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From Ivory Coast To Ivory Coast

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It was March 1984. The attention of the whole African continent was captivated by football for two whole weeks as terrestrial radio and TV stations beamed live and delayed footballing scenes and traditional newspapers carried news reports from Bouake and Abidjan, the two Ivorian cities that hosted the matches of the 14th African Nations Cup. And what enthralling matches they were.
At that time, only eight countries got to contend for the trophy at the Nations Cup, so qualification for the tournament was stiffer, and playing both stage and final rounds was tougher than now that up to 24 teams are participating.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the 1984 African Nations Cup was the unveiling of Ivory Coast the host country as a force to be reckoned with in football in Africa, like it would be with host Senegal in 1992 and South Africa in 1996. For each of these occasions, it was a show of signs of what was to come from these respective countries. For Ivory Coast in 1984, it wasn’t a totally unfamiliar reckoning as the country had shone to a degree in the past, particularly in the 1968 and 1970 editions of the Nations Cup when legendary ace player Laurent Pokou’s 14 goals, six in 1968 and eight in 1970, lifted the country to some prominence in African football, though Ivory Coast did not win the Nations Cup at that time. Laurent Pokou’s record of 14 goals at the Nations Cup would stand for over three decades, until Samuel Etoo of Cameroun came around to smash it, taking his own goal tally to 18 in six African Nations Cup appearances.

The pedigree Ivory Coast was building with their performance in the late sixties however got deflated in the seventies so much that by 1984 when the country was hosting the Nations Cup, there wasn’t much hope for the country to win and lift the trophy on home soil like it was earlier when Ghana hosted and won in 1978, and Nigeria two years later. And win Ivory Coast did not as host in 1984! The Ivorien team didn’t even have a place in the semi-finals. At the final match played at Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny,

Cameroon defeated Nigeria 3-1 to win its first Nations Cup title. Nigeria had earlier edged out Egypt in a tension-soaked semifinal match, coming back from two goals down to beat the Egyptian team on penalties. It was to be the first of the three occasions that goalkeeper PeterRufai’s saving hands would help Nigeria carry the day at the semi-final round of the Nations Cup, the second time at the 1998 Nations Cup in Morocco, and the third at the 1994 edition in Tunisia. Equally pulsating encounters these three crucial semifinal matches were.

The final match of the 1984 Nations Cup in Abidjan was to be a different ball game as Nigeria met its match in Cameroon, a football country that gave an impressive performance at the World Cup in Spain two years earlier, bowing out of the global competition without losing a match, despite playing eventual winners Italy and semifinalist Poland. Things were going Nigeria’s way early in that final match when MudaLawal scored the opener for Nigeria, but the Cameroonians came back forcefully into the game to subdue the opposition, slicing the Nigerian defence with deft dribbles and passes, and resultant goals from ReneN’Djeya, TheophileAbega and Ernest Ebongue. Cameroon would later beat Nigeria to the Nations Cup two more times, in 1988 and 2000, in a more painful manner for the losers. Of the three defeats that Nigeria suffered from Cameroon at the final of the Nations Cup, the 1984 episode was the one Nigeria had little to regret or complain about. They were beaten by a more experienced and resourceful Cameroonian side, whose dominance in African football was just beginning at that time.

What made the 1984 Nations Cup tournament a point of reference here wasn’t just the emergence of Cameroon as a superpower in African football or the signals sent by the promising Ivory Coast team that they would one day, rule Africa, a potential that was realised eight years after at Senegal ‘92. It was something outside the field of play, a socioeconomic change happening to the African continent and the rest of the world, which European countries particularly would take great advantage of.
The mid-eighties saw the beginning of the exodus of African players from their home soil to foreign countries to ply their trade and make a name and fortune for themselves. It was an upwardly mobile development that would change the complexion of the game contextually in Africa and, literally, in the world.

Before this time, an average African national team had most of its players in the local league, and hardly would you find a black man in a team of white men.
The iconic French team of the mid eighties that won the European Championship the same 1984 and got to the semis of the 1982 and 1986 World Cup perhaps only had Jean Tigana as dark complexioned player. John Barnes, England’s gifted left winger of Jamaican descent, was only given a chance of 15 minutes to play at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico after England were down to Argentina by two most remarkable goals from Diego Maradona in the quarter-final match.

Barnes would make a positive mark on the game in the short period remaining by providing a notable assist that reduced the tally and making the score 1-2, with many English fans wondering why he had not been fielded from the beginning of the match and the tournament.

