Afcon - then and now
Afcon 2013 is upon us. I am already caught up in the usual championship fever.
My relationship with the Africaa Cup of Nations has been long. In 1976 I was a close observer of what my colleagues in the Nigerian national team did in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. That would have been my first Afcon but for my academics, which took precedence.
Nigerian players returned from that championship for the first time as genuine African football heroes. Before 1976 Nigeria had not made any significant imprint on the African championship.
By the end of the 1976 championship, Nigeria came third in an event they could have won with a little bit of luck, and the players returned with individual awards for their exceptional performances.
Half of the team was made up of my colleagues in Shooting Stars International FC of Ibadan, Nigeria. I was not in the team to Dire Dawa.
Third place was the highest position ever attained up till then by the Green Eagles (as the national team of Nigeria was called at the time) in the African football fiesta.
It was such a great achievement for Nigeria that it served as a psychological boost for the country’s footballers, igniting the belief in them that they had the capacity to win laurels at continental level. It completely changed Nigerian football and footballers.
They stopped playing second fiddle. By the end of that year the national team qualified and represented the continent at the Montreal Olympics in Canada and the country was solidly on the march to an authentic attempt to qualify as Africa’s sole representative to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.
It was also no surprise that, in 1978, Nigeria were favourites, with Ghana, to win the championship hosted by Ghana. I was a member of that team and, with three goals, the second highest goal scorer in the championship.
Although Nigeria once again came third, they left the championship without a doubt that they were potential future champions.
It did not take long. In 1980, Nigeria almost strolled to victory, winning the most coveted trophy in African football for the first time. With three goals I emerged highest goal scorer of the championship and moved up from third best player in African football in 1977 to second best in 1980.
That was the end of my involvement in the Africa Cup of Nations as a player.
From the 1994 edition, up till the present, I have been a part of all but two or three of the championships, serving in different capacities and in various roles.
In 1994 I returned to the national team, now the Super Eagles, as team manager, a back seat position that required taking care of the welfare of players and being the link with administrators. That year, in Tunisia, Nigeria won the championship for the second and last time.
Since 1994, I have been a reporter, a researcher, a television and radio producer, a match analyst for the BBC, a member of the Caf delegation as a member of the football committee and as part of the Nigeria’s official government delegation.
So, those are the experiences with which I go to Afcon 2013. I still have goose pimples and football fever before every championship.
Being a Nigerian, my view of Afcon 2013 cannot but be diluted. I can only preview the championship through the obviously prejudiced eyes of one looking through the prism of the Super Eagles and how they fare in this championship.
In the final two weeks before the championship, we have started to see a few of the teams a little bit better through their results and performances during their friendly matches.
Nigeria and Stephen Keshi have been very interesting to watch. Keshi is sticking to his game plan and embedding several players from the domestic league in his emerging team, particularly in defense, where the team appears to have some weakness. To have survived against a Barcelona FC-loaded Catalonian team last Wednesday (the friendly match ended in a 1-1 draw) is indeed a great feat.
The Super Eagles continue to look strong. The only distraction has come from one or two players who have been ranting over their exclusion from Keshi’s list of invited players. Otherwise the Eagles will storm Afcon 2013 as the real dark horses of the championship – unknown, mysterious, difficult and dangerous!
The friendly match between the Tafa Stars of Tanzania and the defending African champions, the Chipolopolo of Zambia, is revealing. Before that match not many knew that Zambia’s records since winning the championship last year have not been as impressive as assumed by all those who have declared them favourites again to retain the trophy.
I guess the shock 1-0 loss, which adds to their previous four losses and four victories in all competitions in 2012, has thrown the team into contemplative mode.
That defeat speaks volumes. It could bring the Zambians down to earth and to the reality and enormity of the task ahead, or serve as a wake-up call for the team not to take things for granted and assume they could ride on the back of their 2012 victory to win again in 2013.
Without doubt the Zambians must now know that the honeymoon of 2012 is over. It is a new year, with new teams and a brand new championship. The more I peer at my now infamous crystal ball, the less I see of the Chipolopolo.
Ivory Coast, with their team of ageing players, are still lumbering along. Their last friendly game, a drawn match against Russia, was flattering. That result confirms that the team is not completely spent as a force. But everyone knows that we saw the same team one year ago, at their best, and they could not complete the job. With several of the players now past their prime they do not look as strong as they did last year.
I listened to the sound bites from the Black Stars of Ghana the other day. The players are sounding rhetorically confident as usual but without the backup of visible, measurable and convincing performances in their pre-tournament matches.
South Africa’s Bafana Bafana have continued their steady, little heralded preparations. I still see them as the surprise team to beat in this championship (unless they meet Nigeria any time before the final match).
Through past championships I have seen too many players from Europe fail to ‘raise’ their game to the standard of the rough and tumble of African football and made to look ordinary and to collapse under the weight of excessively high expectations. Playing in Africa is a different ball game. It is hard, rough and tough, as Afcon 2013 will prove to be in the next few weeks.