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Africa’s long road to golden glory

South Africa’s qualification for the 2000 Olympics in Australia came at a high-water mark for Africa in the football tournament. The reigning champions were Nigeria’s ‘Dream Team’, Ghana had finished third in 1992, and Cameroon would go on to win Gold in Sydney.

Since then, second- and third-place finishes for Nigeria (in 2008 and 2016 respectively) have been Africa’s best performances.

It took 16 years for another South African Under-23 squad to emulate the Class of 2000, qualifying for the finals of 2016 under coach Owen da Gama. Again South Africa bowed out in the group phase, this time without a single win to show for their efforts.

They have again qualified for the 2020 finals, although David Notoane and his side will have to wait at least a year to play in the Olympics due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

South Africa’s first entry into Olympic football was in the qualifying rounds for the 1996 event, but Mich d’Avray’s boys got nowhere near to Atlanta, losing 5-2 on aggregate to Burundi, including a 4-1 away loss in what was then a war-torn country.

African teams had made their mark on the Olympics long before South Africa’s belated entry post-apartheid. As ever, Egypt were the trailblazers.


The first winners were Denmark, who defeated two scratch sides (from Greece and Turkey) to take Gold in 1896. By 1920, when Egypt became Africa’s first entrants, the quality of participants had improved, and the number of entrants had grown to 14.

Egypt lost 2-1 to Italy to drop out of the tournament at the first round, but were back in 1924 when they stunned Hungary 3-0 before losing in the next round. In 1928 Egypt thrashed Turkey 7-1 and beat Portugal 2-1 before losing 6-0 to Argentina in the semifinals. They were then demolished by Italy in the 3rd place match, losing 11-3.

The Los Angeles Games in 1932 did not have a football tournament, but football resumed for the 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, though Egypt went out in the first round. When the Olympics resumed after World War Two, in London in 1948, the Egyptians again bowed out after just one game. In 1952 they beat Chile 5-4 before succumbing 3-1 to Germany.

Egypt did not enter a football team for the Melbourne Games in 1956; the distance to Australia dissuaded many from entering. And it was Tunisia that qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Italy, but drawn into a group with Denmark, Argentina and Poland, they lost three out of three.

Africa and Asia were guaranteed three slots for the 1964 Olympics, which opened the way for other nations to strut their stuff on the global stage. Ghana and Morocco joined Egypt in qualifying for Tokyo, and while Morocco went home without a win, Egypt and the Ghanaians drew praise for their displays.

Egypt (known as the United Arab Republic at the time) held Brazil 1-1 in their opening group game, then lost 5-1 to Czechoslovakia before bouncing back with a 10-0 destruction of South Korea, with Moustafa Reyadh scoring six. Ghana topped their group, drawing 1-1 with Argentina and beating hosts Japan 3-2. This set up a quarterfinal between the two African nations, and the Egyptians won convincingly, beating Ghana 5-1.

It all unraveled in the semifinals when Hungary thrashed Egypt 6-0. They then lost 3-1 to East Germany in the 3rd place match. This was Egypt’s last Games match until 1984.

Ghana again qualified in 1968, along with Guinea and Nigeria, but this was not a good tournament for Africa as all three bowed out in the group phase. Guinea did manage to beat Colombia and Ghana drew two matches, but only after losing badly to Israel.

In 1972 Ghana again disappointed, and slunk home without a single point from their group. Debutants Sudan also failed to gain a point, but Morocco progressed from their group, finishing second behind the Germans after thrashing Malaysia 6-0. But they lost all three matches in the second phase, succumbing to Poland, the Soviet Union and Denmark.

There were no African participants at the 1976 Games – Africa boycotting in protest at the All Black Rugby tour of apartheid South Africa, but 1980 presented an opportunity to Africa’s three entrants as many Western European teams boycotted in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

However, Nigeria and Zambia finished bottom of their groups, leaving Algeria to represent Africa with pride. With future stars Lakhdar Belloumi and Rabah Madjer in their side, Algeria beat Syria 3-0, lost 1-0 to East Germany and drew 1-1 with Spain, finishing above the Spanish on goal-difference.

