As Nigeria and Cameroon meet in AFCON, it's personal thanks to longstanding history



Forty years after their first encounter, life at the Africa Cup of Nations has come full circle for Nigeria and Cameroon as they meet again at the venue of their first ever AFCON contest, the Stade Felix Houphoeut-Boigny in Abidjan.

For Nigeria, they will want to banish the memory of that first-ever tournament meeting with a victory.

In 1984, these two sides met for the first time in the Africa Cup of Nations at the same stadium where they will now face each other in the round of 16 this weekend. That was the beginning of AFCON's most storied rivalry with a total of seven meetings since.

Altogether, however, Nigeria and Cameroon have clashed in 17 competitive matches, with the Nigerians having the upper hand with nine wins to Cameroon's four. That record may be something of a surprise to many Nigerians, who assume that the Indomitable Lions have always had the better of the Eagles.

Nigeria's major wins came in a 2-1 defeat of Cameroon in the bronze medal-match of the 1992 AFCON, a 2-0 triumph in a 1990 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Ibadan, a 3-2 win in Yaounde in a 1970 World Cup qualifier, a 2-1 win in Monastir in a 2004 AFCON quarterfinal, a 4-0 win in Uyo in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier and a 3-2 win in Alexandria in a 2019 AFCON round-of-16 clash.

Three of those Cameroon wins were hugely significant, coming in the final matches of the Nations Cup in 1984, 1988 and 2000. That accounts for the majority of Cameroon's five African titles and the record still grates among Nigeria fans, especially the 2000 edition, which was won in Lagos when the Super Eagles co-hosted the tournament.

Cameroon's only other win in a competitive match came in August 1989, when Francois Omam Biyick scored the only goal in Yaounde that eliminated Nigeria from the race to the 1990 FIFA World Cup finals in Italy.

And therein lies the rub of the rivalry, especially from the Nigeria end: Cameroon's wins have either been tinged in controversy, or they have denied the Super Eagles silverware or a World Cup ticket.

In that 1988 Final win, Henry Nwosu -- and all of Nigeria -- thought he had given the Green Eagles (as they were known at the time) the lead when he met Same Okwaraji's centre with a brilliant header that sailed past Joseph Antoine-Bell. But the goal was inexplicably scratched by Mauritanian referee Idrissa Sarr. Cameroon went on to win with a penalty from Emmanuel Kunde.

In the 2000 Final, Cameroon stormed to a 2-0 lead through Samuel Eto'o Fils and then Patrick Mboma. But Nigeria clawed their way back. Chukwu Ndukwu halved the deficit, and then Austin Okocha powered a shot past Alioum Bokar to level things up and the game finished all tied. In the penalty shootout, Nwankwo Kanu missed his effort, but the headline-hogging moment was Victor Ikpeba's kick, which came crashing off the crossbar. Tunisian referee Mourad Daami ruled it off, but replays showed the ball had crossed the line. An entire nation was heartbroken when captain Rigobert Song powered in the winning kick.

The memory of that heartbreak, and the two previous finals losses, was carried into their next meeting, at the 2004 quarterfinals, when Nigeria fans believed the game was lost already after being drawn against the Lions. Striker John Utaka, who played in that game, told ESPN that it provided additional motivation to fire up the team

"We were aware that we had lost to them in finals, especially that one in 2000," Utaka said. "There was a lot of talk that history will repeat itself, so we took it personal. Especially me, because I had my captain playing in France at that time and he was having a go.

"The one thing we knew was that we did not want to lose again to them, and we were all on the same page on that, such that at one time, Kanu was even defending deep just to make sure they got opportunities.

"To lose that would have been like losing the final. It was a must-win for us and we brought intensity."


Nigeria, who beat the Ivory Coast in the group stage of AFCON, now enter the round of 16 and face Cameroon, a team that has been a proverbial thorn in the Super Eagles' side in high-stakes games. Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images
Nigeria, who beat the Ivory Coast in the group stage of AFCON, now enter the round of 16 and face Cameroon, a team that has been a proverbial thorn in the Super Eagles' side in high-stakes games. Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

Nigeria, who beat the Ivory Coast in the group stage of AFCON, now enter the round of 16 and face Cameroon, a team that has been a proverbial thorn in the Super Eagles' side in high-stakes games. Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

Utaka says the current iteration of Super Eagles must channel the same energy in order to win this game.

"The key to beating Cameroon will be intensity and focus," he told ESPN. "Because we are facing a very good team. We have played against them over the years and we know that when it comes to Nigeria, they tend to strengthen their armour.

"We have to bring intensity and stay focused from beginning to the end of the game, because this is a game that you don't want to slack. We have to win our duels, both on the ground and in the air, and then in the midfield, that is the heart of the game where the match will be decided.

"Once you own the midfield, you will be able to progress and find your strikers."

That midfield has been an issue for Nigeria in two games so far, but the good news for the Super Eagles is that Royal Antwerp midfielder Alhassan Yusuf is back from injury and trained with the team. He could return to provide the steel and combativeness needed to match the Cameroonians

Head coach Jose Peseiro, who appears to have built a solid defensive unit backed by an assured goalkeeper in Stanley Nwabali said in his press conference, that he wanted to not conceded

"I do not want to concede," said the Portuguese. "I want to score at least one. If we do this, we win."

Dove: A lot needs to improve for Nigeria at AFCON
Dove reacts to Nigeria's 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea at the Africa Cup of Nations.

That is a simple enough strategy, but a dangerous one. Cameroon have lethal marksman Vincent Aboubakar back from injury, and he can be a game winner. Utaka says the Super Eagles must nullify that threat

"We need to be solid defensively, because they can make you pay if you slack for even one minute," he said.

That much was evident the last time both teams met, at the 2019 tournament, where the Super Eagles went ahead through Odion Ighalo, but the Lions came back to lead 2-1 before Iwobi grabbed the winner in a 3-2 comeback win.

Incidentally, 11 of the players in that 2019 team have returned for the Super Eagles, while only four of the Cameron squad are in the current iteration. One of those was captain Ahmed Musa.

"That game was a tough duel and brought out the best in us," he said. "Especially when we went 1-2 down despite scoring first. In the dressing room, we told ourselves that we could not allow that to happen. We played for one another and we were happy to win at the end.

"Of course, we know the match on Saturday will be even tougher. The Cameroonians will be determined not to lose again, but we will give our very best and go for a win. We can do it again. Our aspiration is to win the trophy and nothing has changed that."

Just like they did in the group phase, Nigeria have roped in legends Olusegun Odegbami, Jay Jay Okocha, Augustine Eguavoen, Daniel Amokachi and Garba Lawal among dozens of Nigerian VIPs who travelled from Nigeria to Abidjan to support the team.

Eguavoen, currently NFF Technical Director, who was on-field captain for the squad that won in Tunisia in 1994, said: "Cameroon will always come with determination and grit. We have to be even more prepared for them and deploy the greater flair and flexibility that we have."

The stakes are high. The winner progresses to the quarterfinals, the loser goes home with nothing. Utaka is confident it can be done by the Super Eagles.

"The good thing is that we have a great team that is capable of beating them," he said. "Now we have to bring intensity and stay focused from beginning to the end of the game."



Keywords: Africa Cup of Nations Ivory Coast AFCON

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