A Cup of Nations: Africa 96
A Date with Destiny
The Twentieth edition of Africa’s premier tournament was to see the expansion of contenders double from eight to sixteen teams. In a country fresh from the long struggle against the tyranny of apartheid it was to be the biggest, most open, and eagerly awaited finals of recent times.
The ‘Nations Cup of Africa’ was to produce three weeks of total enjoyment as the best kind of African football was witnessed in a spirit of sportsmanship and goodwill, totally free of any real nastiness. When play did get out of hand with reckless or hard tackling players hardly reacted. As always it was to be an improvement on the finals of previous with even the so-called no hoper playing its part fully in producing enterprising football of a high order and quality.
The new 3-points per win system helped immensely as practically all teams showed a real willingness to attack and express themselves. All competitors displayed great passion, skill, one-touch football, counter attacking and good control. Perhaps due to the influence of foreign coaches defending and organisation had shown a vast improvement as well as the poor finishing that had plagued the 94 finals of Tunisia.
The only downside was the lack of interest shown by the South African people in any other team apart from their own ‘Bafana Bafana’ (The Boys) team. A valid reason could be that it had been out of football season as well as there being other big sporting attractions. Most players on view were also unknown to home followers who were more informed on European soccer. A better promotion like that given to rugby and cricket may well have helped. However, low attendances did not bother players keyed up to doing well in front of watching scouts as so they could move onto greater heights and exposure. A mass of African players were now seen in abundance throughout the leagues of Europe with some 90 players alone in France.
Controversy opened the finals with the African football world stunned by the big news that Nigeria, the holders, clear favourites and Africa’s best, were to be withheld from defending its crown. The military dictatorship to decide against sending the team to South Africa in the wake of political turmoil – following an outcry in response to executions a few months earlier within that country. The Nigerian government expressed the safety fears of its players should they participate when it looked more as if it had been a protest against the South African regime that had called for sanctions against the leadership of Nigeria. The finals were robbed of players that figured prominently throughout Europe’s top leagues, a true wealth of talent absent from Daniel Amokachi, Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh, new stars Celestine Babayaro, Nwankwo Kanu to the great magician Augustine Okocha. Such was the player’s discontent at the boycott that some threatened to not represent the team in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers for France 98. Players described the decision as the ‘Gravest Disappointments in their careers.’ Repeated attempts of persuasion were to fail with Guinea given the opportunity to come in at the last, an invitation they were to decline, claiming not enough time had been given to preparation. Right up until the last day Nigeria had the chance of taking its place. Punishment was to be severe as CAF were to carry out its threat of punishing Nigeria should it not comply with the law that stated ‘Any team pulling out with less than 20 days before the start would be banned.’ A four-year ban was imposed while FIFA threatened to impose its own sanctions for the qualifiers of the coming World Cup.
With Nigeria withheld from defending the trophy the Black Stars of Ghana were installed as the new favourites. No other nation on the continent won the cup more times than this West African side – the premier team with four title wins. They were known as the ‘Brazilians of Africa’ dominant and blistering at youth level, a nation blessed with players of quicksilver movement. None so more than Abedi Pele, an extraordinary talent in his prime and a sole survivor of Ghana’s last win of 1982. It was 14 years too long for his compatriots. Pele had reached the soaring heights of European soccer as a league championship and European cup winner with Olympique Marseille. Of recent he had only shown glimpses of his former self. However, given the room the ability was still there to do damage. Joining him as the nation’s biggest hope was Anthony Yeboah seen crashing goals for English club Leeds United at the beginning of the season.