Today, English national team coaches conveniently field black players, and the French team that got to the final of the last World Cup in Qatar had more black players, mostly of African roots, than white. French superlative forward, KylianMbappe, who scored a famous hat trick at the final, is originally from Cameroon.

The development of African players seeking greener pastures has had a mixed contribution to the game in Africa. From Ivory Coast 1984 to Ivory Coast 2023 AFCON edition being held in 2024, the development has brought much exposure to African players and they have through that exposure been able to perform on the biggest stage of football for club and country and climb the professional football ladder to the highest level.
In 1987, RabahMadjer of Algeria scored a memorable back-heel goal in the final of the European Champions Cup, later to be renamed European Champions League, helping his club FC Porto to win the coveted trophy.

In the 1993 edition, AbediAyew ‘Pele’ of Ghana provided the assist that saw Marseille beat AC Milan 1-0, though Marseille was later stripped of their victory through boardroom decision. In 1995, Finidi George and KanuNwankwo of Nigeria won the Champions League with Ajax of Amsterdam, and nearly made it double the following year, with Ajax narrowly losing to Juventus in the final.

Samuel Kuffour of Ghana also won the Champions League with Bayern Munich in 2001, after narrowly losing it to Manchester United two years before. Samuel Etoo of Cameroon came with something special, winning three Champions League titles in a space of five years, 2006 to 2010, two with Barcelona and one with Inter Milan, scoring in both finals with Barcelona.

In 2012, it was the turn of Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast and Mikel Obi of Nigeria, with Drogba heading in the crucially vital equaliser and scoring the last kick in the penalty shootout that gave his club, Chelsea, the trophy.

Sadio Mane of Senegal and Mohammed Salah of Egypt were at it in 2019, helping Liverpool to win the Champions League title by beating Tottenham Hotspur in the final.
Mane’s effort won a penalty which Salah converted for Liverpool’s first goal in the first half, while the second goal that sealed the victory would come in the second half.

Just twelve months before then, Mane had netted an equaliser in the Champions League final as well, but Liverpool lost that 2018 final to Real Madrid by three goals to one, a loss many football fans owed to the rather reckless tackle on Mohamed Salah in the first half of the match, which didn’t allow him to continue with the match because of the injury sustained.

Manchester City would have their feel of the trophy in 2023 with RiyadMahrezof Algeria playing his role. These were no mean achievement, and these are no mere players. These are world-class playmakers and strikers whose play contributed to the crowning of their team as champions.

Their exposure to the heights of professional football in Europe enhanced their potential and really brought the best out of them.

Of what effect is this development on football on the home scene? At what expense have we traded our players? Before getting into what may be considered the downhill effect of these dynamic changes, let’s go uphill a bit further to see how it has really helped.
Two tournaments before the 1984 Nations Cup in Ivory Coast, Nigeria hosted the rest of the African continent in 1980.

The Eagles really flew high, defeating Algeria in the final 3-0 to win the Nations Cup for the first time right in front of teeming home fans. And worthy champions they were, as the team was solid in all departments. defence, midfield and attack.

Same year, the same glorious Nigerian team went to the Olympics in Moscow as an African representative in the football event of the games, a competition most Grade A footballing countries don’t come for with their Grade A team. Guess what, the Nigerians had nightmarish encounters, losing 1-3 to Kuwait, drawing with Czechoslovakia 1-1, and losing 0-1 to Colombia.
Perhaps the only tenable explanation for that woeful performance was that the Nigerian players were not so exposed to playing outside the African continent and with non-African teams and players.

Fast forward to 1996, just sixteen years later, Nigeria went to the Atlanta Olympics and beat every other team to the gold medal including Brazil and Argentina, which this dream team of Nigeria defeated in the semi final and final match respectively.
That semifinal win over mighty Brazil was extra special and most memorable as one of Africa’s finest and most exciting football moments to date.

What was the difference between the Nigerian Olympic football team of 1980 in Moscow, and that of 1996 in Atlanta? Exposure? That must be. Talents abounded in both teams, no doubt, but one team had a crop of players playing in top professional football leagues in Europe, alongside and against top professional football players from across the world, while the other team had players that were contained potentially and professionally to the level of football development around Africa then.

The difference was really clear, and one can only imagine what and how it would be if the likes of SegunOdegbami, MudaLawal, AdokiyeAmiesimaka, Felix Owolabi, Henry Nwosu and others of the 1980 Nigerian team had the opportunity at their prime to showcase their immense football talents beyond Africa.
They would have been superstars the same way the likes of KanuNwankwo, Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Emmanuel Amunike and the rest of the 1996 Olympic team. Could it be that Segun Odegbami and other exceptional players of that era in Nigeria and across Africa came before their time?