Egypt were back after a long absence, joined by Cameroon and Morocco in the USA for the 1984 Olympics. This time, a tit-for-tat boycott meant the absence of the powerful East German and Soviet Union teams.

Yugoslavia, although a socialist country, were no friends of the Soviets, and refused to boycott – they were present and ready to give Cameroon an Olympic baptism of fire. But Roger Milla opened the scoring in the 32nd minute, and although the Yugoslavs equalised before half-time, it was not until the 70th minute that Cameroon fell behind. They bounced back to beat Iraq 1-0 in their next match, meaning a draw with Canada would send them through to the next round. But they blew their chance, losing 3-1.

Morocco also failed to progress, although losing 2-0 to West Germany (for whom a young Andres Brehme scored) and 2-0 to Brazil (for whom a young Dunga scored) is never a disgrace. They beat Saudi Arabia 1-0.

Egypt’s return was a triumph. After losing 1-0 to Italy, they beat Costa Rica 4-1 (current Al Ahly president Mahmoud El Khatib opening the scoring). This meant they needed to draw with the hosts to go through on the narrowest of margins, having scored one more goal than the USA. The Egyptians achieved this with a 1-1 scoreline. France eliminated the Egyptians in the quarterfinals, winning 2-0, and went on to take Olympic Gold.


It was at the Olympic games in South Korea in 1988 that Zambia achieved one of the greatest shocks ever. Playing in their second Games, they started disappointingly with a 2-2 against Iraq. But their next match was against Italy, who had put five past Guatemala in their opening game. Not even the most optimistic African fan could have predicted what happened next. Kalusha Bwalya - who had already scored one goal in the draw with Iraq - now netted against the Italians, five minutes before half-time.

And it did not end there. Instead of sitting back on their lead, the Zambians tore Italy apart. Bwalya made it 2-0 ten minutes into the second half, and his brother Johnson added a third eight minutes later. And then, with the match heading into added time, ‘Great Kalu’ completed his hat-trick. Zambia 4, Italy 0. Every one of the Italian starters went on to enjoy Serie A careers and six were later capped at senior level. And Zambia had taught them a very big football lesson.

We were witnessing the birth of Zambia’s greatest ever team, a side that became known as ‘KK Eleven’ when they graduated to full international status. Tragically, many of them lost their life in the horrific air crash of 1993. Four of the Zambian starters against Italy - Efford Chabala, Wisdom Chansa, Samuel Chomba, and Derby Makinka - and substitute, Webster Chikabala lost their lives. Thankfully, the Bwalya brothers and Charles Musonda were not on that plane.

Having thrashed Italy, Zambia beat Guatemala by the same scoreline; Kalusha and Makinka each scoring two as they topped Group B. Unfortunately they then ran into a young Jürgen Klinsmann in the quarterfinal, and his hat-trick helped West Germany to a comfortable 4-0 win.

Nigeria once again disappointed, returning home without a single point, while Tunisia bowed out after drawing two out of three group games.

While South African track and field athletes participated in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, in anticipation of Apartheid’s demise, change had come too late for the country to participate in football Olympic qualifiers although, in truth, South African novices would not have stood much of a chance against the pedigree of young African sides at the time.

Zambia had raised the bar for all African sides in 1988. In 1992, Ghana cleared the bar easily and set a new standard by finishing in the medals.

Zambia failed to qualify, but old campaigners Egypt and Morocco took their places alongside Ghana, though neither progressed. Egypt did themselves no favours by losing their opening match to Qatar. Host Spain then beat them 2-0. The thrilling 4-3 win over Colombia - equalising in the 91st minute and then still finding time for a winner - meant only that the North Africans did not finish bottom. Morocco meanwhile, managed just a point from their group. But something was happening in Group D…

Ghana beat Australia 3-1 in their opening match in Sabadell; Abedi Pele’s younger brother Kwame Ayew scoring twice. A goalless draw with Denmark followed in Zaragoza; then back to Sabadell to face Mexico. Behind 1-0 at half-time, Zambia secured a 1-1 draw via Kwame Ayew’s 70th-minute equaliser. It meant Mexico and Denmark were knocked out and Ghana topped the group.