The biggest flops as a host nation of recent times Tunisia joined Ghana in Group D. They had the unenviable record of not having gained a single Nations Cup victory since 1978 in Uganda – their World Cup year when they came third. The team, starved of recent success was very much hoping to get over the debacle of 2 years earlier when they were knocked out in the first week. Early premature elimination almost killed the finals as fans stayed away with the biscuit coming in the 2-0 defeat to Mali – who? The old guard was immediately dispelled off with the new team to take them to these finals as runners-up to Liberia from qualifying Group 2. Rarely did they shine, perhaps only in the 4-0 demolition of Senegal. Their finest tournament moment came in the 1965 final defeat to Ghana. The Tunisians, one of the two most consistent sides in Africa last year, were a side of limited ability but hardworking and organised. Its players were somewhat under-exposed as they showed a reluctance to travel abroad. All squad members were home-based.
Ivory Coast, a ghost for the Ghana team, swept to victory 4 years earlier at the expense of the favourites – it followed a dramatic penalty shoot-out win in Senegal. Victory at the quarter-final stage over Ghana followed 2 years later before defeat was tasted against Nigeria in another penalty shoot-out. Despite Ivory Coast being one of the two most consistent sides of 1995 they were clearly a side in demise, basically on its last legs, living on the past and borrowed time. The team, third-placed finishers four times in 20 years, were appearing in its seventh consecutive finals. In the group stages, Ivory Coast surprisingly trailed in second position behind Burkina Faso as Morocco dropped out in third place. Once again they would rely on the combination of Tiehi and Traore. Making up the group was little Mozambique, second time qualifier who were just happy to be competing at the finals. They hoped on improving on the three consecutive defeats first time round in Egypt 1986. Its most famous born player Euseibio never played for them.
The host nation South Africa – isolated from world sport for 30 years – hoped its re-entry into football would end with a unique treble of winning the cricket, rugby and football. They were newcomers to this event, but in 17 games had only suffered defeat twice, this having not even been rated six months earlier. They had held both recent and former world champions to draws, Germany and Argentina. A bold prediction by some was that this South African team would eventually become the best team on the continent. It certainly had the potential looking at displays of recent, so full of African flair and European organisation, possessing players that had gained experience abroad. Its newly liberated folk, for whom football was an obsession, looked to all-time top goalscorer Phil Masinga (seven goals), John Moshoeu, and Doctor Khumalo, now wanted in the new American soccer league. One thing for certain was that the entire nation would get fully behind its team as they set sights at first attempt in conquering Africa before the world in 98.
The ambassadors for African football for so long Cameroon had long seen its power diminish and dwindle going into the 1990s; this after being the greatest nation from the continent for 10 years, from 1980 to 1990. Just look at the achievements – 84 and 88 African Nations Cup winners, runners-up to host Egypt in 86, World Cup finalist in 82 remaining unbeaten in 3 games with Peru, Poland, and Italy before going on to its greatest triumph of reaching the quarter-final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy when nine minutes remained between a place in the semi-finals. Plagued by lack of finance and scandal they performed dismally at America 94 and it required the defeat of Zimbabwe in the final tie, just as in 1993 in order to accomplish qualification. Only 6 players remained from the 94 squad with it to be the first time 20 years that the great Roger Milla was not to represent Cameroon at a major tournament.
Egypt had the second most number of tournament wins with three titles, one behind Ghana with their last victory achieved 10 years earlier on home soil. They were remembered on the vast stage for producing two fine performances at the 1990 World Cup, the most memorable a 1-1 draw with Holland; the Europeans played-off the park. It had been a while since they had been the dominant force of the 50’s. Egypt, a side with a reputation for the unspectacular, were well organised, efficient, and skilled, aided with fine passing ability that kept possession very well in midfield. The backbone of the team was built around El-kas, Hazem and Ramzy, veteran of the 1990 finals of Italy; out of favour at Werder Bremen before the sacking of the coach. The team was guided by former World Cup runner-up Rudi Krol.
Winners of an easy Group 6 Angola were the real underdogs of the section, this in its first ever Nations Cup appearance. For its inhabitants, qualification had been seen as a dream, in a country that encountered great amounts of social unrest, famine and wars. Sixteen of the squad was based in Portugal with the most prominent Benfica’s Paulao.
