Cameroon’s new generation aim to ‘create own history’ against Nigeria

Cameroon’s Georges-Kévin Nkoudou (left) and Victor Osimhen of Nigeria will go head-to-head in Saturday’s Africa Cup of Nations last-16 clash. Photograph: Getty Images
Forty years on from beating the Super Eagles to win their first Cup of Nations, the rivals meet again in Abidjan in the last 16

Roger Milla’s exploits at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, with the Indomitable Lions, made the then 38-year-old Africa’s first and most recognisable global superstar.

But it was in Abidjan, in March 1984, that Cameroon, with Milla playing a starring role, beat Nigeria 3-1 in their first Africa Cup of Nations final, beginning the story of how they became the most dominant sub-Saharan African team at the Afcon, with five titles. Only Egypt, with seven, surpass that total.

“That was a historic win and it was great for us to make Cameroonians very happy,” Milla, now 72 and an Afcon pundit for RTI, the Ivorian national channel, tells the Guardian. “We played with determination and spirit against what was a very strong Nigerian team. It was the beginning of our big story in Africa.”

Cameroon’s place in the Afcon pecking order, above Nigeria, their last-16 opponents on Saturday, is one that their neighbours know only too well.

Three of Cameroon’s titles came at Nigeria’s expense: the initial win in Abidjan, a 1-0 victory in Morocco in 1988 – with a foul on Milla securing the match-winning penalty – and a triumph in 2000 that had added significance because they beat the Super Eagles on penalties in Lagos.

Rigobert Song, the captain of the Lions in that dramatic final in Nigeria and the head coach of Cameroon for the past two years, is acutely aware of the rivalry.

“The history between these two countries [in football] is very well known,” he said on Friday. “But this is a new generation and they have to create their own history. Fortunately, they can draw inspiration and knowledge [on how to beat Nigeria] from us, the older generation.”

Cameroon had to find an extra gear on Tuesday to beat supposed minnows the Gambia 3-2 in arguably the most dramatic match of the tournament and reach the last 16, and Song admitted this Afcon has been challenging for them.

“It is true that we faced difficulties,” the former Liverpool defender said. “It has not been easy for us … We must confess that the quality of this Afcon has been high. Big teams [such as Ghana, Algeria and Tunisia] seen as favourites are no longer here.”

Song knows there is no room for mistakes on Saturday. “We are focused to play and avoid engaging in emotions. We must apply our philosophy and technique to win … We cannot be worried about a football game. We will approach this match with confidence and the outcome we want will come.”

With Nigeria having arguably the continent’s best striker in Victor Osimhen and players such as Milan’s Samuel Chukwueze in support, Song is well aware of the firepower his defenders are up against. “Osimhen is a big player. We know him and respect him. But respecting him doesn’t mean that we should fear him.”

Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen has scored only once from open play in the Africa Cup of Nations group stage. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

With Osimhen having scored only once in open play in the group stage – against Equatorial Guinea in their opener – many are wondering whether the 25-year-old will replicate the form that made him last season’s leading scorer in Serie A with Napoli.

José Peseiro, Nigeria’s coach, is confident Osimhen will shine as he looks for the tactical key to unlock the potential of what should be the tournament’s most potent strike force.

“With eight Afcons between the two teams, it’s going to be a tough match against Cameroon,” Peseiro said. “We must focus, we must sacrifice, we must fight for each other. We know the history [of the 1984 loss] but tomorrow is the match.”

Alex Iwobi, at his third Afcon, could help to solve Nigeria’s scoring problems if Peseiro freed him from his onerous defensive midfield duties and allowed him to play in his natural free attacking role. From there the Fulham player could provide quality service to the strikers, including Osimhen, who has been profligate.

“We are just not taking our chances,” Iwobi said. “In most games, we create more than 10 chances but scoring is not easy, which is why strikers get paid the most.”

Nigeria have not won an Afcon title in 11 years and their fans are growing impatient to see the Super Eagles draw level on four with Ghana, another arch-rival.

Iwobi is aware of what is expected from him and his colleagues. “Nigerians are not happy if you don’t win. For them to be happy, you just have to win. It’s very straightforward.”

Gernot Rohr was the coach of the Super Eagles when they last beat the Indomitable Lions, the defending champions, at the 2019 Afcon. He thinks his former team will have the edge. “It’s a question of the team spirit, a question of mental strength, of discipline, of solidarity,” he told the Guardian.

Grit and sheer will to win are not lacking in the Indomitable Lions, which could be the making of an epic encounter here at the Houphouët-Boigny Stadium, 40 years after the last one.