Heartbreak in Eko - Afcon 2000
The 2000 Afcon was the first time two nations co hosted the games. Both Ghana and Nigeria were awarded that privilege after Caf stripped Zimbabwe of the rights due to shoddy preparations and her inability to meet deadlines.
It was a fantastic tournament and just like in 1998, the field of sixteen teams was split into four groups of four and the games were played in four cities. The Ghana pool played in Kumasi and Accra while the Nigerian in the Northern city of Kano and in the capital Lagos.
It was a competition that would generate much controversy and leave Caf with egg on its face for quite a while. Initially it unfolded without a flaw. In Ghana the Black Stars were tripped by a feisty Bafana team as well as the resurging Elephants. However after the dust had settled the indomitable team from that region was Cameroon who had special plantains and a mobile kitchen airlifted to them from home by the President’s wife Mrs. Biya.
In Nigeria it was the host nation at the end of the day. After being held by the Congo to a draw the Eagles survived a monster match with Senegal that saw a pitch invasion after fans stormed the field seconds after Agahaowa’s brace sealed the deal for the West Africans in Extra time. The game had everything under the Sun and more. Goals, drama, a blizzard of cards, confusion, tear gas, and even a horseback charge by the Nigerian Police. As I said it had it all.
And yet that was nothing drama wise when we compare it to the actual final.
Even during the national anthems one could feel that this game would be special. And special it was. The stimmung in the stadium was lethal. It was a wall of noise so intense that the Lions wore headphones as they came out. The fact that Nigeria had remained unbeaten here for the last 20 years seemed lost to them. Rather they punished Nigeria right out of the gates. Song abused Babayaro for 90 straight minutes and made the right wing his own personal runway.
First it Eto’o who put the Cameroonians ahead in the 26th minute. But despair really set in for the home crowd when five minutes later Mboma cheekily violated the space between Ike’s legs and put the Lions up by two goals. But then like a downed prize fighter finding his second wind Nigeria clawed her way back. Repeatedly she hit the wood work and finally Chuwku found his mark in the 45th minute. Nigerian fans were still celebrating when Jay jay unleashed his monster free kick to make it 2-2. His subsequent celebration where he rips grass from the field and screams “Not in Lagos” remains one for the books.
Finally after what seemed to be an eternity for both teams going neck to neck and pound for pound, it was time for penalties and that’s when things fell apart. The Cameroonians converted four of their five with only Foe’s ball flying wide. Nigeria on the other hand matched them ball for ball till Kanu too missed.
And then came Ikpeba and the rest is history. Despite the ball crossing the line after an awkward ricochet the Tunisian Referee Mourad Daami has not watched the ball but is fixated on Ikpeba who grabs his dreadlocks at what he deems a near miss. Incomprehensibly and in one of the greatest sport tragedies ever Cameroon is awarded her third title. The Nigerians understandably are inconsolable and provide us with three images in addition to Mr. Biyas monstrosity of a hair style that have come to define that particular tournament.
Number One is Captain Oliseh who is so traumatised and lost in tears that he has to be medicated just to accept his silver medal.
The second is a smaller Jay Jay hand around Kanu’s shoulder trying to console the gentle giant who too is weeping.
Three is Ikeba gripping his head as if preventing it from trying to explode.
There is however also a Fourth image even more powerful but hardly spoken about and it is that of the Nigerian fan. Paralysed by an obvious wrong which they had now seen replayed on the Stadium screen for the umpteenth time, they checked their fury remained perfect hosts and accepted the game for what it was. So rather than celebrate another title or take away memories of a splendid tournament most walked away experiencing a new feeling..namely that of being robbed.
And that was Afcon 2000.