Twice finalists of 1974 (at first attempt) and 1994 Zambia were a team that had come together through adversity, reconstructing a new team from the ashes of a great disaster that robbed them of the heart of their squad decimated by the loss of 18 men, 30 including officials. They pushed the current African kings Nigeria all the way at Tunisia 94. The nucleus of the side remained for this 1996 campaign, Malitoli, Litana, Choongo, and star man Kalusha Bwalya who performed greatly for Cercle Bruges in Belgium and for P.S.V. in Holland before taking his trade to Mexico.
Algeria’s former captain Ali Fergani led the ‘Desert Warriors’ for their ninth participation at the finals. Fergani had replaced former player Rabah Madjer, sacked mid-way through the qualifying campaign. They were the team most expected to join Zambia in Round 2, but would be without most of its foreign-based French stars that included the top-scorer Abdelhalid Tasfaout who would have been a certain starter in the line-up. However, star man Moussa Saib, the lone survivor of Algeria’s 1990 victory, was released. The 1990 victory was still not regarded as Algeria’s greatest achievement, that distinction being the World Cup 1982 victory over the former West Germany. The current coach had been captain on that glorious day in Spain.
Sierra Leone, disappointing in Tunisia where they failed to register a goal, gaining a mere point had made greater strides of recent. They came into these finals as joint leaders with Ghana from Group 3 with the men to watch being Mohamed Kallon, whom had signed a five-year deal with Inter Milan despite temporarily being loaned to Swiss team Lugano, and Lamine Conteh whose brother Kewulay would be joining Atlanta in Italy.
The Stallions of Burkina Faso were appearing in its second ever finals having previously played under the name Upper Volta. They were the only unbeaten side of the qualifiers, a 2-1 home win over Morocco and a decisive 0-0 blank in Casablanca seeing them progress. They arrived with no real high expectations apart from its goal of attempting to play fine football.
Group C which was Nigeria’s original section contained two evenly matched nations in Liberia and Zaire. Liberia, another upstart at these finals, were led by George Weah, a man that attained status in that country greater than that of the president with his ability matching that of his stature. He was a man whose pride in his roots was a key motivation in his services to his nation – settling debts of the football association as well as paying all expenses for trips. If this incorruptible saint was not a one-man team, he certainly was an inspiration. His cousin James Debbah, of which there was no love lost between, was the man expected in forming a deadly partnership with the AC Milan striker.
It had been over 20 years since Zaire ‘The Leopards’ were a powerhouse in African football, winning the finals of Egypt 1974 – they reached the World Cup finals the same year. This would be an eighth successive appearance for them in competition and were a team heavily backed by European experience with over some 50 players playing abroad; thirteen of whom would compete at these finals.
In its first ever appearance of 1994 Gabon were remembered for conceding the fastest goal ever at the finals, scoring no goals in two defeats by three and four goals. They were not given any hope by observers despite defeating Zambia in the qualifiers to head the table.
Within the presence of one of the world’s most distinguished statesmen – President Nelson Mandela – the start of the African Nations Cup tournament was to see the rise of one nation and the death of a legend. Both paths of the competitors would lead into total opposite directions; one seemingly on the way to greatness the other into oblivion.
The Soweto stadium full of 70,000 expectant fans was to be the arena in which hosts South Africa set about its adventure and quest for glory at first attempt – an occasion set to unite the nation as one. Cameroon, Africa’s most powerful nation of the 80s only arrived 24 hours earlier and had been on a steady road to decline for many a year, culminating in a pathetic World Cup at America 94. Only Oman Biyik remained from the fine side of 1990 as they gambled on two unblooded teenagers Wome and Tchangwo.
The setting was perfect – the weather, the immaculate pitch, the electric atmosphere. One just hoped it would rise above the heights usually associated with the opening game with a good result for the host imperative. Not only for themselves but also for the finals as Cameroon aimed to be the party spoilers. The twice champions of the 1980s began the brighter, the hosts required to overcome initial and very evident nerves, needing also to find its rhythm in passing and movement. The ball watching South African defence suffered a narrow-escape on just three minutes when Moyeme’s far post header glided just over.
