African Cup of Nations. The third big international tournament of the year. The finals were played in Morocco – Egypt qualified as holders, Morocco as hosts, the other 6 finalist had to reach the final phase. Naturally, African tournament was simple smooth matter – originally, Zambia had to host the finals, but they withdrew at the end of 1986 for financial reasons. Algeria agreed to take Zambia’s place, but then a dispute between Algeria and CAF emerged and CAF appointed Morocco.
The final stage was to be played in Rabat and Casablanca. The road to it was thorny, as ever: Ethiopia, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho, and Mauritius withdrew at the preliminary round. Zambia and Rwanda withdrew at the first round. Libya withdrew at the second round. Ethiopia played the home leg against Tanzania and won 4-2, but then withdrew. Rwanda did not play a single match – they qualified to the first round because Lesotho withdrew, then they withdrew and did not play against Malawi. Libya did pretty much the same – as a stronger team, they did not played at the preliminary round, but started in the first – and directly qualified, because Zambia withdrew. Then they had to play against Algeria in the second round and this time Libya withdrew. It was the usual African story – teams refused to play for political reasons, for lack of money, because of domestic troubles, because of petty quarrels. A bunch of Nigerian best players were excluded from the national team by decision of the country’s President – the reason was failure to arrive at training camp. Then, in the last minute before the finals, they were forgiven and included hastily in the squad again. But eventually all finalists became clear at the second qualification round: Algeria without playing – Libya withdrew, Cameroon – Sudan 2-0 and 0-1, Malawi – Cote d’Ivoire 1-2 and 0-2, Nigeria – Sierra Leone 3-0 and 0-2, Senegal – Zaire 0-0 and 0-0, Zaire won 4-2 penalty shoot-out, Zimbabwe – Kenya 1-1 and 0-0, Kenya qualified on away-goal.
The finals were played in two groups of 4 teams, the top two going to the semifinals.
Group A played in Casablanca.
1.MOROCCO 3 1 2 0 2- 1 4
2.ALGERIA 3 1 1 1 2- 2 3
Cote d’Ivoire 3 0 3 0 2- 2 3
4.Zaire 3 0 2 1 2- 3 2
Algeria qualified by drawing of lots.
Group B played in Rabat.
1.NIGERIA 3 1 2 0 4- 1 4
2.CAMEROON 3 1 2 0 2- 1 4
3.Egypt 3 1 1 1 3- 1 3
4.Kenya 3 0 1 2 0- 6 1
The surprise here was the elimination of Egypt. Effectively, it happened in the opening match against Cameroon – Roger Milla scored in the 5th minute the only goal of the game. Egypt lost and then in the third and last game the Nigerians managed a 0-0 tie, which killed all Egyptian hopes for a second title in a row.
In the semifinals Northern Africa lost completely:
Nigeria and Algeria ended 1-1 in Rabat and Nigeria prevailed at the penalty shoot-out 9-8. Interestingly, they scored both goals in the game – one in their own net gave the lead to Algeria and only 4 minutes before the final whistle Maatar equalized.
In Casablanca the hosts lost to Cameroon – Makanaky scored the only goal of the game in the 78th minute. One may easily imagine Moroccan disappointment. It was not the last either – in the match for the 3rd place Algeria managed 1-1 in regular time, although they equalized only 3 minutes before the end. Nader scored for Morocco in the 67th minute and before the end Belloumi equalized. Algeria prevailed in the penalty shoot-out 4-3.
The final – Nigeria vs Cameroon. Fairly equal and not exciting game. Cameroon looked somewhat stronger and certainly seasoned and experienced.
Nigeria had a certain bite, but
always displayed relatively innocent approach – not clear and well followed tactics, often replacing it with individual improvisations. Yet, they scored a beautiful goal in the first half which was disallowed – if somebody was in offside at all, certainly he was not the scorer.
Cameroon was better organized, patient, and wise – it was not just that Cameroon had World Cup experience; rather that they had more European based professionals well adapted to tactical football.