Maybe, they didn’t. And it wasn’t as if they never enjoyed the attention and some level of fame at least on the local, national or continental level.

Stadia back then used to be filled to capacity with fans watching these players display their skills in the local league every weekend. The fact remains, something happened to football the world over from the mid-eighties, a departure from what used to be the norm, from old to modern to advanced, from potential to prospect to realisation of such prospect within the confines of what is permitted and allowed by football systems and regulations.

Post 1984, leagues in Europe opened up more than before for foreign players from other countries and continents to come in, and the pattern of football in the major leagues changed.
A league that had been known for ‘kick and follow’ game pattern, a pattern of thrusting the ball forward usually from the defence line hoping the attackers will get an aerial advantage to create chances and score, got changed to keeping the ball more on the ground.

The rules and conventions of the game also got adjusted here and there to accommodate the change, favoring fair and forward play. A goalkeeper who could hold a back pass from his player before can no longer do that except it is from a header.
With the change in pattern and rules come more precision and accuracy in referee’s decision-making, and the latest and most defining move on that is the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), a technological concept suggested for decades but introduced within the last decade for monitoring and clarification of happenings on the field — for moments that such clarification will be needed If the VAR technology had been embraced as suggested long before now, Nigeria would probably not have lost to Cameroon the Nations Cup trophy both in 1998 and 2000.

If Henry Nwosu’soverruled goal in 1988 and Victor Ikpeba’s disallowed penalty goal in 2000 had been given a second look and rightly upheld by VAR, the outcome could have been different.
Football has really changed now to ensure that such decisive moments are more precisely and accurately judged.

Perhaps the most significant transformation that has happened to football is in the area of commerce as sport has become a huge business.
Football clubs in major leagues in Europe have become top brands, and their players a major attraction of their club brand. Great players with great followership have become brands on their own. In 1992, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) fashioned the European Champions League from the former European Cup to make the competition of league champions in Europe more prestigious, and with that greater prestige comes a multiplied level of commercialisation. Manchester City, the champions of the last edition, reportedly got a whopping 20 million Euros as prize money from UEFA for winning the competition.

You can imagine how much money is circulating around the yearly competition.

Where is Africa in all these? The continent at the moment is putting up her best to showcase to the world the best of football, and the attention of the footballing world is on Ivory Coast, the host of this 2023 AFCON.
The standard of football is expected to be high because African players from the major leagues in Europe and other countries of the world are here to play for their country. All the changes and transformations that have happened to football since Ivory Coast hosted last in 1984 will be on display to a very good degree. Trust the Confederation of African Football (CAF). The modern pattern, rules, commerce and technology, will be evident to a degree such that a fictitious character waking up from the longest of sleep after watching the 1984 Nations Cup in Ivory Coast to see the 2023 edition in the same Ivory Coast will easily spot all the apparentchanges.
He will wonder, however in the same breath, why the major players in the African tournament are now foreign-based, playing for clubs in Europe, and not Asante Kotoko, Asec Mimosas, Enugu Rangers, Esperance, Al Ahly, TP Mazembe, etc. like it was before his proverbial sleep.

That comical figure, who imaginarily slept off after Ivory Coast 1984, and is just waking before Ivory Coast 2023, assuming for a moment that is a true experience, will then want to know what the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is doing to ensure the standard of football in Africa gets to an appreciable level that can keep some or many of our players within the continent and yethaving a fulfilling and productive football career despite globalization and without being deprived of the necessary exposure that will make them a football superstar.
He will want to see the modern patterns, practices, rules, conventions, technology and commerce featured, used and utilised not just on the big stage of the African Nations Cup as we will likely see in Ivory Coast AFCON 2023, but on the various national leagues and FA championships, down to the grassroots — like what we had before his deep sleep.

He will want to see some of our best players in our own leagues again, our club sides having strong fan bases like English Premier League and La Liga clubs, our stadia filled to capacity every weekend, just like it used to be before he went to sleep. He will want to see how, from Ivory Coast 1984 to Ivory Coast 2023, since that period of time is in the past, the lessons that CAF has learnt and its readiness to work on those lessons so that when Ivory Coast will have the opportunity of hosting the Nations Cup again, maybe in another forty years, African football would have moved uphill not downhill, counting its gains and highlighting its advancement even to the grassroots, and not the other way round. That, if African football, that proverbial character, has truly woken up from her sleep.


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