The crowd got behind its team and it began to show greater fluidity in attack and solidity at the back and would soon be able to take control. It was of no surprise to see a 14th minute lead come their way thanks to Philemon Masinga, the last foreign-based player to arrive. The striker pounced onto the inside-flick of Doctor Kumalo before the side-foot past the keeper… Confidence zoomed sky-high. Poor marking and hesitation almost cost South Africa its lead as Cameroon showed glimpses to indicate the tie was far from over. However, importantly they lacked the connection to its forwards as the final touch continued to let them down. A leader or a midfield general that could take command was not there. As in all matches, the good spell ended with the South Africans to sweep into a two-goal lead on 37 minutes. From close-range was Mark Williams to crash the ball past a helpless keeper. It would take an almighty, NO a HEAVENLY intervention to defeat a rampant home team backed by its united crowd. It was not until just before half-time that the South African keeper was called into making his first save. Doctor Kumalo, overshadowed by Williams and Moshoeu was then swept off his feet on the touchline with the offence to bring coach Clive Barker ranting from the line in rage. The sinner received no punishment.
The good work for the hosts continued into the restart, the punctured lions finding no way of penetrating defences well marshalled by Tovy and local boy Mark Fish. Cameroon had no answer when man-of-the-match John Moshoeu was to start and finish the move that buried them into the soil. He received the ball, exchanged with Masinga whose exquisite flick put him on goal, before showing coolness and determination in beating Songo. Certainly there would now be no way back for the fallen magicians. It should have been more with Mikhalele failing to deliver the required pass to the far post as men laid in wait while Williams, following a quick burst, to see his effort squirm past the left-hand post. For the remainder the hosts coasted it with Mark Fish in a final flurry attempting the chip over the keeper. The effort narrowly beat the bar. Had it gone in it would have brought the roof down on a swelled up capacity now at almost 100,000 after generous police showed its heart and allowed thousands without tickets to enter. This victory would install South Africa as one of the favourites; this while the watching world had just witnessed seeing Cameroon’s poorest team on the international stage within memory. It was to be their heaviest ever defeat in African cup nations soccer. The duel with Egypt was sure to prove more testing for the hosts.
Two goals in two minutes from Egyptian captain and striker Ahmed El-Kas was to prove sufficient in repelling a spirited late fightback from plucky outsiders Angola.
If one were to go by qualifying results then today’s match would produce a high spurt of goals from two nations that had shown a liking for attack.
The favourites from the North started the more positive as Angola, raw and inexperienced in comparison, looked a little overawed. Combining fast and fluid moves in speedy attacks Egypt were showing imagination and fine touch. In spite of this they failed to penetrate Angola whose entire emphasis was on defence, attacks more than often breaking down in the important areas of the pitch. Akwa, due to injury was forced into making a premature exit after just 19 minutes with the powerful looking Quinzinho, a squad member of the fine Oporto side in Portugal taking over. For an over-zealous challenge on an opponent he would be the recipient of the game’s first booking.
Egypt then threatened, Samir seeing his rasping drive zoom inches over after Hazem had been given the time and space to run forward. Inevitably, in its next move the lead came El-kas at the far post coming in to execute a fine header past Orlando. This followed a fine run and cross from Radwan – Egypt’s greatest threat on the right. Mass disorganisation within Angola’s defence was rapidly punished two minutes later, the same man El-kas rolling in the second; cover in Angola’s defence non-existent. Radwan was the man again making the decisive pass to a man known as the poorest trainer in the team. Hazem was inches away from a third, his low drive to flash the wrong side of the post with one feeling that Egypt was capable of running up a cricket score. In a bizarre incident, the ball was almost swept into its own goal by an Angolan member.
