Colourful, flamboyant, hostile, wild, pulsating, fanatical and traditional. When I think of Africa these are the things that spring to the fore of my mind. It is a continent I am fixated with, and one I long to visit. From the mystical Moroccan mazes of Marrakesh to the monstrous mountain Gorillas in Uganda, Safari’s in the Serengeti and the natural stunning wonders of Victoria Falls and Kilimanjaro. It’s safe to say Africa has everything. The nature of each country it seems has a direct effect on its people, and they embrace their roots entirely. Africans seem to have a lust for life, a zest to enjoy each minute, smile, laugh and celebrate. One of my favourite sights in football is when the cameraman pans around to the fans of African teams, and you’re struck, opened mouthed watching them dance, usually painted fully green or orange or white, any colour but their own skin! They wear masks, head decorations, play instruments and party for 90 minutes. Africans know how to support their team, in the most enthusiastic and affectionate way (imagine rocking up in the middle of the Gallogate painted fully black and white, wearing a NUFC nappy, playing the Greggs stottie with your stuffed Monty the magpie) normal behaviour Jackie lad.
1996 was my first exposure to African football during the Olympic Games in Georgia, USA. Nigeria finished runners up to Brazil in Group D, winning 2 out of their 3 matches, only losing to Brazil in a tight game, Ronaldo the difference. Nigeria were huge underdogs at the tournament, but with a squad bursting with talent, a brand new generation was rising through. In the group stages Nwankwo Kanu and Jay Jay Okocha took centre stage, dazzling the States with their flair and skill. Nigeria progressed past Mexico in the quarter finals 2-0, setting up a re-match from the group stages with Brazil in the semi-final. Some of the players involved in the tournament across the nations involved became synonymous with the footballing world for years to come. Players such as Hernan Crespo (Top Scorer, 6 goals), Diego Simeone, Javier Zanetti, Nuno Gomes, Robert Pires, Mark Viduka, Raul, Ivan de la Pena, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, I could go on naming players, but you can look for yourself! However, it was the Super Eagles that caught my attention. Nigeria’s mix of team spirit, raw natural ability and flashy skill provided the Games with a real highlight and showcase for the American audience, who let’s be honest, had little interest in the game of soccer.
The semi-final was set, the colossal footballing gods of Brazil versus a young exciting Nigeria. Captaining the Super Eagles through the tournament was a 19 year old Nwankwo Kanu, Ajax’s gem at the time. A young spearhead to Nigeria’s thrilling new style. The game could not have started any worse for Nigeria, with Brazil taking the lead in the 1st minute through Conceicao. The score was levelled 19 minutes later, the great Roberto Carlos turning the ball into his own net. Brazil took a further lead, Bebeto making it 2-1 after 28 minutes. 7 minutes before half time, disaster for Nigeria, Brazil took a 2 goal lead, Conceicao bagging his 2nd of the game after an amazing chest flick-on by Bebeto and Brazil’s 3rd of the game. Normally what ensues following a 2 goal lead for Brazil is exhibition football, a display for the possession textbooks. Fortunately Nigeria refused to roll over and just over half an hour into the second half Ikpeba scored with a strike from just outside the box to make it 3-2. The game was heading for a frantic finale and Nigeria’s talisman and leader Kanu stepped up to the plate. With Brazil trying to run down the clock in Nigeria’s corner, possession was won back, and Nigeria broke winning a throw in deep into Brazil’s half. A long throw by Okocha was eventually bundled to Kanu, and from no more than 3 yards he flicked the ball into Brazil’s net. 3-3!! What a game! An equaliser in the 90th minute, a footballing classic, nothing better than a last minute goal to earn a draw or a win! Nigeria now had their tails up and could taste the Brazilian tears. 4 minutes into Extra Time (golden goal rules) Nigeria played a hopeful ball into their front line, it fell to Kanu who dropped a shoulder so low it felt like the whole stadium hit the deck, turned the Brazilian centre half inside out and fired a carefully placed shot over the keeper to win the game and take the Africans to the Olympic Final v Argentina. Kanu’s celebration was legendary, grinning from ear lug to ear lug, spinning away in realisation of his team’s magnificent feat, beating the world champions and a team of megastars to progress to the final. The whole of Lagos must have shook at that moment, with a night of relentless revelry enjoyed.
The thing is, to me, semi-finals are way more exciting than finals. When the aim is to reach the final, and you have reached that goal, finals can often turn into a damp squid, nervy tit for tat encounters, tactically played through changing systems and carefully planned substitutions. This can’t be helped though, with the size of the achievement and pressure to succeed, finals will always have this exterior of anxiety. Nigeria broke the mould in Georgia. They played without fear, performing without any restrictions and enjoying the moment. When a team has the right mix of talent and desire, it is a deadly combination. Boundaries are pressed, and giants fall. Nigeria bounced into that final with Argentina along with their adoring fans on the crest of a wave, hungry for another upset, fearing nobody. Another late goal won the tournament for the Super Eagles, Amuneke scoring in the 90th minute to make it 3-2 to Nigeria in front of a capacity of 86,000 spectators. Argentina took the lead twice in the game, to which Nigeria had the answers for. La Albiceleste engulfed by an African force of nature.
Plaudits have to also go to the manager, Jo Bonfrére, a Dutchman whose coaching career has been more than nomadic post 96. A second spell in charge of Nigeria from 99 to 01, before bouncing between Africa and the Far East. Interestingly a direct opposite to his playing career where he was a one club man for MVV Maastricht playing over 335 games over 23 years. Managing this precocious group of players, and enabling them to shine and produce their best would not have been an easy task. Hats off to you Bonfrére fella!
