Monday, July 29, 2013

The World Cup was not the only major international championship in 1978, but the other one went entirely under the radar – the 11th African championship. The Cup of the African Nations was established in 1956 and finished in 1957.

It sounds strange today, but the African championship is older than the European one – by the time the first European championship finished, Africa already had two completed. It also is almost unbelievable today to find out some of the early hosts of the finals: Ethiopia hosted twice (1962 and 1968) and Sudan also twice (1957 and 1970). But Africa escaped attention not only because of the low level of football. Poverty, large distances, and pitiful transportation were not even the biggest problems – African football suffered mostly form national and international politics, favouritism, scheming, corruption, and tribalism. Away matches were almost unsolvable problem not because of hostile home crowds, but because of the twelve and most important players the hosts had: the referee. Frequently teams unable to build big advantage at the first match simply withdrew from the away match – it was pointless to go. The only African miracle was in that international tournaments were staged and finished. So far, ten championships produced 7 champions, Egypt, Ghana, and Zaire winning twice. Who was to win it for a third time? Or was it to be new champion? Eight teams were playing at the final tournament, divided in two round-robin groups. Ghana was hosting – for a second time.

Preliminary stages escape rational explanation: it was meandering scheme of many rounds. The reigning champions Morocco and the host nation, Ghana, qualified directly. In the preliminary round Mauritius eliminated Malawi. Then the first round started and the order was broken: Niger, Sudan, and Tanzania withdrew. The general number of participants was uneven, making a mockery of the preliminary round – Gabon had no opponent and got a bye. So far, so good... compared to the running at the same time qualifications for the World Cup, the African championship was almost perfect: only three teams withdrew. But it was back to 'normal' in the next round: the pair of Mali and Cotte d'Ivoire were disqualified. Upper Volta (Burkina Faso today), eliminated by Cotte d'Ivoire in the first round, was awarded a place at the finals as a result. The rest of the games were considered fair. The toughest duel was between Algeria and Zambia – each team won 2-0 at home and penalty shoot-out decided the finalist. Since this happened in Zambia, the winners don't have to be spelled out. Not a single team won away match in this round.

The finals were played in Accra – Group A – and Group B in Kumasi. Naturally, Ghana played in Accra. Naturally it finished first.

1.GHANA 3 2 1 0 6- 2 5

2.NIGERIA 3 1 2 0 5- 3 4

3.Zambia 3 1 1 1 3- 2 3

4.Upper Volta 3 0 0 3 2- 9 0

The relative strength of the teams is impossible to judge, but clearly Upper Volta had no place at the finals.

Group B had some surprises: Morocco finished third, but the failure of the last African champions can be explained by the stiff competition coming from neighbours – Tunisia. Local rivalry and pride, let's say. However, the match between Morocco and Tunisia ended in 1-1 tie. Morocco was killed by Uganda – 0-3. Earlier Tunisia won against Uganda 3-1. Quite surprisingly Uganda finished first in the group.

1.UGANDA 3 2 0 1 7- 4 4

2.TUNISIA 3 1 2 0 4- 2 4

3.Morocco 3 1 1 1 2- 4 3

4.Congo 3 0 1 2 1- 4 1

the semi-finals paired Ghana with Tunisia and Uganda with Nigeria. Uganda clinched a 2-1 victory over Nigeria. Nigeria did not rank high back then, but Uganda was – and is – a weak team, and that by African standards of the 1970s. Ghan a won 1-0 – it was expected victory not only because traditionally Ghana was one of the strongest African teams. Hosting has its privileges... but there was no fuss from the Tunisians, the match was more or less fair.

The real fun happened at the small final for the bronze medals: it was 1-1 in the 42nd minute, when the referee awarded a penalty to Nigeria. The Tunisian team was outraged, protested the penalty, and since no referee ever changes his mind, the Tunisians left the field and abandoned the match. Nigeria was awarded 2-0 victory and got the bronze medals. What really happened is impossible to tell: the Tunisians maintain the referee went out of his way to help Nigeria. May be that was the reality, but the African Federation took the opposite view: Tunisia was immediately and severely punished – all Tunisian teams, national firmations nad clubs, were banned from participating in international African tournaments for three years. It was not enough for enraged officials – they wanted more, but the clock saved Tunisia. The Federation considered banning Tunisia from representing Africa at the coming World Cup. Alas, it was already mid-March – there was no time to stage new qualification round for the World Cup. Reluctantly and sadly, the Federation announced to the world that Tunisia will play in Argentina precisely because there is no time for replacing the undeserving hooligans.

The final went without trouble – Ghana easily won 2-0. Next to nothing could be said about the match: from what little footage is available on YouTube Uganda looks entirely incompetent, not only weak, team. And because of that the strength of Ghana cannot be measured. Overwhelming victory of the hosts and record setting third African title.

Ghanaian players all smiles and celebrating.

Who were they? Unfortunately, not a single name rings a bell.

Standing from left: Salifu, Adolf Armah, Willie Klutse, Isaac Acquah, Anas Seidu, P.S.K. Paha, Kuuku Dadzie, Haruna, Joseph Carr.

Crouching: Mohammed Polo, Opoku Afrlyie, Ben Kayode, Nketia Yawson, Awuley Quaye, Razak Abdul, Addae Kvenkvenhene.

Spelling differs, depending on the source... one more African problem. Opoku Afriye – or Afrlyie? - scored both goals at the final. Apparently Mohammed Polo was the star of the team. Much later he said that he played with a torn ligament of the right ankle for 19 years and had to quit because of that in 1993. Long career, if true – but everything is possible in Africa. Polo was called 'the dribbling magician' and 'soccer professor' in Ghana. He was unable to finish the final in 1978, because of injury early in the match. These guys remained unknown to the world – but won the title. True heroes, no matter what.