statement, especially as the Super Eagles came from behind to do so. After that – and with Senegal also suffering a last-eight exit, at the hands of Tunisia – many thought Nigeria were the side to beat, not least The Guardian’s James Copnall, as well as the Nigerian coach. ‘Before it was Cameroon time’, said Christian Chukwu after that game. ‘All of that has changed now and it is the time of Nigerian dominance’.

On that fateful day of February 8, John Utaka bagged the winner as the Eagles saw off the Indomitable Lions. But it was the Jay Jay Okocha, who – unsurprisingly – was the star of the show, capping off his brilliant game by equalising with a delightful free-kick just before halftime. Okocha was actually the star of tournament, yet, he could easily have not been around for the whole thing.

Bolton Wanderers at the time were fighting for their place in the English Premiership when the AFCON came knocking, and the fact that Nigeria called up their skipper wasn’t met with much delight by Trotters boss Sam Allardyce. ‘The fact is I can’t have my skipper for one of the most crucial games in the history of this club… It is an outrageous situation to be in’, Big Sam fumed. But that wasn’t Okocha’s only hiccup. Back in Nigeria, the Super Eagles captain had a problem with his bank and was facing the prospect of losing his finances, and there was a big chance of Nigeria not having their skipper for this tournament. That didn’t happen, but Okocha, as well as Kanu, arrived late for the AFCON preparations.

But it wouldn’t really be Nigeria at a tournament without upheaval from home. After politics did its bit to scupper Nigeria’s chances in Mali two years earlier – where they lost to Senegal in the semis – reports appeared that the federal government was preparing to send 20 politicians to the tournament in Tunisia, and the individual cost on each official would be about $20,000 (over N2 million then). Fans raged, and most of the backlash was in the form of phone-ins to Brila FM radio in Lagos.

And then in typical Nigerian fashion, the tournament began with a defeat. Nigeria were drawn in a group alongside Morocco, South Africa and neighbours Benin Republic, and in the first game of Group D, on January 27, 15,000 watched on in Monastir, as a belter from Youssef Hadji was enough for Morocco to see off the Eagles. Suddenly, there was the prospect of an early exit, and Okocha spoke of his fury at that time.

Things took another dive when players Victor Agali, Yakubu, and Celestine Babayaro were reprimanded for late-night clubbing, and all three players were suspended for the next game against South Africa. For Babayaro, this was supposed to be around his peak years, eight years on from his teenage exploits with the Dream Team at the Olympics in Atlanta, which included that famous win against Brazil. But after his debacle here, he would barely have a place in the national team anymore. With those three sidelined, Nigeria put four past South Africa, a double from Peter Odemwingie, and the 1000th AFCON goal from Jay Jay Okocha.

Afterwards, Sports Minister Musa Mohammed was certain the three exiled players would be back in the team. Chukwu wasn’t so sure. ‘The three players have shown remorse and apologised, so we must forgive them’, said the coach. ‘Will they come back? I don’t know.’ They wouldn’t come back, in fact, Yakubu had already appeared in a game for club side Portsmouth shortly after being thrown out of the squad.

Against Benin in the final group game, Utaka and Garba Lawal were on the score sheet as Nigeria saw off the Squirrels. It set something of a pattern in which playing Benin would be a game of redemption and renaissance for the Super Eagles in the AFCON; four years after this, Nigeria would beat them in a must-win group game in a chaotic tournament in Ghana, while in 2010, a narrow victory over Benin – thanks to Yakubu – was needed after falling to Egypt in the first group game.

Then came the comeback win against Cameroon, which meant Nigeria would be part of the semi-final setup that included Morocco, Tunisia and Mali. It wasn’t so hard to see why Nigeria were deemed as favourites, Morocco weren’t going through the best period, Mali were starting to have a knack for being nearly-men – a knack, ironically, Nigeria would start to develop as well – and Tunisia were riding on home support, after making a mess of their 2002 tournament, finishing with two draws and a defeat after three games.

It was the hosts that Nigeria would be up against, in the 60,000 capacity stadium in Rades on February 11. For Tunisia, one of their assets was their fans, not just backing them, but also being on the backs of opponents, as evidenced when they booed the Senegalese national anthem in the quarter-final, earning the side a $1,000 fine. There were boos for Nigeria when they lined up for their anthem as well in this semi, but that wasn’t the weirdest thing about it. It certainly wasn’t the reason why Okocha and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama were looking at each other and muttering words in bewilderment.

