The men’s football tournament at the 2012 London Olympics will take place from 26 July to 11 August. Flying Africa’s flag this time around would be Senegal, Gabon, Morocco and Egypt.
The tournament promises to showcase some of the emerging stars of world football. Also, with the inclusion of 3 over-aged players in each under-23 squad, some very familiar stars – Like Spain’s Juan Mata – will also grace the tournament.
Africa has had some truly memorable football moments at the games. As the 4 continental participants battle to bring bronze, silver but most preferably, gold medals back home this year, I reflect on 5 truly magical moments for African teams at the games.
Zambia (Seoul 1988 Olympics): The 1980’s was a period African teams were expected to go into major football tournaments just to make up the numbers.
The Olympics was one of them.
Zambia vs Italy in the 1988 summer fiesta was meant to be a comfortable assignment for the Europeans. Italy were – and still are – a powerhouse of world football and Zambia were, well … underdogs.
So, it stunned the world when Zambia demolished Italy 4:0. African Legend Kalusha Bwayla was truly sensational, grabbing a hat-trick while Jonson Bwayla scored 1 goal.
Zambia went on to top their group. The feat was made more impressive by the fact the Olympics at that time featured full senior squads (not under-23s).
The Zambians however fell in the quarter-finals to West Germany. More sadly, the bulk of that Zambian squad – their golden generation – perished at the 1993 air disaster on their way to a world cup qualifier.
Their contributions to a rich African history at the Olympics, and football in general, will not be forgotten.
Ghana (1992 Barcelona Olympics): That year, the Under 23 plus 3 over-aged players format was introduced at the Olympics.
Ghana – inspired by a certain Nii Odartey Lamptey – had already thrived in FIFA age grade tournaments prior. They won the FIFA Under-17 world championship in 1991 with Lamptey winning the golden ball.
Playing a Brazilian-style entertaining, free flowing, creative and beautiful-to-watch football, Ghana captured the world’s imagination at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Lamptey was instrumental; shelling out passes from the midfield like a weapon of mass destruction.
They topped their group which included Mexico, Australia and Denmark. Paraguay were no match for them in the quarter-finals, as the West African won comfortably 4:2.
They however fell to Spain 2:0 in a hard fought semi-final encounter. Not to be undone, the Ghanaians rallied to do Africa proud by winning the bronze medals – Africa’s first Olympic football medals – beating Australia 1:0 in the third place play-off.
Nigeria (1996 Atlanta Olympics): This was the same year Nigeria failed to attend the 1996 African Cup of Nations to defend the title they won 2 years before.
Late General Sani Abacha pulled the team out for political reasons – to the dismay of soccer loving Nigerians at home and abroad. There were fears FIFA would bar Nigeria from participating at the Olympics. Thankfully, they didn’t.
Nigeria went into the tournament with low expectations. Being drawn in the same group with Brazil, Japan and Hungary further dampened hopes.
However, the ‘Dream Team’ – inspired by Nwankwo Kanu – survived with 2 wins and 1 loss.
Could they do it? Nigerians were still edgy. Okocha and Babayaro scored as Mexico were humbled 2:0 in the quarter-finals.
Nigeria vs Brazil semi-final: Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Rivaldo; surely, it was the end of the road for the ‘Dream Team’.
In a pulsating match, Nigeria came back from 3:1 to triumph 4:3 throwing the African fans into ecstasy. This was followed up by another comeback victory against another South American team (Argentina) in the final; Nigeria 3:2 Argentina.
Nigeria won Africa’s first Olympic football gold medals.
Cameroun (Sydney 2000 Olympics): The Indomitable Lions had already shown that they were capable of being a force in world football following impressive FIFA World cup appearances – particularly in 1982 and 1990.
However, one of their finest moments was in 2000 when they won the football Olympic gold medals in truly fantastic fashion. They faced tough oppositions; their victory, a testament to hard work, concentration, dedication and a winning mentality.
Cameroun striker, Merciless (Patrick) Mboma was a thorn in the flesh of opponents’ defences scoring 4 goals in all. Sharp-shooter Samuel Eto’o was also in that squad.
Cameroun came 2nd in their group behind USA. It was hard to see them make any progress with tougher oppositions ahead.
They somehow managed to overcome Ronaldinho’s Brazil 2:1 in the quarter-final in a cracking encounter.
Chile – their semi-final opponents – had demolished Nigeria 4:1 in the quarter-finals. Again, Cameroun triumphed with a 2:1 victory.
In a truly remarkable feat, they overcame mighty Spain 5:3 on penalties (2:2 after extra time) in the final to clinch the gold medals.
Some members of that Spanish team later won Euro 2008 and 2010 World cup. They include: Puyol, Xavi and Capdevila.
Nigeria (Beijing Olympics 2008): Nigeria went into the 2008 Olympic football under the tutelage of Samson Siasia.
The coach had already performed wonders 3 years before as his wards reached the final of the FIFA under-20 world cup in 2005, only to lose out to Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2:1.
Nigerians had fallen in love with Siasia’s free flowing, attacking, creative and purposeful playing philosophy. These were again evident in the Olympic as Nigeria swept all before them to reach the final.
The team included players like Peter Odemwingie, Victor Obinna and Victor Anichebe. It was a technically endowed and tactically aware side. The players were very skilful with pace and dribbling abilities. They co-ordinated well as a unit.
In the group phase, Nigeria drew with Netherlands, swept aside Japan 2:0 and condemned USA to a 2:1 defeat.
They were simply electrifying in the knock-out phase outclassing Ivory Coast 2:0 in the quarter-final and obliterating Belgium 4:1 in the semi-final.
It was Nigeria vs. Argentina in the final for Gold.
The players battled bravely and gave Argentina a run for their money. But, just like 3 years before, Messi made it a messy affair by supplying the long ball for Di Maria’s goal. 1:0 the match finished.
Nigeria won Olympic silver football medals.
The result notwithstanding, the players had done Africa proud overall with some beautiful displays that will live long in the memory.
It’s now left to Africa’s participants in this year’s Olympics to continue what is already an enduring legacy.