The final of the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations, in which Nigeria faced off against arch-rivals Cameroon, is a game best remembered for the controversy that surrounded Victor Ikpeba’s penalty kick in the shoot-out, which was counted as a miss despite replays showing the ball had bounced down well over the line.
In reality, that moment aside, the game was pretty straightforward: Cameroon dominated the first half, the second was pretty even and Nigeria dominated extra time.
The big decision before this game lay with Jo Bonfrere, and it involved flying winger Tijani Babangida whose brace had won the semi-final against South Africa. He had only started due to the suspension of Jay Jay Okocha, but his pace and trickery on the ball offered an interesting option. In the end, Bonfrere made a brave call and left him out, re-installing Okocha.
Cameroon named their strongest side. Samuel Eto’o paired Patrick Mboma upfront, both men chasing the tournament Golden Boot. Pierre Wome was recalled and played in midfield.
Nigeria set up in a system that could broadly be described as 4–4–2, but played centre-back Godwin Opara at right-back rather than Gbenga Okunowo. Also, Okocha was fielded in a very narrow left-role, allowing him to roam but causing tremendous problems as the game went on. Cameroon played their customary 3–5–2, with the only point of interest being Rigobert Song and Raymond Kalla often switching sides depending on what side Raphael Chukwu Ndukwe was. This was to ensure Kalla was always the spare man, Song aggressively picked up the striker.
Of course, a back 3 is perfect for containing two strikers; in the defensive phase, the spare man at the back is always available to mop up, in the attacking phase, the spare man helps to triangulate and play around the offensive pressure. However, Kanu was always a slippery customer, and was very happy to drift and drop off the front line looking for short balls into feet.
That would have left the Indomitable Lions with a surplus at the back, but they played the Arsenal man well by tracking him all the way into deep positions. It helped that in Song and Njanka they had two players very comfortable on the ball (the latter scored one of the goals of the tournament at the World Cup in 1998) and very physical. On 57 minutes, the Liverpool defender earned a booking for a foul on Kanu in advance of the halfway line, even though he had players covering!
The Cameroonians started much the brighter of the two sides, the excellent Marc-Vivien Foe dictating the play adeptly. Kanu dropped goalside of him but never really closed him down, and he hit quite a number of precise forward passes to start attacks. His opposite number in terms of responsibility was Sunday Oliseh, but the Nigerian captain looked off colour, having barely recovered from a bout of malaria, and his trademark cross-field passes were hit-and-miss.
At least he had the right idea. The 3–5–2 is weak on the flanks, with the wing-back up having to face two opponents. This made Bonfrere’s choice of Opara at right-back puzzling: it meant that Finidi had to win a footrace against Salomon Olembe in order to make hay down the right, a near impossibility. On the other flank, the problem was much the same, but this time the cause was further up the pitch. Okocha’s narrowness meant Geremi was free to scamper forward, and his understanding with the energetic Lauren, who charged forward and drifted wide with intelligence, tormented Celestine Babayaro all game long. The Chelsea left-back took till the 38th minute to get into a threatening position in enemy territory.
Cameroon opened the scoring on 26 minutes as Eto’o got goalside of the Super Eagles defence from a free kick. Five minutes later it was two as Opara got turned with embarrassing ease by Eto’o who slipped in Mboma to finish through Ike Shorunmu’s legs. Nigeria looked ragged: no penetration down the flanks, zero movement upfront from the painfully static Chukwu, Okocha barely in the game, Furo Iyenemi and Taribo West struggling to cope with Mboma and Eto’o in tandem. This was where Bonfrere made a daring move.
Bonfrere switched to a 3–4–2–1, giving up all pretence of Okocha as a winger. Kanu played permanently in a deep position away from the centre-backs and on Foe’s blindside. Finidi was as granted more freedom to get forward, with Adepoju often occupying a position in the right channel, both in the build-up and in defensive transition; Opara was the right-sided centre back.
Nigeria now had numerical superiority in midfield and started to come into the game as the first half came to a close. Chukwu pulled one back in the first minute of stoppage time; it was instructive that it was the first time in the game he and Kanu were 2v2 against Kalla and Geremi. His deeper position had allowed the African Footballer of the Year to sneak in unnoticed. It is one thing for a centre-back to follow a striker into deep positions, but quite another to move out of his zone to mark an attacking midfielder: the role Kanu was now playing.
Bonfrere brought on team wildcard Julius Aghahowa for the goalscorer Chukwu. It was certainly the right decision, and it would arguably have been more profitable if Aghahowa’s pace had started the game, or even Victor Ikpeba’s for that matter. However, the Dutchman failed to realise the importance of Kanu’s deeper position late in the first half, and moved him again into the forward line, contriving to sabotage his own brilliant substitution.
Nevertheless, the Super Eagles were level two minutes into the second period. It is said that the hallmark of great players is their ability to affect a game even when not playing well and, by this criterion, Okocha delivered massively with a belter from over 25 yards.
Joseph Desiree Job came on for Eto’o and Tijani Babangida came on for Finidi George in the second half, in what were essentially straight swaps. Aghahowa’s pace was more useful in running the channels, but ultimately it proved fruitless because the passing was not quite right, comprising mainly of lofted balls over the top for Aghahowa to chase.
A further shift to a 3–2–3–2-ish set-up meant Oliseh and Adepoju went through a lot of work protecting the wide areas, depending on which side of the pitch the ball was on (interestingly, this is a concept Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola has experimented with this past season, with mixed results; though he has preferred true full-backs in the ‘central full-back’ role rather than central midfielders).
Cameroon tired as the second half wore on. The brilliant Lauren, having run the Nigerian midfield ragged for most of the game with Geremi as a twin terror, simply could not keep up the intensity. Still, their solid defensive platform meant they were never really worried.
Tijani Babangida played exclusively in an attacking capacity after being introduced, and suddenly Olembe had a real challenge on his hands. The Cameroonian was quicker overall but, in short bursts, Babangida got the better of him, most notably to force a fine save from Boukar Alioum in extra time. The late introduction of Ikpeba did nothing to stop the game’s inexorable slide to a penalty shoot-out.
In the end, the team with the better organization won through. Cameroon completed a hattrick of Nations Cup wins, all at the expense of Nigeria. This game will always be remembered for that penalty miss, and its concomitant sense of injustice suffered, but only one team set out its stall and challenged the other to adapt again and again.
Whisper it quietly, but the better team won.