Monday, February 25, 2013

Little can be said for the rest of the football world – that is Africa. The disappointing performance of Zaire at the 1974 World Cup diminished already miniscule interest – the miracle did not happen and the game appeared in decline. One was able to get some information, like results, final tables, and brief commentaries from French magazines, but that was all. Except France, nobody else showed interest and African players appeared almost exclusively in the French leagues by 1977. Some were good – like the Congolese Francois M'Pele (30 years old), the Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Tokoto (29), and the Algerian Mustapha Dahleb (25), all playing for Paris SG, but none became big European star. There were no African players among the very best players in Europe – players like Larbi Benbarek in the 1940s-1950s, Rachid Mekhloufi in the 1960s, Salif Keita in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not to mention giant like Eusebio. Without high profile players, African football faded from European minds. The continent was not doing well politically and economically too, so it was a miracle that African countries managed to maintain regular domestic and international championships. The most organized was the football in the Northern Arabic countries, yet, they did not dominate the sport – which suggests low quality. It was amateur football everywhere, badly affected by politics with specific African flavour: tribalism. No country was able to get its best players in the national team, let alone clubs. Good players were spread in many clubs, depending on tribal boundaries – thus, no country was able to build strong club, and in turn many skilful players remained local, lacking international exposure. Tribalism plagues African football to this very day – especially national teams, but the main problem is club football, eternally suffocated. A small problem, yet a problem, is the difficulty to find reliable information, particularly pictorial one. An irritating problem, for there were interesting events:

The African Champions Cup culminated with a final between Hearts of Oak (Accra, Ghana) and Hafia (Conakry, Guinea).
One of the oldest and well established African Clubs, traditionally strong, popular, Hearts of Oak represented arguably the country with best football on the continent. Yet... Ghana repeatedly failed to qualify for World Cup finals and so far failed to impress on international club level. Hearts of Oak continued the tradition of disappointment... they lost both legs of the final: 0-1 at home in Accra, and 2-3 away in Conakry.
Hafia triumphed – but there was more. In 1977 Hafia became the most successful African club: they won their 3rd African Champions Cup, more than anybody else. There was regularity to their victories: 1972, 1975, and 1977, suggesting that Hafia had well made squad. The same squad, give or take two-three players. It was spectacular success, for Guinea was not among the top African countries in football. Perhaps they got the best players of the country in the team and well rounded squad, getting more and more experienced, was bound to win. None of the Hafia players made it to Europe, as far as I know, but they were uncommonly steady in Africa.

African Cup Winners Cup was new tournament – it started in 1975, so it was only the 3rd issue in 1977. Too young to trace patterns – quite naturally, every year had new winner. One of the better known outside the continent clubs reached the final – Canon (Yaounde, Camerun).
Camerun was not yet well known, nor it was all that powerful in Africa, but Canon ranked among the strongest African clubs. It was steady club, becoming even stronger – it was regular, and therefore experienced, participant in the international tournaments. A favourite, at least to outside eyes.

The other finalist was almost the opposite of Canon:
Enugu Rangers was young club – founded in 1970. Already very successful at home, though: three times champion and three times Cup winner in 1977. Remarkable success, but... in Nigeria. Nigeria did not rank high in Africa yet. On the other hand, who really ranked high? There was representative of the 'strong' Arabic countries at any of the Cup finals. Ghana lost to lowly Guinea – African club football was entirely unpredictable. The first leg of the final was played in Enugu and mighty Canon was destroyed 4-1. Was it skills or enthusiasm? Doesn't matter really – Enugu did not lose the second leg either. In Yaounde, they managed to tie the match 1-1 and the Cup was theirs!
Astonishing success for a club not even ten years old. Yet... the players were and remained anonymous, apparently nobody was all that great even by African standards. No player of Enugu Rangers was voted among the top African players of the year – a Nigerian was third, but Segun Odegbami played for Shooting Stars. Never mind – Enugu Rangers won the Cup.