The year I watched my first AFCON was 1984, the one hosted by the Ivory Coast and I still remember it like it was yesterday.
I was in my second year in secondary school then and not even a teenager yet but courtesy of some of my friends in school I was forced to love and follow football.
Yes, Samuel Ogali, late Amainye Ibama and Ovie Ughuanogho (sp) would discuss football every morning in school since 1983 and I was forced to join them.
Before the tournament, I looked forward to seeing the likes of Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Henry Nwosu and Humphrey Edobor because I had begun to follow the Nigerian League, especially that famous NNB FC team that also had the likes of Bright Omokaro, Austin Igbinabaro, Willy Agbonivbare and the rest.
I also was looking out of the likes of Chibuzor Ehilegbu and Paul Okoku who had played youth football for Nigeria and seemed our brightest young prospects at the time.
Adegboye Onigbinde seemed spoiled for choice in his team of young players as he had in goal the decision to pick between Peter Rufai and Patrick Okala and on the left wing, it was between Humphrey Edobor and James Etokebe.
On the right it was war as Clement Temile and Tarila Okorowanta would battle for that shirt.
Perhaps the most experienced member of the team was Muda Lawal who was at the AFCONs in 1978, 1980 and 1982.
There was also Ademola Adeshina who was supposed to add steel to the midfield. As young as we were, we had hopes in the team.
The young Rashidi Yekini would lead the lines but most Nigerians especially me, were not comfortable with his ability to lead the attack for the Eagles.
The AFCON not about Nigeria
By the time the AFCON started, I discovered that African football was not just about the Nigerian team.
I saw an Ali Ferghani in the Algerian midfield that made the ball do the talking for him. There was also Lakhdar Belloumi who between he and Ferghani, I wasn’t so sure who was the playmaker and then Djamel Menad running riot on the wings and of course the young Rabah Madjer.
The Algerians had a decent side that I enjoyed at the AFCON in 1984.
Ivory Coast had two exciting players in Youssof Fofana and Abdoulaye Traore and their pairing upfront was magical, but there was one team I certainly did not observe enough that caused me a lot of heartbreak in the Cup final. Cameroon, but I will get to that.
We argued in school about the games before and after and it was fun to see the Super Eagles go all the way to the final
Nigeria had qualified for the final and would play against Cameroon.
On Friday in school, we talked about the game and most of us thought Nigeria would win it; of course, we had a good team that had done well so far in the tournament, hadn’t we?
And when we began to predict starting line ups for the day, a lot of us went for Peter Rufai, Yisa Sofuluwe, Kingsley Paul, Muda Lawal, Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Clement Temile, Chibuzor Ehilegbu, Rashidi Yekini, Henry Nwosu and Humphrey Edobor.
We agreed that this would be Nigeria’s best starting eleven to beat the Cameroonian team and we arrived at this based on watching the other games and what we already knew of the players from the Nigerian League which we already followed.
Little did we know that the coach of the team, Adegboye Onigbinde and the Cameroonians had something else up their sleeves because what we saw, scarred me for a long time and therein began my fear of the Cameroonians… and maybe, hatred for them.
On match day, my jaw dropped when I saw Nigeria’s starting line up.
Even though Patrick Okala started the first two group games, Rufai was in goal against Algeria and in the semi-final against Egypt.
I thought Rufai was the better option as Okala would more often than not leave his area to chase a ball, but Onigbinde went with Patrick Okala. Okala’s penchant to leave his area was not just scary to me, but worrisome. It was my belief that if we ever met a team that meant business, they would destroy us with Okala in goal.
How Bala Ali started that game remained and still is a mystery to me and most of all starting with James Etokebe and Humphrey Edobor, two left wingers made the team seem a bit lopsided, but it was our country and we would be optimistic.
At least we had Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Yisa Sofoluwe, Muda Lawal, Humphrey Edobor and Henry Nwosu.
My confidence skyrocketed when in the 10th minute Muda Lawal struck.
If that game was played today, I would have picked up my phone at that time to call up Samuel Ogali, Amainye Ibama and Ovie to let them know we were winning but all I could do was wait to see how the game would end.
Did I mention earlier that I didn’t factor in what the Cameroonians had up their sleeves? I’m sure I did.
Well, their team had some gladiators who I didn’t really know much about before then. I did not watch the 1982 World Cup so at the time I did not know most of the players they had lined up for the AFCON.
I also did not follow up their games but just mostly the games in Nigeria’s group.
There was a trojan called Theophile Abega and a warlock known as Ernest Ebongue.
There were also Antoine Bell, Roger Milla, Bonaventure D’Jonkep, Emmanuel Kunde and Gregory Mbida, all Trojans in their own right and from that point on they messed up the Nigerian team.
Between Milla, Mbida and Abega, they ran rings around the Nigerian team and they scored when they wanted. They could have really scored six or seven goals on the day if they wanted to, but they kept the scoreline low and I can never tell what their reason was.
Rene N’Djeya equalised in the 32nd minute and how Patrick Okala did not see that free kick that seemed to have gone in slowly still bothers me till now as I watch the highlights again.
Theophile Abega almost did a Messi to score the 2nd goal for Cameroon in the 79th minute as the Green Eagles defence just watched him walk past. Of course, credit would have to have gone to Milla for the decisive return pass that left us awestruck.
The third goal by Ebongue is still the reason why Nigerians do not like the Cameroonians when it comes to football.
The way Ebongue bullied his marker and went all the way to score is a memory I would not forget as long as I live.
I sat my young self on the chair, not knowing what to do next. I couldn’t believe we lost. How??????
Where did Abega, Ebongue and Milla come from? Where?
In school on Monday morning, we quietly analysed the game each one trying to convince the other he knew why we lost and of course, we blamed Onigbinde for not using some players we thought he should have used.
That was how Cameroon messed up my AFCON in 1984, the very first AFCON I would be watching.
I had now been initiated into the Cameroon haters club as the rest of this diary will show as I write because that would not be the first time Cameroon would deny us in the final.
Final (Abidjan, Stade Houphouet-Boigny, att: 50,000)
18- 3-84 Cameroon 3-1 Nigeria
[René N’Djeya 32, Théophile Abéga 79, Ernest Ebongué 84; Muda Lawal 10]
[Cameroon: Joseph-Antoine Bell, Charles Toubé, René N’Djeya, Francois Doumbé, Isaac Sinkot, Théophile Abéga, Gregoire Mbida, Ibrahim Aoudou, Ernest Ebongué, Roger Milla, Boneventure D’Jonkep (Emmanuel Kundé);
Nigeria: Patrick Okala, Kingsley Paul, Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Yisa Sofoluwe, Muda Lawal, Ademola Adeshina (Paul Okoku), Humphrey Edobor, Bala Ali (Clement Temile), Henry Nwosu, James Etokebe;