In the quarterfinal against Paraguay in Zaragoza, Ayew scored in each half to put Ghana in control, but Yaw Acheampong’s own-goal gave the South Americans hope, and they managed to equalise in the 81st minute. In extra-time, midfielder Oli Rahman put Ghana back in front, and with 120 minutes already played, Ayew completed his hat-trick. Ghana were through to the semis.

But a semifinal against the host nation – in Valencia – proved a bridge too far, and Spain eased to a 2-0 win. There was still the 3rd place play-off in the Nou Camp, with Olympic Bronze to play for. The opponents were once again Australia and, once again, Ghana won; Isaac Asare’s 19th-minute goal proving the difference as Ghana became the most successful African team in Olympic history, launching the likes of Ayew, Sammy Osei Kuffour, Nii Lamptey and Frank Amankwah to stardom.


Ghana’s Olympic record did not last long – four years later the awesome Nigerian side dubbed the ‘Dream Team’ went all the way to secure Gold in the USA. Their names are legend ... Okocha, Kanu, Amokachi, Oliseh, Amuneke, Babangida, West, Babayaro, Ikpeba.

What made Nigeria’s achievement all the more impressive is that they had to overcome the likes of Brazil and Argentina to achieve Gold. The other two African sides were Tunisia and Ghana, but the former fell at the first hurdle, losing their opening two matches, then pulling off a 1-1 draw against Argentina.

Ghana did the continent proud again, bouncing back from a 1-0 defeat to South Korea in their opener to stun Italy 3-2; Christian Sabah scoring twice and Augustine Ahinful converting a pressure penalty. After that feat, the West Africans settled for a 1-1 draw with Mexico, which was enough for those two to go through, leaving humiliated Italy bottom of Group C.

Unfortunately for Ghana, their last eight opponents were the star-studded favourites Brazil. The Samba Boys won a thrilling contest 4-2, with 19-year-old Ronaldo netting a brace and Bebeto one to add to Afo Dodoo’s early own-goal. Charles Akkonor equalised on 23 minutes, and Felix Aboagye actually had the Black Comets ahead on 53 minutes, but then Ronaldo pounced twice, and Bebeto topped it off.

Nigeria’s Group C opener was against Hungary in Orlando, and captain Nwankwo Kanu’s 44th-minute strike settled the day. Next up Japan, again in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, and Nigeria left it late, relying on Tijani Babangida (‘82) and Jay-Jay Okocha’s 90th-minute penalty for victory.

This set up a massive clash with Brazil, who had to win having been shocked 1-0 by Japan at the start of the tournament. 55 000 were present in Miami’s Orange Bowl to see Brazil sneak a 1-0 win via Ronaldo’s strike on the half-hour. With three sides level on six points, Japan were the unlucky losers as Brazil topped the group ahead of Nigeria.

On to the quarterfinals, and a tricky Mexico were seen off; Jay-Jay scoring after 20 minutes, and Celestine Babayaro adding a late second for a 2-0 win. The reward: a second clash with Brazil, in the semifinal in Athens, Georgia. 78 587 crammed into Sanford Stadium; America had never watched ‘soccer’ in such multitudes, and those in attendance got to see one of the greatest Olympic matches of all time.

It started badly for Nigeria as Flavio Conceicao scored in the first minute, and although Roberto Carlos put the ball into his own net on 20, Brazil were soon back in front through Bebeto. When Conceicao got his second 10 minutes later, it looked all over. But the boys in green rallied: Victor Ikpeba pulled one back with 12 minutes remaining, and skipper Kanu equalised moments before the final whistle. Extra-time was to be decided by the Golden Goal - a short-lived FIFA solution - and it was Kanu who delivered, making the final score 4-3 in extra-time.

Brazil had brought a glittering array of rising stars to the Olympics – Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Aldair, Juninho Paulista – and they had been outdone by Nigeria.

