BY KUNLE SOLAJA
Perhaps it is better described as the first and the last. Today is the golden jubilee of Nigeria’s first continental success in football. It was on this date, 18 January 1973 that Nigeria beat Guinea 2-0 to win the gold medal of the 2nd All Africa Games at the National Stadium in Lagos.
Sunny Oyarekhua scored both goals for Nigeria in the 43rd and 63rd minute. In their way to the final match, the then Green Eagles opened their account with a 4-2 defeat of Ghana Black Stars in the opening match.
That was followed with a 2-2 draw as Algeria twice came from behind in what was the first encounter of both countries. Two days later on 12th January, Nigeria beat Tanzania 2-1 in their last Group A match and qualified for the semi finals.
The Nigerian team met Egypt on 14 January and won 4-2 after a first half 3-0 lead. The final match with Guinea was not as easy as the 2-0 scoreline may suggest. Skipper of the team was Victor Oduah.
In a 2007 chat, he revealed that most of the defenders were already running out of gas as the Guinea pilled up pressure in an attempt to salvage the match. Nigeria’s first choice goalkeeper, Emmanuel Okala had been injured and had to be replaced by Eyo Essien.
Even though Nigeria placed second behind Egypt on the overall medals table, the football gold medal was celebrated as if Nigeria had won the Africa Cup of Nations which the team had failed to qualify for since their inaugural participation in 1963.
Fifty years down the line, the Nigerian team has failed to win the gold medal at the All Africa Games including at another edition the country hosted in Abuja in 2003.
The tale of failure began on 28 July 1978 when the Green Eagles lost 1-0 to hosts, Algeria in the final match of the 3rd All Africa Games at the 5th July Stadium in Algiers.
Parading a strong side, which included the returnee Thompson Usiyen, Nigeria lost to the hosts on the artificial turf as Ali Bencheick scored the deciding goal in the 33rd minute of the match.
The match that ended the golden era for Nigeria’s football teams at the African Games
Ever since winning the silver medal, the gold has eluded the Nigerian men football team. The first indication was when the team failed to qualify for the next episode at Nairobi in 1987 after being controversially eliminated by Cote d’Ivoire in two-legged encounter in which Samson Siasia made his international debut.
In the next edition in 1991, a strong Nigerian side that included Emmanuel Amuneke and Tijani Babangida among others crashed out in the semi-final to Cameroon and could only contest for the bronze medal.
It was also a bronze medal for Nigeria at the Harare ’95 while they failed to qualify for South Africa 1999 just as it happened in 2007 and 2011.
On home soil in 2003, Nigeria lost the gold medal match to Cameroon just as they lost to Burkina Faso at the last edition in Morocco.
The next African Games will be held in Ghana later this year.