As Nigeria and Cameroon meet again this weekend I wish it was possible that the current players who will play for the Super Eagles in Uyo understand that this is more than just a football match – this is a rivalry to equal Brazi Vs Argentina/Uruguay; Holland Vs Germany; England Vs Germany and such.
My first memory was the 1984 AFCON Final in Abidjan. The Adegboyega Onigbinde coached Green Eagles reach their first AFCON final outside Nigeria, captained by Stephen Keshi and filled with youngsters like Paul Okoku, Chibuzor Ehilegbu, Yisa Sofoluwe and others. However, they were meeting a Cameroon side that had been unlucky to have not made the 2nd round of the World Cup in Spain two years earlier. A very powerful team led by Theophilus Abega, Arantes M’bida, Roger Milla, Joseph Antoine-Bell and co.
The Nigeria side somehow managed to take the lead. A James Etokebe cross was palmed out into the path of Muda Lawal who slammed home. That was as good as it got for Nigeria. The Indomitable Lions proceeded to first, bully the Nigerian team to submission physically, before outplaying and outscoring them 3-1 to win the trophy for the first time.
4 years later at another AFCON, Nigeria and Cameroon were in the same group, this time in Morocco. It was the 2nd group game with both sides winning their first games the winner was through to the semi-finals. Inside the first 3 minutes Sam Okwaraji smashed a superb left foot drive from the edge of the box into the roof of Antoine-Bell’s net as Nigeria took the lead. Just like 4 years previously, it was as good as it got for us. This was a battering far worse than it was in Abidjan but the miracle was that only a Roger Milla headed equaliser was all the Lions had to show for their total domination.
10 days or so later the two teams met again in the final. Everywhere in Nigeria at the time we felt that we were ready to avenge the defeat of ’84. It was an absolutely cracking game, really good match. That final was only a few days after Issa Hayatou took over to become the President of CAF and to this day I strongly believe that affected the final score. Till his death, Keshi still describes the match thus “They robbed us blind that day”. One of the many heartbreaking moments in the game was the look on the face of Nwosu when he realised his headed effort had been cancelled.
Later in the 2nd half, Milla went over the leg of Sunday Eboigbe, ref pointed to the spot, penalty. Emmanuel Kunde stepped up with no fanfare and smashed it into the roof of Peter Rufai’s net. As the game wore on, both Nwosu and Keshi smashed cracking efforts onto the bar; Mfede Paul-Louis too struck the Nigeria woodwork.
The very next year we were grouped together again during the Italia ’90 World Cup Qualifiers. Just like now, Cameroon were the African Champions. First match was in Ibadan and an Etim Esin inspired Nigeria won 2 nil, Keshi and Samson Siasia the scorers. By the time the return came up in Yaounde a lot had happened to Nigeria. 2 weeks earlier, Okwaraji had dropped dead during the qualifier with Angola, the players had even attended his burial before going off to Cameroon.
Thinking about it now, I have no idea how those players were ready to get on the pitch to play again so soon after such a traumatic experience. They just did. That match in Cameroon was not live on TV and we had to listen to it on radio. Sunday afternoon. Early in the match, keeper and skipper David Ngodigha collided with a player and had to be rushed off to the hospital from the stadium. Alloy Agu replaced him. Eboigbe was sent off for an off the ball incident. Then just before half time, Omam Biyik scored a header. So it ended and Cameroon went on to Italia ’90.
When James Peters took a bunch of really talented players that included John Zaki, Patrick Mancha, Precious Monye, Bobo Edon, Chiedu Anazonwu, Stephen Musa, Emmanuel Amunike and captained by Chris Edem to the All-Africa Games in Cairo in 1991 we were not really sure what to expect. In their opening game they beat the hosts. From then on they caught fire. Uganda and Zimbabwe were dismissed after. Cameroon, in the semi-final. We all felt the time was right to get the revenge for the AFCON final defeats, these U23s were on fire we felt back in Nigeria and the players were by all accounts, ready to do the business.
Team started like a house on fire as we battered the Cameroon goal with shots. In central midfield, Mancha was dominant while the front three of Amunike, Zaki and Jide Oguntuwase were just too much for Cameroon. Only a matter of time before the goal we felt. It was not to be. The Cameroon defenders had a plan to make life difficult for Amunike and he was subjected to rough treatment. He finally snapped and hit out at the defender and rightly got a red card. I can’t even describe the feeling as we watched Amunike walk away from the pitch that evening. He was the team’s best player and he was off, we were down to 10 men.
Notwithstanding the numerical inferiority the team continued to dominate the game, the football Mancha played that evening when I think about it, I am still amazed that he never progressed further. We even had a penalty. Mancha stepped forward confidently, stroked the ball to the left as we watched, the keeper went to the right but the ball struck the post and bounced back into play! It was not to be. Late into the game, Cameroon scored a jammy goal that I do not even remember how it went in.
In 2000, I watched on Eurosport TV in my London home as Cameroon came to Lagos, again in an AFCON final, go 2 nil up, were pegged back but went on to win penalties to win their 3rd AFCON title – all with defeats of Nigeria. It was only at the 2004 AFCON, when I believe over confidence got the better of them, that Nigeria was able to beat Cameroon. Samuel Eto’o scored first but a sublime JJ Okocha free-kick and a John Utaka finish gave Nigeria a 2-1 win. That win and the AFCON ’92 win in the 3rd place play-off have been the scant consolations we have had over Cameroon in competitive matches. None compare to their Finals’ triumphs or the win that denied us Italia ’90 participation – that win in Ibadan mattered not a jot in the end.
So this time around, it is payback. Ghana might think they are our rivals but that is probably because of proximity. Cameroon are the ones to have inflicted the most pains. We have to deny them this world cup place.