The Dream Team were through to the Olympic Football Final; Argentina were the opponents. Once again Nigeria started poorly as an unmarked Claudio Lopez headed Argentina into the lead after just three minutes. Babayaro equalised with a majestic header from Kanu’s cross in the 28th minute and celebrated with his trademark somersault. But Argentina won a penalty five minutes into the second half, and Hernan Crespo converted.

It was not until the 74th minute that the equaliser came, and it was delivered by ‘the Bull’ Daniel Amokachi ,who reacted quickest to a loose ball to stab home the equaliser. And then, in the 90th minute, the Dream Team did it again, Emmanuel Amunike stealing through the Argentine defence at a free-kick to fire home.

Africa had a global football winner of the highest order at last.

And so onto 2000, and South Africa’s debut. The highlight was the comprehensive 3-1 unpicking of Brazil, followed by the low of bowing out against Slovakia. Morocco, appearing in their third successive Olympics, again finished bottom of their group, this time without a single point.

Africa had four teams at this Olympics, holders Nigeria and Cameroon, a team that had qualified periodically, but never achieved very much. Their 2000 generation was full of riches - headed by Samuel Eto’o - the squad also included Lauren, Carlos Komeni, Patrick Mboma, Geremi and Pierre Wome. They were determined to emulate Nigeria’s glory of 96.

Nigeria suffered a scare as they began the defence of their crown, requiring a 90th-minute equaliser from Yakubu Ayegbeni to force a 3-3 draw with tiny Honduras after finding themselves 3-1 down with less than 15 minutes remaining. Australia were next, and Nigeria roared into a quick 2-0 lead through Pius Ikedia and Julius Aghahowa, but the host fought back to draw level just before the interval. Victor Agali’s 64th-minute strike eventually sealed the result in Nigeria’s favour. A draw with Italy in the final match saw both teams through – Garba Lawal giving Nigeria a half-time lead, but Samuel Okunowa’s own goal cancelled it out.

Nigeria faced Chile in the last eight and suffered a stunning reversal, losing 4-1 as their reign as champions came to a disastrous end.

It was left to Cameroon to forward Africa’s cause. They had qualified from Group C unbeaten with a victory (3-2 over Kuwait) and two 1-1 draws (with the USA and Czech Republic). Patrick Mboma of Parma and Arsenal’s Lauren had each scored twice. But by finishing second in their group, behind the USA, Cameroon had to play the Group D winners, Brazil.

And for the second time within a week, Brazil fell to an African side. Cameroon scored early; Mboma again finding the back of the net,. And that’s the way it stayed until the fourth minute of added time, when Ronaldinho scored to force the game into extra-time. The tie was decided by Modeste Mbami’s Golden Goal in the 113 minute.

The semifinal with Chile in the Melbourne Cricket Ground was tight, and Cameroon fell behind when centreback Felix Abanda put through his own goal on 74 minutes. However, Patrick Mboma levelled 10 minutes later, and then in the 89th minute, they won a penalty. Up stepped the ever-cool Lauren to convert and send them through to the Final.

Waiting for them in Sydney were a brilliant young Spanish team that contained Xavi, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevilla, David Albelda, Carlos Marchena and Raul Tamudo.

Just two minutes into the Final, Spain were ahead via Xavi, and Gabri doubled the scoreline in added time at the end of the first half. Comeback time again… first, Amaya’s own-goal in the 53rd minute gave Cameroon hope and then, five minutes later, Eto’o drew them level with his first goal of the tournament.

Spain did themselves no favours, losing their heads and two men to red cards, but still the game went into extra-time. Neither side could summon up that Golden Goal, so onto penalties. Cameroon were superb - Mboma, Eto’o, Geremi, Lauren and Wome all converting, while Amaya went from bad to worse, failing from the spot and rendering the conversions by Xavi, Capdevilla, and - after his miss - Albelda meaningless. Cameroon were the Gold medal champions of Sydney 2000!

The challenge remains open – which African nation will next produce a gold medal team? Perhaps in 2021…

By Richard Maguire


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