Nigeria v Tunisia 2004
The Nigerian line-up against Tunisia in 2004 (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

No. It was because the wrong anthem had been played for Nigeria. ‘We found the whole thing disrespectful and have therefore protested to the organisers in this regard’, said Nigerian Football Association Secretary-General Taiwo Ogunjobi afterwards. Chukwu, meanwhile, described it as an attempt to ‘destabilise’ the team. It wasn’t the first accusation of disruption labelled towards the organisers in terms of a national anthem, as Zimbabwe’s players had to listen to the wrong anthem in their group stage defeat against Egypt, something the Zimbabwean minister for information, Jonathan Moyo, labelled as ‘a cheap attempt to demoralise our boys’. Deliberate or not, it certainly wasn’t a good look for a nation then planning to bid for the 2010 World Cup, jointly with Libya, while fellow North Africans Egypt and Morocco were also aiming to get the rights for that tournament, as they displayed in the advertising hoardings beside the pitches.

For Nigeria, though, the correct anthem would be played during halftime, which was still met by boos from the home crowd, but by then the players would have gotten more than a hint of the hostility they were facing, if they didn’t already. Right from the first whistle, Nigeria having possession was met with boos and whistles, as the home fans began their disruption job.

Nigeria lined up with something of a 4-4-2, which looked like Kanu and Odemwingie as the front men and Utaka and Lawal out wide. Sometimes, it looked like a 4-3-3, with Odemwingie and Utaka either side of Kanu, and other times, it also looked like 4-3-1-2, with Kanu in the hole, and Utaka and Odemwingie as the forwards. If the plan was to use pace to get behind the Tunisian defence, it didn’t quite work, and in a cagey first half, there was little first half action, barring a moment when Tunisia’s Franceulido Dos Santos dinked the ball over Enyeama and into the net, but the whistle had gone for what looked like offside.

One of the criticisms thrown at the feet of Okocha during his career was a lack of tactical discipline. Jay Jay was so good they named him twice, but it wasn’t because of his tendency to function within a setup. It was his aesthetic and hedonist style that many saw as both his greatest asset and most gaping flaw. That might be a bit unfair, it’s hard to function in a Sam Allardyce team – let alone become the captain – if you can’t be part of the system, but there are points in that claim, not least in this game.

For Okocha, it was a case of one touch too many at times, sometimes it was the unnecessarily extravagant skill, which was of little benefit in a game where there was hardly any space to operate. When Jose Mourinho spoke of his Inter team beating Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in 2010, the manager spoke of putting Lionel Messi in something of a prison, trying to disrupt his flow and reduce his influence on the game. Tunisia seemed to do the same with Okocha in this game, and the whole Nigerian team would have benefited if he kept things a little simpler and quicker, and if he took advantage of opponents coming onto him by finding others.

Jay Jay Okocha
Okocha was known for his tactical indiscipline as much as elegance

Another reason why Nigeria couldn’t quite muster anything against Tunisia’s backline was because of a solid defensive setup. Tunisian coach Roger Lemerre didn’t quite use wingers in this game, with ‘wide-men’ Adel Chedli and Riadh Bouazizi drifting in-field, their job involving disrupting Okocha as much as it was about their own game.

That meant Tunisia’s front two of Dos Santos and Jaziri playing as wide-men. Jaziri was something of an underrated figure in African football, especially with the focus on his more skilled and technically-gifted team-mate, Dos Santos, who – having had Tunisian naturalisation fast-tracked because of this tournament – had three tournament goals to his name already before this game. Perhaps because Dos Santos was the Hollywood forward, it was easy to focus on him and ignore the bee-like work ethic Jaziri had to go with his own technical qualities, the man whose run forced the penalty for Tunisia’s equaliser in this game. At least he’d get a befitting moment in the spotlight in the final, when he bagged the winning goal.

Also, Tunisia’s defence was more than impressive. A defence that had only conceded twice all tournament before this game. Led by the standout players in 20-year-old full-back Karim Haggui, and experienced skipper Khaled Badra. Badra had something Vincent Kompany-esque about him, and if his leadership and nous were known, what was underrated was his ability to carry the ball out of defence.

As such, it was no real surprise that the breakthrough from Nigeria came, midway through the second half, when Badra moved out of defence. His pass to Chedli was followed by an over-hit ball, and suddenly Tunisia were in trouble. Suddenly Kanu had space to run into when found by Abbey George. Kanu’s lack of pace wasn’t going to help him, but his ability to protect the ball was, and when he made his way into the box, Haggui’s slide tackle brought him down, and referee Coffi Codjia had little choice than to point to the spot.

There were no prizes for guessing who’d step up to take it, just as there weren’t any for taking a gander as to how the crowd would react. Okocha was facing Ali Boumnijel in goal, and some 50,000 whistles around the stadium. A run, skip, and a shot, and for a moment it seemed like Boumnijel had foiled him, for a split second the Tunisian ball boys behind the goal had jumped for joy; but it went in off the post. No sooner had Nigerians breathed a sigh of relief, though, than they were thrown back into anxiety; the kick would be re-taken. Up stepped Jay Jay once more, this time a faster run-up, this time Boumnijel was sent the wrong way, and this time it would count.