Since that Nigerian whirlwind I experienced as a 9 year old, there has been a constant flow of African superstars into our game. Many have taken the longest of routes to the top, but that’s the point, they made it to the top, the journey has not been an issue. Whether they’ve had to develop and learn their craft in the Belgian second division or the Israeli Premier League, the dream of playing in an elite league in Europe never fades. Yaya Toure, Man City & Ivory Coasts dynamic midfielder’s journey a classic example of this mantra. Kolo Toure the elder brother of the two was picked up by Arsenal as a young lad, developed within an established leading European club. Yaya was not afforded the same luxury, even undergoing a failed trial at Arsenal. Although greatly talented, his game was first educated professionally at Beveren in Belgium, before moving to Metalurh Donetsk in Ukraine. With a 100 career games under his belt a move to Greek club Olympiakos was next, exposure to Champions League football and a set of passionate fans evolving his hunger for the top. A brief stint in Monaco followed before the big move to Catalan giants Barcelona that Yaya earned and deserved. Now at Man City in the premier league and a multi trophy winning, 3 time African Footballer of the year (2011, 2012, 2013), established world performing Ballon d’Or nominee, Yaya has arrived at his level.
Although countless similar routes have been taken, familiar roads trodden by fellow African footballers; it is the will to succeed and passion for the game which stands above all. The overall dream never fading from thought. It would be very unlikely to see 18 year old English players who find first team football blocked by average foreign imports, take a leap of faith in search for development and consistent first team football. Why would they? Sitting on £2,000 a week, luxury pad’s in the trendiest spots, not a worry in the world. The European game can learn a lot from the African footballer’s mentality. If you love football, and have the will to succeed, take that leap. Travel and learn your trade elsewhere.
My 10 favourite African footballers;
1) Taribo West – Absolute legend-(ary hair), career never really went the direction it should have, but he is probably the most memorable Nigerian footballer in recent times. Sign him on a free transfer on Champ Man 01-02, certain to be your defender for 10 years! Was given Taribo’s Nike Tiempo boots with red trim by my mother and fatha for Xmas as a nipper.
2) George Weah – That goal! If you have ever seen the goal Weah scored for AC Milan v Verona in the 96-97 Serie A season, then you will nod in agreement and mouth the words (f@*k me George, that was canny).
3) Jay Jay Okocha – So good they named him twice. Unbelievable talent, a moment in his earlier career with Frankfurt saw him take the absolute Micky Joseph out of Oliver Kahn. MERKED.
4) Nwankwo Kanu – Unpredictable, erratic, impulsive with flair in abundance. Kanu graced the premier league for 13 years,enjoying prior stints at Ajax and Inter Milan. Amazing considering it was a well-known fact he had a heart defect uncovered at an Inter Milan medical post Olympics. Arsenal fans will remember his famous 15 minute hat-trick v Chelsea, when they were 2-0 down.
5) Samuel Eto’o – Arguably the deadliest African striker that’s lived. The Cameroonian star has amassed 118 caps for his country, scoring on 56 occasions. With an equally impressive club career Eto’o ravaged Spanish defences in La Liga, and ripped apart Europe’s elite in the Champions League. Initially a Real Madrid youngster, his biggest impact was at rivals Barcelona, 108 goals in 145 games is a remarkable tally. Currently an Evertonian, helping guide Robbie Martinez youngsters, namely Lukaku to stardom.
6) Sunday Oliesh – Physical on the pitch, technically gifted, Sunday played for some top European teams such as Ajax, Dortmund and Juventus, all recognising his talents. Probably best remembered for scoring a screamer against Spain in World Cup 98. Sacked by Dortmund in 04 for punching Vahid Hashemian’s lights out whilst on loan at Bochum. NUTTER.
7) Lucas Radebe – Initially signed by Howard Wilkinson for Leeds as part of the deal for Masinga, Radebe gained recognition as Captain for Leeds under George Graham’s stewardship, sturdy, powerful and deceptively quick, Lucas caught the attention of the top clubs due to his consistent performances, reportedly turning down moves to Man Utd and AC Milan. The only Leeds fan I know Matt Crawley loves him!
8) Yaya Toure – Athletic goal scoring midfielder that dominates games when he fancies it. Yaya has fashioned himself into one of Europe’s finest midfielders, playing a vital role in Man City’s title success’. Tall and gangly, but with the vision to thread the ball through a hula hoop, he can destroy teams single handily. Not since Patrick Vieira graced the premier league has one midfielder controlled and bullied the centre of the park like Yaya.
9) Papiss Cisse – Unbelievable start to his Newcastle career, smashing in 7 goals in 7 games. Some real memorable goals too, including an unthinkable strike with the outside of his boot v Chelsea and a deft lob over Michel Vorm v Swansea. Papiss has taken some stick more recently, especially when Demba Ba jumped ship, but what I like about Papiss is his willingness to help his team, his work rate and he’s a proper nice chap, frequently engaging with young fans. Top bloke.
10) Steven Pienaar – This little lad is a right footballer. Magic feet, great link up play. Everton fans have undoubtedly seen and benefitted from Pienaar’s best years. Although a move to Spurs didn’t work out (nothing new there, Spurs doesn’t work out for a lot of people) he returned to Everton, where the Goodison fans love him. Scorer of spectacular goals and dazzling assists; he’s a true creative force.