AFCON 2000 Final: The day Nigeria suffers daylight robbery
It seemed victory was here. It looked like this was theirs to lose. The nearly 60,000 roaring Nigerian crowd could feel the warm glow of the much-needed, pride-restoring revenge against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, as palpable as they felt the heat of that afternoon’s sun at the National stadium, Surulere, Lagos. So, on they sang. On they screamed. On they jubilated. The maverick Jay Jay Okocha had just equalized with a 25-yard stinger that whizzed past the late dive of Boukar Alioum, and nestled in the top left corner—”angle 90.”
A perfect goal to draw level after slipping 2-0 even before the half hour point in a Nations Cup final on their turf against rivals for whom they nursed searing biles that had been accumulated over years of disappoints. Border is a paradox: it’s about the only thing that joins and separates two countries. And so is football. The game that builds camaraderies amongst nations, is just as capable of festering disgust, in the guise of competitive rivary, with the same strength. And high were the piles of derision that Nigeria had for their neighbors’ national team. Prior to this nerve-racking final, both sides had met 16 times, and Nigeria was clearly the better with 7 wins to just 3 losses. But what made this rivalry extremely bitter, for Nigeria, was the magnitude and occasion of those triplets of defeats. Two of them were Nations Cup finals just like the one they were biting their nails to—1984 and 1988, and the last one was a literally mournful game that cost the 1990 World Cup ticket.
So when the then 18-year-old Real Madrid reserve, Samuel Eto, scored and assisted Patrick M’boma to assert the lead, the home crowd felt the painful pang of deja vu in the pit of their bellies. This couldn’t be happening again. They switched quickly to the nation’s second most beloved game: blame game. Jo Bofrere, the Super Eagles’ Dutch coach, was the ball in this game, getting all the kicks. They questioned his dislodgement of supersonic Tijani Babangida whose brace helped pecked South Africa in the Semis. They accused him of favouritism for fielding obscure Raphael Chukwu ahead of a supremely talented prodigy, Julius Aghahowa, whose late brace helped solved Senegal in the Quarters, and was the team’s leading goalscorer for the tournament. Their anger was almost compounded when the struggling Taribo West fizzed a header towards his own net from a Pierre Wome’s cross, only the crossbar stopped it as a stunned Ike Shorunmu was rooted to a spot at the unrehearsed horror. The bouncing castle of war songs and motivational symphonies of motley of musical instruments created by the indefatigable and undiscouraged Supporters’ Club wouldn’t wake the awareness of the Eagles that this was suppose to be their fortress, and they must do anything to defend it. They watched Lions harassed their boys into gaffe and tactical disorganization. The Eagles wouldn’t fly.
Then came hope. The then African Footballer of the Year, Nwankwo Kanu, whose gangly legs had been effectively banded from conjuring their usual magic and forced deeper down field by the tough Cameroon defense, roused the encouraging dreams of hope from a seemingly not-so-dangerous situation on the edge of Cameroon’s 18-yard. He freed Chukwu with a neat through ball and the striker crashed his left toes into it and it slithered home. 2-1. Game on.
And Okocha did his howitzer, just as the game resumed for second half. 2-2. He’d reenforced the hope ignited by Kanu. Over 150 million people from hundreds of ethnic groups leapt in unison, nothing brings them together like Super Eagles’ shots crossing the goal line. They were certain this definitely was going to be a win. The Eagles have awakened to their soulful war cry, and nothing and nobody can clip the wings of soaring eagles.
The game petered out to a slow, anxious end with both sides wary of committing too much but sensitive enough to pounce on each other’s mistakes. They were none, and the game dragged into extra time. Jo threw in Victor Ikpeba, dubbed the undisputed Prince of Monaco for his lofty exploit at the French principality before moving to Borrusia Dortmund. And 4 minutes in, his header from Babangida’s (who had also been brought in for George Finidi) cross sailed pass the goal by centimeters. The crowd howled. They were almost there. They could still win this.
The game came to penalties. Nigeria was to begin. Okocha, no problem. Ike couldn’t stop M’boma’s also. Godwin Opara discharged his powerfully. Wome also made no mistake. Then on came Kanu. He’s been one of Nigeria’s best player on the pitch, he was then one of best in the world; this shouldn’t be problems for the best. The crowd vibrated with tension. Kanu sauntered over, placed the ball in the position he thought perfect on penalty spot. He took the run-up. He sent the ball flying, but into the palms of Alioum. The whole stadium flinched as the Cameroon goalkeeper capered around. They prayed Geremi Njitap miss. But he sent Ike wrong way with a well-taken kick. Ikpeba was next. He took his with aplomb that melted away when the ball struck the underside of the crossbar and landed in a place where the referee, Tunisia’s Mourad Daami, adjudged not beyond the goal line. Subsequent replays showed the ball clearly crossed the line, but the referee had no benefit of the rest of the viewership. He maintained it hadn’t gone in. Ikpeba threw his hands on his head. This miss and the agony of his wife, Atinuke, on-going battle with breast cancer was too much for him to contain, he burst into tears. Everything went by in blurs as Rigobert Song won the cup for Cameroon with a beautifully struck spotkick straight down the middle into the roof of the net. Cameroon were champions of Africa for the 3rd time and they’ve beaten Nigeria yet again. 3 finals. And this time in front of an intimidating crowd of supporters in Lagos, and down to a controversial call that would be debated on for years.
“Tunisian referee robs Eagles,” was the uncompromising view of the Nigerian Tribune. The Guardian Nigeria burrowed down history lane to connect dots of ludicrous mistakes favouring Cameroon: “Daami’s poor officiating (was brought) into focus, almost in the same manner Mauritanian referee Idrissa Sarr’s poor judgment aided Cameroon’s win in 1988,” the paper said, referencing Sarr’s decision to rule off Henry Nwosu’s header as offside when replays showed he was clearly on, this also helped Cameroon win.
Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) ditched their regular diplomatic, reticent style and pick up the tone of conspiracy theorists: “Nigeria appears to have been prevented from lifting the African Nations Cup by the CAF-appointed officials.” They were referring to the then president of Confederation of African Football (CAF), Isah Hayatou, a Cameroonian whose list of corrupt activities was beginning to swell. They believed he and his henchman had influenced the referee into making such disastrous calls to favour his native land.
The fans feeling cheated, turned to scuffling and rioting in and around the stadium. Not again, not on their home soil. But it was all to no avail. Cameroon had won this and had added another abrasion to the festering harm they had done to the pride of their neighbors across the Bakassi. The picture is still fresh on the mind every Nigerian conscious enough to have understood what had happened; what felt like a daylight robbery in their very own sitting room.
Shehu Idris Tẹjumọla18 Posts
Shehu Idris Tẹjumọla is a football fanatic, a voracious reader of football contents and an Indefatigable football writing junkie. Author of future Man Booker-winning, best-selling books.