#AFCON2023 – The Making Of A Spectacle
By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
In 1963, something unprecedented happened in the world of football: a goalkeeper, the legendary Lev Yashin of the then Soviet Union, was voted the European Footballer of the Year. In that same year Ghana hosted and won the 4th edition of the African Cup of Nations (AfCON). It was a mere six years after the formation of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 1957.
Goalkeepers did not usually feature in the award, let alone win it. But in winning the European Footballer of the Year, Yashin did something even more unthinkable – he insisted that the prize went to the wrong man. The prize, he said, should have gone to someone he considered even better than himself in the business. His name? Vladimir Beara.
Beara, who spent his club career between Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade in Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavia, was known as “the ballet dancer with the hands of steel” and described as “the greatest goalkeeper you’ve never heard of.” Through much of the decade of the 1950s, Vladimir Beara kept goal as Yugoslavia emerged as a leading force in global soccer. In 1952, he was goalkeeper in the silver-winning Yugoslav team at the 1952 Olympics in the gold medal match, ultimately losing to the great Hungarian side of Ferenc Puskás and József Bozsik.
Beara, who received 60 caps for Yugoslavia, was in goal again when they lost to West Germany in the quarter-finals of the 1954 World Cup in a match most expected them to win. On the day, Beara was limited by injury. At the head of the Football Association of Yugoslavia then was Rato Dugonjić, a senior official of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ), who, as the competition got underway, felt it was his duty to pep up the team.
Football then was nothing remotely approaching the mega-industry it has become today. Soccer stars then were artistes not technicians, who played “romantic football” for the joy to themselves and their communities and for pride to their countries. Ahead of the 1954 World Cup, Mr. Dugonjić promised the national team of Yugoslavia that each would receive a Vespa scooter if they got through to the knockout phase. Italy produced the scooter then and the average price was reputed to be about $100.
Having fulfilled their own side of the bargain, the team received on the day of the match with West Germany, a visit from Mr. Dugonjić and the high command of the Yugoslavia FA. But instead of the promised scooter, the FA president informed the team that there were no scooters and pretty much accused them of seeking personal advancement – like the much maligned bourgeoisie – when most of their compatriots were struggling to eke out a living. Out of nowhere, the country descended on the team who put in an uninspired shift against West Germany, dutifully losing by a margin of 2-0.
Long after retirement from active football, in the 1970s, Vladimir Beara turned up in Cameroon as goalkeeping coach of the country’s national football team, the Indomitable Lions. It was Africa’s season of romantic football too, defined by interminable rivalry between neighbouring countries in Equatorial Africa, including Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria.
This rivalry emerged in the 1970s. Introduced primarily by colonists as an instrument of the mythical civilizing mission of Europeans around the continent in the 19th century, African football took time to capture global attention.
Egypt participated in the second edition of the soccer World Cup in 1934 long before the formation of Confederation of African Football (CAF) but, thereafter, it was only in 1970 that a team from the continent would participate in the competition on behalf of the continental confederation. Four years earlier, in 1966, Africa received half a slot with the International Football Federation (FIFA), requiring that the best African national team should square off against the best from the Asian confederation for one slot in the World Cup. The continent declined such a derisory offer and boycotted the 1966 World Cup in England.
In 1970, FIFA improved its offer, enabling African nations to undertake a competition for the sole slot available. Morocco won it and went on to become CAF’s first representative to the World Cup.
In those years, it seemed, the fate of African teams broadly reflected the fortunes of their politics. Egypt and Ethiopia, two of only four countries from Africa at the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, competed in the first AfCON final in 1957, with Egypt emerging winner. Two years later, in 1959, the winner was unchanged. The 1962 final was a repeat of the inaugural in 1957 with Ethiopia this time emerging the winner. The following year, Ghana, a mere six years old as an independent country, joined them on the winners podium after seeing off Sudan.
Through the decade of the 1960s, with the exception of the 1968 finals which went to the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, then called Congo-Kinshasa), the AfCON belonged nearly entirely to the African countries which had won independence before 1960, namely Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and Sudan
Ghana emerged as the dominant force in African football in that decade powered by a glut of natural talent and of club sides with deep roots like the Accra Hearts of Oak, Sekondi Hasacas, and Ashanti Kotoko. In goal, it had arguably the first African goalkeeping superstar, the legendary Robert Mensah.
Mensah began his career with the Mysterious Ebusua Dwarfs in his native Cape Coast before becoming Ghana’s national goalkeeper in 1968. At club level, he also starred for Kotoko. Kotoko’s main continental competition came from Tout-Puissant Englebert of Congo-Kinshasa. On 29 October, 1971, Mensah was stabbed to death outside a bar in Tema and, the following month, Kotoko controversially lost the Finals of the African Cup of Champion Clubs to Tout-Puissant.
That decade of the 1970s was to witness the emergence of new forces and faces in Africa football. From Cameroon, three football clubs dominated the scene namely Canon and Tonerre Kalala in the capital city of Yaoundé and Union de Douala in the Atlantic littoral of the commercial capital, Douala.
Cameroon’s rise in Africa’s soccer sweepstakes then owed much to the improbable emergence at the same time of two goalkeepers who would become arguably the greatest in their trade in Africa: Thomas Nkono and Joseph-Antoine Bell. At the national team, Beara coached them both. At club level, the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, named after Cameroon’s founding president, was their shrine. That great Cannon team was full of artistes, including Emmanuel Kunde in defence and Theophile Abega, possibly the greatest midfielder the continent ever produced.
Next door, Nigeria won the soccer gold medal in the All African Games in Lagos in 1973, effectively announcing its continental ambitions. In parallel with Beara in Cameroon, another Yugoslav national arrived in Nigeria to mastermind the rise of Nigeria’s national team. Tiko Jelisavčić (Father Tiko), whose playing career in Partizan Belgrade paralleled Beara’s in Red Star, coached Nigeria to successive third place finishes in the AfCON in 1976 and 1978. In 1980, the team went two better, emerging champions for the first time under Brazilian, Otto Gloria at the expense of Morocco.
Father Tiko’s tenure as Coach of Nigeria’s national team prospered on the back of the new talent. In goal, there was Emmanuel Okala and at the centre of defence, the commanding Christian Chukwu, both of Enugu Rangers International Football Club. In central midfield, there was Mudashiru Lawal of IICC Shooting Stars. Between them, these two teams provided the core of the skills to rival Cameroon’s.
In those days, some countries were regarded as minnows in the African game. That era is long gone. For proof, this week, the knockout rounds of the 34th edition of the AfCON get underway in the absence of some traditional powers of African football including Algeria, Ghana, and Tunisia. Cameroon and Nigeria will renew their rivalry as will Egypt and the DRC. Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania guarantee that there will be new faces in the later rounds of the competition.
Senegal continues to look ominous but tournament football always has a sting in its tail. The African game may no longer be all about art and romance. It has new faces but some old rivalries remain. Whatever happens, it continues to guarantee story lines that resonate beyond what 22 men mediated by be-whistled men and women in black do with the round leather.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]