With the backing of the neutrals Angola looked a different proposition after the interval and seemed to be making a fight of things; an urgency to attack increased, though without much success. Paulao, given space for the first time in the match, could have done better with a headed effort – this from the cross sent-over by substitute Campos who was making fine inroads along both flanks. Paulao then failed to take advantage of posing within Egypt’s defence, the keeper grabbing the ball at second attempt. Egypt seemingly felt it unnecessary to attack, rather concentrating its efforts in defence. They somewhat failed to function centerfield, its players rather dazed as if the engine had totally stopped. It did not seem to have effect on Ramzy who with some superb covering denied an Angolan effort just as it looked to find its way in. However, Angola’s pressure finally paid off 13 minutes from time. The combination between substitutes Campos and Quinzinho prominent; the latter rifling a bullet drive past Sayed after the former from the right sent the ball over. Suddenly Egypt, after taking its foot off the pedal, were stuttering, in danger of letting the tie slip as the 6,000 crowd roared the trailing side forward for what would have been a deserved equaliser. A third Egyptian goal looked highly unlikely. However, luckily for them, Angola lacked the energy and subtlety needed to find a way past Egypt’s defence.
After witnessing this totally one-sided confrontation the 4,000 Crowd were left wondering how a fine Egyptian side, after outplaying and outsmarting Cameroon, failed to gain a deserved victory. It was their inability to out-do their opponents on the most important aspect of the game ‘out-scoring’ them that was to prove to be to their undoing.
Pre-tournament, it had been felt that today’s teams, playing in familiar colours, possessed the talent that could enable them to mount a realistic challenge for honours. However the opening games suggested neither looked the finished article. Cameroon saw themselves licked by the hosts while Egypt, after scoring two goals in a fine 15-minute spell, was fortunate to defeat Angola. The Pharaohs remained unchanged whilst Cameroon, unrecognisable from 94, made three changes. They knew nothing but the win was acceptable and its coach was so enraged by the opening defeat that he ordered extra-training at night.
A slow opening passed before Cameroon caused the first panic within Egypt’s defences; Torino’s Simo to force his way past 2 men before seeing the effort deflected into the side netting on 12 minutes. Egypt responded, Hadi Khashaba’s strike flying inches over after momentarily looking it would elude Embarga. Khashaba’s teammate Setter then failed to cap a fine run with a quality finish, following a dummy before cutting inside to sky an effort over. El-kas, scorer of the goals against Angola was then a leg away from making a connection to a ball played across goal. NO doubts on whom were the most constructive and determined team. Egypt took the game forward as Cameroon, despite looking physically stronger were being dragged around by Egypt’s greater passing ability. Captain El-Kas once again demonstrated his fine talent with a nice piece of skill that was to be unmatched in the finish. Showing great control with the chest the striker scooped over from close-range, this after he had coolly touched the ball over the onrushing defender. Cameroon, with no game plan, midfield, nor attack were simply not in the game and just surviving as one wondered how they were still on level terms. To add further insult to Egypt, Cameroon took the lead thanks to the award of a penalty after Tchami had been felled by Kamouna’s near side leg tackle aided by the left leg. Oman-Biyik coolly sent the keeper the opposite direction. Now would be a real test of character to see if Egypt could come back from this unlikely blow? Argentine-based Tchami soon saw an effort go inches wide as El-Kas at the other end was to think he had made up for the earlier miss. It followed a fine team move and his one-touch driving finish into the net. However his frustration was to continue when an offside decision was given when it looked very much like an on-the-line situation. The same man (El-kas) was almost there following another fine cross, but he could not direct the header on goal after the keeper had committed himself too early. What did this man have to do to score? The lack of finishing touch deserted him once again wide on the 6-yard box, his low drive pushed across goal.
