The African Cup Winners Cup started with 28 teams. Three withdrew – USCA Bangui (Central African Republic), Al-Nil (Sudan), and Al-Ittihad (Egypt). Since most participants and their relative strength were entirely unknown, it is impossible to judge were their any upsets in the 1/16 finals – only Kadiogo (Upper Volta) vs Asante Kotoko (Ghana) was a drama: each opponent lost the home match 0-1, so penalty shootout decided the winner. Ghana had strong reputation in Africa, but even this is doubtful to a point. Kadiogo won the shootout 4-2 and eliminated Asante at their home turf.
After the first round, the tournament proceeded without any irregularities – or so it appears on paper. Two winners were decided by away goal rule in the 1/8 finals: Gor Mahia (Kenya) eliminated Nsambya FC (Uganda) after both legs ended in a draw – 0-0 and 1-1. Luckily, Gor Mahia scored in Uganda. Pan African (Tanzania) overcome 2-1 AS Vita Club (Zaire) at home, but lost 0-1 away and Vita qualified. They were also vaguely familiar name outside Africa – something like a favourite.
The ¼ finals opposed AS Vita Club to Canon Yaounde (Cameroon) – the closest to an early meeting of big clubs. Vita were successful in the 1960s-early 1970s, Canon won the African Champions Cup in 1978. Was it a derby is questionable, though. Vita won 3-1 at home, but was entirely destroyed in Yaounde – 1-6. The real drama happened between anonymous clubs: AC Sotema (Madagascar) lost their home leg 0-2 to Bendel Insurance (Nigeria). At the time Nigerian football meant absolutely nothing, yet, Madagascar was less than nothing, so the second match should have been just a matter of protocol. But Sotema upset their hosts and won also 2-0. Penalty shootout decided the winner – Bendel Insurance prevailed 5-3.
Thus, the ½ finalists had two favourites and two outsiders – entirely arbitrary judgment, based on scarce information. The favourites had lucky draw: Canon Yaounde vs Bendel Insurance and Gor Mahia vs Horoya SC (Conacry, Guinea). From today point of view, the strong teams should have been the Nigerians and the Cameroonians – but it was not so in real time. Kenyan football had stronger reputation in the 1960s, carried to the 1970s just as a reputation – more likely Kenyan football was in a decline, compared to other countries, but it was hard to judge. Horoya SC was entirely unknown, but their city rivals Hafia were one of the best clubs in Africa at the time – on that strength, Horoya was taken seriously. A serious ‘may be’ – Gor Mahia was better known club. Evaluations of the other pair were similar – Cameroonian football was on ascent, particularly on club level. Nigeria was not anything special yet. However, rivalry between neighbours existed, so Canon perhaps was expected to win, but nobody would have been sure. And it was the tougher semi-final: only one goal was scored in the two legs. Canon won 1-0 the opening match in Yaounde and then managed a 0-0 tie away. Horoya SC evidently was not Hafia: they lost both legs to Gor Mahia – 0-1- and 0-2.
The final was played between old and new in a sense: fading Kenyan vs progerssing Cameroonian football. The formula was the same as the whole tournament – two matches, played on November 25 and December 9, 1979. It was overwhelming victory of the ‘new’. Canon practically finished Gor Mahia in the first leg, played in Kenya. They won 2-0. Back at home, to the delight of their supporters, Canon scored 6 goals. Gor Mahia was not able to score at all. Canon won the African Cup Winners Cup.
What can be said about the losers? Yes, they were – and are – big in Kenya. They were obviously too weak an opponent at the final. How good, how bad… information is next to nothing and the only way of showing the difference is showing the line-ups of the first leg ( finding them requires serious searching of obscure internet cites. I failed to unearth info about the second leg): Gor Mahia – Dan Odhiambo, Paulo Codra Oduwo, Festus Nyakota, Bobby Ogolla, Mike ‘Machine’ Ogolla, Jerry Imbo, Andrew Obunya (John Chore), Sammy ‘Kempes’ Owino, George ‘Best’ Yoga, Allan ‘Ogango wuon pap’ Thigo, Nahashon Oluoch’Lule (Paul Owora). Judging by the nicknames, stars of Kenyan football – the mysterious nickname of Thigo is particularly formidable: ‘ruler of the field’. Perhaps Jerry Imbo and George Yoga have some standing in the history of African football, but even their names mean nothing.
Canon were clearly very strong, in African terms. They won the African Champions Cup in 1978 and continued their international success by easily collecting the Cup Winners Cup in 1979. They were also evidence of rapidly developing football – compared to Hafia (Connacry, Guinea), perhaps the strongest African club in the second half of the 1970s, there was big difference: Hafia had no rival at home and no matter how good they were, the national team of Guinea was not really strong. Canon had strong rivals in Cameroon and did not dominate the country’s football – best in Africa, they did not win the Cameroonian championship and had to play in the lesser continental tournament in 1979. They also had a star player recognized outside Africa – Jean Manga Onguene was not huge international star, but if outsiders recognized an African player at all, it was his name. The national team of Cameroon was also pushing ahead and establishing among the strong African national teams. And the evidence was presented in the line-up beating Gor Mahia in Kenya: Thomas N’Kono, Doumbe Lea, Ibrahim Aoudou, Isaac Sinkot, Emmanuel Kunde, Gregoire M’Bida, Theophile Abega, Jean Manga Onguene, Oule Oule (Ernest Ebongue), Jean-Paul Akono. Of course, everybody would recognize one name – Thomas N’Kono – but in 1979 the recognizable name was Jean Manga Onguene, one of the best African players in the 1970s. N’Kono, however, is emblematic: he was 23 years old, entirely unheard of, and had to wait until 1982 to become world-famous. He represented the generation which put African football on the map thanks to the wonderful performance of Cameroon at the 1982 World Cup. He was not alone: 6 players of this squad played at the 1982 World Cup: N’Kono, Aoudou, Kunde, M’Bida, Abega, and Ebongue. Five of them were born between 1954 and 1956 – one generation. Ebongue was younger – born 1962 – suggesting, that the older players were not just one-time affair, but Cameroonian football was building and developing continuously. Nobody knew those players in 1979, but they were already very successful. As for Canon, the club already was 3 times Cameroonian champion, won 7 cups, 1 African Champions Cup, and added one Cup Winners Cup. Not bad? Well, they were hungry for more.