Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali’s injury as a result of collision with a Cameroonian player in the second round match between the two African giants in the ongoing Africa Nations Cup tournament provokes memories. A similar incident occurred 35 years ago when then Green Eagles goalkeeper and now goalkeeper coach, Alloy Agu, collided with a Cameroonian player and was stretchered off the field just like Nwabali. How history repeats itself! Similar collision, same opponent.
That particular match in 1989 between the Eagles as the Nigerian national football is known, and the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon could perhaps be seen as more crucial than the second round encounter that Nigeria just had with Cameroon in AFCON 2023. Circumstantially, more seemed to be at stake. The coveted prize then was a place at the World Cup, and that encounter was the final match of the round robin home-and-away qualifying matches in a group that had Cameroon, Nigeria, Gabon and Angola.
Why was that particular Cameroon-Nigeria match crucial? It was the last match of that group stage and Nigeria needed a draw in that match, but a single goal from an Omam Biyik header just after Alloy Agu left the pitch in the first half separated the two sides and ended Nigeria’s dream of playing at the 1990 World Cup as Cameroon went on to qualify for the global tournament and justified that qualification by an unprecedented performance at the biggest stage of world football, reaching the quarter final and winning three matches out of the five played. For Nigeria, that 0-1 loss in Yaounde was another agonizing failure to qualify for the Word Cup, making four narrow misses and futile attempts in a row to play at the biggest stage of world football at Argentina ‘78, Spain ‘82, Mexico ‘86 and then Italia ‘90.
Emotionally, each of these failures were agonising for the teeming fans of the Nigerian national team. Unforgettable was that day in 1977 when Nigerian ace defender, Godwin Odiye, scored an own goal that denied Nigeria a place at the 1978 World Cup. In Nigeria’s final match played in Lagos, Odiye, who had had a fairly good game that day, mistakenly headed the ball into his own net, ending the hopes of Nigeria featuring at Argentina ’78.
Towards the 1982 World Cup, Nigeria suffered another shocking home defeat, this time 0-2 to Algeria, a team the Eagles defeated convincingly a year before 3-0 at the same National Stadium in Lagos to win its first Nations Cup title in 1980. Did the Eagles underrate the Algerians in that first leg match in Lagos in 1981? Maybe, and they couldn’t redeem themselves in the second leg away from home as they lost 2-1 again to Algeria. 1-4 aggregate it was, and Nigeria was out of the race for Espana ‘82.
In the journey to qualify for Mexico ‘86, Nigeria went as far as the third round before meeting Tunisia again. The Eagles went to Tunis for the second leg with a goal advantage from the first leg played in Lagos, but on that cold evening in Tunis, and without some key players of the squad who were serving suspension, the Eagles were outplayed from the first minute to virtually the last, though young Nigerian striker Rashidi Yekini nearly caused an upset with a shot that narrowly missed the target late in the game, which would have turned the tide in favour of Nigeria. It wasn’t to be. The match ended 0-2, and Tunisia qualified for the last round of the qualifiers ahead of Nigeria.
That loss plunged the Nigerian national team into a dull era, in which it was sarcastically called ‘Papa Eagles’, an uncomplimentary label given by disappointed fans because of the Eagles’ low performance at that time in sharp contrast to the glorious exploits of the emerging U-17 golden eaglets and the U-21 flying eagles.
Four years after in 1989, the Eagles would once again fail to qualify for the World Cup as earlier highlighted. That failure further rubbed in a monumental loss experienced in the qualifying match before that encounter in Yaounde, its feelings of pain and agony still in the air then. In the previous game played in Lagos on Saturday, August 12, 1989, Nigeria defeated Angola 1-0, but, in a rather unfortunate manner, lost a wonderful player, and even a number of fans who had come to the stadium to cheer the Eagles. One of the national newspapers the next morning captured the tragic twin incidents this way, ‘Okwaraji, seven others die in soccer tragedy’.
Two fatal incidents happened at the National Stadium that day. The stadium was overfilled with spectators so much there was suffocation and several people fainted, resulting in seven casualties according to that newspaper. Away from the stands, and right on the pitch, towards the end of the match and with Stephen Keshi’s goal separating the two sides, Nigeria’s creative midfielder, Samuel Okwaraji, slumped and was stretchered off the field. He later died that evening, throwing the whole nation into mourning. More agonising was it then when Nigeria could not clinch the World Cup ticket in that next match two weeks after in Yaounde as promised by Okwaraji’s team mates, who vowed they would win the match to honour him in death. Again, it was not to be.
