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In 1974, The Leopards of the then Zaire were Africa’s best football team. They had won every continental tournament that year at both club and national levels (Vita Club beat Asante Kotoko for the Cup in 1973). They crowned it all by qualifying as Africa’s only representative at the World Cup in Germany which then was limited to 16 teams.
The Zairois team boasted players like, Kazadi, Kibonge, Lobilo, Mayanga, Kakoko and, perhaps, the greatest of them all, the legendary Tshinabu. This man once missed a crucial penalty in an important match against Kotoko (or was it the Black Stars – someone help me here, please) with Robert Mensah in goal, after which a missed penalty was called a “Tshinabu” in Ghana. Some of these guys were household names in Ghana since these men, at club level in teams like TP Engelbert, TP Mazembe and Vita Club, were thorns in the flesh of Ghana’s giants, Asante Kotoko and Black Stars itself. The Black Stars was then one of Africa’s best but we were finding it difficult to qualify for the World Cup despite our good performances at the Cup of Nations.
Africa had high hopes for Zaire who was in Germany to display the continent’s brand of soccer. And they had a good coach – a man named Blagoje Vidinic from Yugoslavia. Zaire was drawn in the same group as defending champions, Brazil, Scotland and the country of birth of their coach, Yugoslavia. The Zairois did well losing “only” 0-2 to Scotland in their first game. The world press praised the team, despite the loss. It was like an adult praising a child for doing some simple thing well. Then something happened in their second game against Yugoslavia. After 35 minutes of play, they were down by 0-6. They conceded three more goals in the second half to bring the tally to 9-0! None of the goals was a penalty or an own goal. It was a huge humiliation for the whole continent. But the team rose up again to lose by a respectable 0-3 in their last match against a Brazilian side featuring such players as Marinho, Jairzinho, Rivelino and Edu under coach Zagallo still playing the quintessential samba football before European tactical efficiency will later destroy that type of game. This was a time when Africans were not playing in Europe and the Zairois team comprised only players from the domestic league. The Yugoslav coach did not return to Zaire with the team – there was no need. He had fired himself from his job. Many reasons were given for that huge loss – the players were dissatisfied with something, the coach had connived with his countrymen, etc. but the game is still on record as a loss that did not help Africa’s footballing cause one bit. Fifa could still argue that the quality of the African game was far below that of Europe and South America and would deny us more places.
That was 36 years ago. Serbia, today, is not Yugoslavia but it forms the greatest chunk of that country that is left. Our victory over them is a well-deserved revenge for Africa that was long in coming. We have wiped out the Zairois humiliation. And we did it with a Serbian coach which makes it doubly satisfying. Oh no, I think people are reading too much into the coach’s reaction after the match. The man was simply relieved after a difficult match that he won. He was rushing out of the stadium and the Ghanaian second came to embrace him. He was in no mood for such an embrace and spurned him not because he was unhappy but because he was so happy he didn’t know what to do.
The victory is also a symbol of Africa’s progress in the game. We have really come a long way. These days, many African players are plying their trade in the European league playing the game exactly as the Europeans. There are Africans born in Europe who have chosen to play for the African countries of their immigrant parents. Today, if an African team loses by the odd margin to a European counterpart, it is because any team can lose to another and not because the African game, as a whole, is poorer.
Another manner in which the African game has improved is the clean way we play. This is a long cry from Cameroon’s successful 1990 tournament in Italy. They played well but they were often too rough on their opponents. But a look at the African performances so far in South Africa shows how better we have become. The Nigerian game was clean and the Black Stars let the ball and their feet do the work than physically intimidating their opponents and getting unnecessary cards.
The game has improved considerably on the continent but we are still far from our full potential. We need more local technical men especially better coaches at all levels of the game. We need more facilities and greater democracy, honesty and competence in the administration of the game. We need to bring our domestic leagues to a higher professional level.
We are all looking forward to the match against Australia which can be difficult. But for now, let us savour our sweet victory, and revenge, over Yugoslavia, sorry, Serbia…
Kofi Amenyo (email@example.com)
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