Eventually, without dominating the game, they got what they wanted – a penalty was called in the 55th minute, Konde scored it, and Nigeria had no answer to that. At the final whistle it was still 1-0 Cameroon. In any case, African football was getting noticed at last – the final was televised in Europe and Italian broadcast can be seen today on Youtube. TV also showed lingering deficiencies – weird for the late 1980s, but Cameroon seemingly did not have enough shirts for everybody and substitute Abena had one with hastily improvised number on top of the originally made number.
Final (Casablanca, Stade Mohammed V)
27- 3-88 Cameroon 1-0 Nigeria [Emmanuel Kundé 55pen]
Cameroon: Joseph-Antoine Bell, Stephen Tataw, Emmanuel Kundé, Benjamin Massing, Charles Ntamark, Bertin Ollé-Ollé (Richard Abéna 23), Emile Mbouh, Cyrille Makanaky, Louis M’Fedé, André Kana-Biyik, Roger Milla.
Coach: Claude le Roy (France);
Nigeria: Peter Rufai, Yisa Sofoluwe, Sunday Eboigbe, Stephen Keshi, Bright Omokaro, Samuel Okwaraji, Augustine Eguavoen, Henry Nwosu, Ndubuisi Okosieme, Rashidi Yekini, Folorunso Okenla (Humphrey Edobor).
Coach: Manfred Hoener (Germany);
referee: Idrissa Sarr (Mauritania)
Cameroon won the 1988 African championship.
This may be – or may be not – Nigeria 1988.
However, this is the Nigerian squad just before the beginning of the final. Strong performance, a team surely ascending, but still not a winner. There were players who became well known international stars in the 1990s – Rufai, Yekini, Keshi, Eboigbe – but at the moment the Nigerians were unknown. Combination of factors worked against them – first of all, they lacked European professional experience. Discipline was a problem – there was almost anecdotal accident, when Rufai and Keshi went to trials in England and hearing that they were threatened with punishment hastily returned to Lagos at the last moment. Rufai went directly to the camp and was fine. Keshi, however, went first to his home town to visit family and was late. Since government meddled in the affairs of the national team players were punished not by football authorities, but by the state itself – such interfearances, quite common in Africa to this very day, hardly helped making a strong and consistent squad. On the other hand players always acted frivolously – Keshi, always described as great patriot ready to sacrifice his own interest for the good of his country, still chose to visit home before reporting to training camp. Even when knowing very well that he will be punished for lateness. Yet, it was a team with talent.
Cameroon won its 2nd African title – of course, they were strong football country for a long time now, but the 1990s established them strongly outside their own continent. Like most African countries they used European coaches, but the work of Claude Le Roy somewhat easier because of great talent, which steadily was moving to play professionally in Europe. Roger Milla was aging and approaching a kind of retirement, but Bell, Tataw, Kunde were at their peaks and Kana-Biyik was rapidly rising start. If there was a thorn in this team – apart from the usual governmental meddling, broken promises and suddenly evaporating money – it was the long and bitter rivalry between the great goalkeepers Thomas N’Kono and Joseph-Antoine Bell. Unfortunately, of the same age, very different personalities and not friends – in their rivalry the whole bowl of African problems simmered for years: different ethnicity, different politics, pride, showmanship, everything. The men rarely clashed directly with each other – and had respect for the rival’s playing abilities – but coaches suffered criticism fueled by the keeper they ignored and groups of players supported either one of the other keeper not just because he happened to be in better form. So here was the 1988 chapter of the long epic: Bell was the regular, N’Kono not in the squad at all. Anyhow, everything ended well and Bell was the current hero at home.
Roger Milla, however, was becoming a national symbol – he did not score at the final, yet, he was brought down in the penalty area after which Cameroon scored. He managed two important goals earlier: the winning goal against Egypt and the equalized against Nigeria in the group stage. That is, all goals Cameroon scored in the group, practically giving vital 2 points to his team and thus qualifying it to the semifinals.