Really, defeating Cameroon on their home soil in that decisive encounter was asking too much. Getting the needed draw was a bit more plausible but it was still a tall order, which was not achieved. Home advantage and everything that comes with it aside, the Cameroonian side of Roger Milla’s era was a solid and disciplined team, who knew exactly how to get the needed result in a crucial game. The Indomitable Lions as they were called had before then shown the Eagles of Nigeria the stuff they were made of, with a two Nations Cup final victory over Nigeria in 1984 and 1988. In a final analysis by football experts, Nigeria didn’t fail to qualify for Italia ’90 by the result of that last match in Yaounde. Rather, the Eagles failed in the course of the round robin duels when they lost in Gabon 1-2 and drew 2-2 in Angola, two matches that should have given Nigeria at least two more points to make the last match in Yaounde a formality. Despite the fact that the Eagles beat Cameroon 2-0 at home earlier in the round, a match that saw Stephen Keshi and Samson Siasia scoring in respective halves, and Etim Esin and Peter Rufai shining like stars all through, that result was not enough to make Nigeria qualify due to those not-too-good results in far away Gabon and Angola. A slim 1-0 defeat by Cameroon was enough to make the Eagles sit at home and watch the Indomitable Lions take on the world with a most impressive showing, which made FIFA to increase Africa’s slots at the World Cup from two to three by the next World Cup in USA.
Nigeria would eventually qualify for that USA ’94 World Cup, with ecstasy and fulfilment of a dream come true, and would continue from where Cameroon stopped the previous World Cup in revealing Africa as a force to be reckoned with in world football, with sheer strength, skill, agility and courage on the field of play. The country would qualify for the next two World Cup as well, 1998 and 2002, and would have qualified for seven consecutive World Cup tournaments, 1994 to 2018, if not for the failure to do so for the 2006 edition. Who beat Nigeria to the ticket in 2006? The Palancas Negras, the Sable Antelopes of Angola! In the most shocking World Cup qualifying series that Africa has ever had, with Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire qualifying for the first time, and Togo also qualifying, the Antelopes of Angola caught the Eagles of Nigeria napping and took due advantage. On the final table, Nigeria was actually better placed with better goal difference, but the head-to-head rule, which was used to judge the whole outcome, was in Angola’s favour, having won Nigeria 1-0 at home and drawn 1-1 away. In a group comprising Angola and Gabon like the 1990 qualifiers, but also, Rwanda, Algeria and Zimbabwe, one would have thought when the group was announced that the contest really would be between Nigeria and Algeria because of the pedigree of these two countries, but the Palancas Negras came from nowhere to surprise everyone, even themselves, achieving such an uncommon feat A country that at that time had never won a match in any Nations Cup tournament would be going to the 2006 World Cup instead of giant Nigeria, denying legendary Jay Jay Okocha the fulfilment of captaining the Nigerian team to what would have been his own fourth World Cup appearance in a row.
How come Angola qualified ahead of Nigeria for the 2006 World Cup? Again, the Super Eagles missed vital points along the way, particularly in both encounters with Angola, and perhaps didn’t on time consider the head-to-head rule. Early in the qualifiers, Angola was able to curtail everything the Super Eagles threw at them and went ahead to score a vital goal to win Nigeria at home. The antelopes scored another vital equaliser in the return match in Nigeria. Those results were good enough for Angola. With that better head-to-head record, they edged Nigeria out of the race. In the final round of qualifying matches, the Eagles thrashed the Warriors of Zimbabwe 5-1 in Abuja, hoping that Rwanda would do the favour of not losing to Angola right in front of their home fans in Kigali. Again, it was not to be. About 10 minutes before the end of that tension-soaked match, a well taken cross from the right flank was met by a well directed header as Angola’s experienced captain Fabrice Akwa scored the most important goal in the history of his country, and brought Angola into the world map of football as a result. One can say that Akwa actually nailed the coffin of Nigeria’s failed attempt to feature at Germany 2026 World Cup, having earlier gotten the better of Nigeria’s goalkeeper David Ngodigha to score the winner against the Eagles of Nigeria in Luanda many months before that final match.
Not much have happened between Nigeria and Angola since that 2006 World Cup qualifiers, except the quarter final CHAN match in 2018, until the quarter final duel between the two countries at AFCON ’23 in Cote D’Ivoire, with Nigerian goalkeeper Nwabali coming back fully fit having been stretchered off the match before against Cameroon. Nigeria won the match 1-0 via a goal from Ademola Lookman from a laid pass from Simon Moses, one assist so impressive to have earned the winger the man-of-the-match award. The slim 1-0 margin might not show the level of dominance of play, but the Nigerians were in control of the match, and were able to contain and curtail the Angolans, who probably were fancying their chances against Nigeria because of the good results they had had earlier in the tournament, with three wins out of four matches. The eagles however were able to put the antelopes where they really belong. It was a narrow but smooth win, as smooth as the win against Cameroon in the second round, one that would see Nigeria play in the semi final of the Africa Nations Cup 15th time out of 20 appearances and 8th time in the final after beating South Africa in the semi final.
Michael Omisore writes from Lagos via [email protected]