Suddenly a cacophonous Rades became so silent you could actually hear the Nigerian bench applauding Okocha’s penalty. Now all the noise came from the drums and trumpets of the Nigerian fans. Tunisia were rattled, shocked and became desperate; urgency trumped care, and in their desperation, the crowd appealed for everything; every deflected shot was handball, every tackle was a foul. It’s the kind of thing that’s reminiscent of the Tunisians, as future games would show. It was something similar in their final group game in the AFCON in 2010, a draw against Cameroon that confirmed their elimination, it was the same against Togo in another final group game, in 2013, as was the case when they collapsed against co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in the quarters two years after, even if they had a case when they pointed at the refereeing of that latter game.

But if a desperate Tunisia was something to be taken advantage of, Nigeria wouldn’t cash in. The Eagles were calm, but never in control, and if the replacement of Lawal with Ifeanyi Ekwueme reflected their plan to hit the hosts for pace on the break, nothing really materialised. And with eight minutes left, Seyi Olofinjana brought down Jaziri in the box, and you didn’t need the referee’s whistle to know what came next, because the Tunisian fans found their voice again. And when Badra calmly slotted it past Enyeama, the roars that followed were as much of relief as they were joy.

Between that moment and the end of the game, it became a tepid affair again. There were a few moments that threatened something, Utaka forced Boumnijel into two strong but comfortable saves, Odemwingie did similar with a much weaker effort, substitute Pius Ikedia caused the Tunisian defence some panic with a direct run late in normal time, while a deflected Bouazizi attempt didn’t really trouble Enyeama so much as it got the home fans momentarily excited. Both teams had just about settled for penalties, Tunisia – perhaps due to the injury to Jose Clayton – had switched to a back-three, while Nigeria’s runners couldn’t quite find any room.

By extra-time, Nigeria’s main front men were Odemwingie, Utaka, Ekwueme, and Ikedia; all runners, but perhaps the Eagles would have benefitted from having a man who could truly hold up play in such crucial moments and make room for the speedy men. Perhaps things would have gone quite differently if Agali and/or Yakubu hadn’t been exiled and were on the pitch.

But, it would be penalties then; the monster that denied Nigeria on home soil four years earlier, and did for us against Ghana in 1992. Tunisia would go first; Badra, the man whose goal brought them here. It was the same calm run-up, same position – the goalkeeper’s right as he went the wrong way – and same result; goal. Four of the first five penalties went that way, away from the ‘keeper, to his right; the only one that didn’t was Odemwingie’s, the one Boumnijel saved. There’d be no more saves to be made in the shoot-out, and millions of euphoric Tunisians meant millions of desolate Nigerians back home. All that remained was a rather trivial third-place play-off against Mali.

Nigeria v Tunisia 2004
Tunisia celebrate after beating Nigeria in the shoot-out in 2004 (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The expiration of Nigeria’s AFCON journey in 2004 meant a few other things came to its end as well: Chukwu’s tenure would be coming to a close; of the back four that started this game (Joseph Yobo, Ifeanyi Udeze, Abbey George and Isaac Okoronkwo), only Yobo would star in future tournaments; Kanu became the Nigerian ‘super-sub’ that wasn’t so super, as his influence waned, both at club level and the international – at the end of the season, he’d leave Arsenal for West Brom, before a move to Portsmouth in 2006. Perhaps most painful, this was the beginning of the decline of Jay Jay. The skipper would still feature prominently in the 2006 AFCON and World Cup qualifiers, but his only other tournament appearance that came after this was the second half of the 2006 semi-final defeat to the Ivory Coast, a move akin to the most desperate of Hail Marys. Okocha would have two more seasons with Bolton, but his impact dipped with each campaign, before stints in Qatar and then with Hull City, in the English Championship.

Tunisia would ride off into the sunset, while they made the ‘revenge list’ of Nigerians (mine, at least). But like every revenge list for Nigerian football, the payback is never as sweet, nor does it amount to much glory at the end. The Super Eagles have beaten Tunisia in two AFCON tournaments since 2004 – as well as beating them to a World Cup spot in 2010 – but those pair of victories respectively came before and after semi-final defeats (Ivory Coast in 2006, and Algeria last year). Maybe it’s a true revenge thing, but with Nigerian football, there’s something about it that doesn’t quite quell our thirst. When the gods of football give us our due, they don’t really make it worthwhile. They just find another opponent to put on the list.

Kunle Ajao121 Posts

Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not

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