The injustice of the scoreline was altered three minutes after the restart, Cameroon unable to survive any longer. Al Maher pounced on a fumble and seemed to scoop the ball out of the keeper’s grasp and into the net. The goal stood and a minute later, another shot came crashing off the Cameroon bar. It seemed certain that Egypt would go on and win this match with ease, Cameroon seemingly disheartened from a constant battering. A minute after El-kas went off Egypt thought they finally had the lead. Replacement Mohamed Salab, with his first touch, surely the quickest goal from a substitute at the finals, was to beat the keeper with the header. Unfortunately Al-Maher was adjudged to have been in an offside position. Cameroon denied the odds further by retaking the lead as the big gap in Egypt’s defence appeared with no cover, allowing Tchami a run in on goal before burying the ball past Sayed with a low drive. Egypt had to do it all again. The previously blundering Cameroon keeper Embarga became his country’s saviour as he denied Mohamed Salah from close range after Hazem found him in space. The effort was pushed out with Al Maher snatching at the rebound driven over. Embarga’s good work did not last as he fumbled a high cross that two Egyptians failed to take advantage of. It seemed a miracle that Cameroon’s defence, under a constant barrage of assaults, was still holding out. Tchami, alone upfield, almost scored the cheekiest goal of the finals; acrobatically and back-to-goal with the use of his heel to send the effort just over the crossbar. Suddenly Cameroon was looking at their most dangerous with strong counter-attacking whenever Egyptian raids broke up. As the frustration built-up Egypt seemed to be lashing balls from all angles; this as they searched for the goal to save them from an undeserving defeat. In a final effort, Al-Maher saw his effort on goal charged down. It was over, unbelievably, Egypt had lost!
In front of an expectant crowd in the drab setting of Soweto, the passion, flair and organisation of the opening tie was to go out on the wet surface. The hosts South Africa were made to struggle in overcoming an entertaining and enterprising Angola side.
South Africa’s re-entry into the football stage had been a day to remember while rank-outsiders, but no pushovers, Angola performed with a swashbuckling cavalier style in defeat. As had been expected from the huge crowd it was to be the home side to lay assault on the visiting goal with a thumping free-kick from Khumalo rattling the Angolan crossbar. At the opposite end, Antonio Neto saw his flicked header just shade the post. As the match developed it was obvious things were not going to plan for the hosts who quite often found themselves outnumbered in midfield as the defence played with a nervous caution. The confidence to attack from the opening game was not to be in evidence with their no-link to its forwards. Their close passing game would fair no better and as a creative force they were no more effective than Cameroon in the opening tie. The fans were discontented as Angola came to terms with the rain-drenched pitch the more easily; its man-marking more effective as was its midfield and attacking play. Paulao, showing speed and power, saw his effort flash past the post as the crowd got to its feet in a moment of rare penetration with Buthelezi, following a fine jump seeing his fine header bounce narrowly wide. The ball looked as if it had gone into the net with a bad decision by the linesman to deny Joni, making a fine run, a clear run on goal. Tubia, the man penalised, was not even involved within the play. The same man (Tubia) in on goal found himself caught in two minds, the desired finish not achieved with the ball to be scrambled away. With his first chance, Phil Masinga blasted waywardly off the target while half-hearted voiced penalty appeals were turned down when Williams went down under challenge. The howls of discontent were to turn to howls of joy when the hosts undeservedly went ahead on 57 minutes. Williams was on hand to ram the ball home after Tinkler’s ferocious free-kick had bounced off the chest of the keeper. Having made an impact when he came on against Egypt Quinzinho made another substitute appearance. The home side were looking its most dangerous yet, enjoying its best spell after being very much punchless for most of today. Moshoeu saw his low powered driven effort well saved by Orlando before Masinga, making the high leap, saw his own effort come off the corner of the crossbar. The ball was scrambled to safety as South Africa set its sights on protecting its slender advantage by replacing Khumalo with Lucas Radabe. His inclusion could not prevent the defence from being carved out by Paulao with Angola presented with two bites of the cherry. Joni’s weak efforts were saved by Arendse and it was to be Angola’s last real chance with the hosts to think they had got a second. Masinga tried to con the faithful by fisting Fish’s cross into the net. He was to receive punishment in the form of a deserved yellow card.