Friday, August 15, 2008


If there is one place where African football can proudly stake its pride of place on the game’s high table, then it has to be in the Men’s Olympic Football tournament. In stark contrast to the World Cup where the Quarter Final double act of Cameroon and Senegal remains the continent’s only memorable excursions, Africa has some fond memories of the event at the Olympic in the past few editions of the global games.

That having been said, it's only natural that many great African football stars of the past and present have used the Olympic Games as a launch pad into the international stage. Names of great players like Kalusha Bwalya (Zambia), Samuel Kuffour (Ghana), Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro and John Obi Mikel (all Nigeria) immediately come to mind. Personally, am very nostalgic of the 1988 Seoul Olympic because that was my first exposure to the event at the Olympic level. The one match that stood out from the rest was that unforgettable Zambia vs Italy encounter. I particularly remember two things about this match: one is the relative ease with which the Zambians, non-entities then, dispatched the highly rated Azzuris (4-0 was the final score with Kalusha Bwalya grabbing a stunning hat trick) and two is the rather unorthodox celebration style that the Zambians adopted; laying side by side flat on their backs with outstretched limbs.

Needless to say, this was year of the ‘Great Kalu’, Zambia’s greatest footballer of all time. His heroics at Seoul earned him the Africa Footballer of the Year Award (1988) and soon he was on his way to PSV Eindhoven to hone his blooming professional career. But there was more to this great team than just their mercurial captain. This in my judgment rates among the best national squads ever to emerge from Africa. Were it not for the tragic airplane disaster off the coast of Gabon, a few years later, that snuffed the life out of this golden generation, by now Zambia’s name might have been engraved on the rolls of honour of Continental champions and perhaps the southern African country might even have been one of the continent’s flag bearers at the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Of course, by some stroke of luck Kalusha Bwalya wasn’t part of the ill-fated traveling party. The legend lives on and the rest, as they say, is history.

While it’s a widely acknowledged fact that Zambia and Ghana were the forerunners in Africa’s quest for glory, it is our inordinately flamboyant and boisterous brothers from Nigeria who finally bequeathed us with the honour of a first gold medal in event at the Olympic. That was back in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. And what a spectacle the ‘Super Eagles’ were! From their cool yet swashbuckling style of play on the pitch, orchestrated by the languid Nwankwo Kanu (just like Bwalya before him, he was voted 1996 Africa Footballer of the Year), their adoring brass band supporters to their somewhat hilarious celebrations whenever they scored a goal, the Nigerians were simply a sight to behold. Speaking of goals and celebrations, Celestine Babayaro’s imitation a drunkard with that staggered walk after scoring with a powerful header in the final match against Argentina definitely took the prize for the funniest celebration. Just for the records, in beating Argentina in this match, the all conquering Nigerians achieved a rare double over South American aristocrats having made a remarkable comeback in the Semi Final to brush aside a strong Brazilian side that boasted the likes of Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos within its ranks. In the end, so charmed by the charismatic ways of the Nigerians was the Atlanta crowd that it gave the ‘Super Eagles’ a standing ovation like no other at the final whistle.

Not to be outdone by their eternal rivals, four years later in Sidney, it was the turn of Patrick Mboma to lead the 'Indomitable Lions' of Cameroon to the podium to receive the winners’ medal. Myth has it that ever since the inaugural official Men's Olympic Football Tournament was played at the London games in 1908 an interesting 20-year pattern has recurred to provide the most memorable football tournaments in the Games’ history. It still remains to be seen whether Beijing 2008 will provide a continuation of this curious sequence.

1 comment:

Redondo said...

De' Stefano, i couldn't agree with you more. Your razor sharp memory amazes me. Your reminder of Babayaros drunkard celebration has brought a big smile on my face.

I must say that my love affair with the Super Eagles was consummated at the Atlanta 96. The likes of Kanu, Oliseh, Babayaro, Amokachi, Emunike et al etched their names in my heart for eternity.

Having watched a few of the African sides at this years Olympics, am almost convinced that the title is Africa's for the taking yet again. Nigeria, Cote de Voire and Cameroon have all qualified for the quarter finals with relative ease.
As they say though, he who laughs last laughs loudest. Lets see if Africa does us proud again