In knockout soccer, the only thing that truly counts is the outcome. Whether you advance or are eliminated, everything else is just background noise. This is especially evident when facing the biggest rivalry in contemporary sub-Saharan African soccer. The match itself was not aesthetically pleasing, but that was to be expected on a wet field (which had been watered for 25 minutes before the start).
Not many people are going to be watching the full 90 minutes back with childish wonder. But it doesn’t matter. Nigeria go on to face Angola in the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations; Cameroon go home.
Nigeria proved to be the superior team, with Victor Osimhen leading the front line tirelessly and intelligently. Ademola Lookman performed admirably with two well-taken goals, while Alex Iwobi dominated in the midfield. William Troost-Ekong was a dominant force at the back, easily handling Frank Magri. This marks the third consecutive clean sheet for Nigeria, causing the complaints of fans and journalists to turn into begrudging respect. With a strong defense and the presence of Osimhen, there is still hope for success. “It was a challenging and emotional match,” stated Nigeria’s coach José Peseiro, “but our team played with heart and maintained control throughout.”
Cameroon’s performance in the tournament mainly revolved around last-minute bursts of energy when they were under pressure, resulting in unexpected successes. They caused problems for Senegal and managed to overcome the chaos of the final game against Gambia. However, even with the addition of Vincent Aboubakar, they were unable to create many opportunities and only had one corner kick. This team may not be at its best, and their manager Rigobert Song’s position is likely in jeopardy after their disappointing performance at the World Cup.
The criticism towards Song is that he is merely a symbol and his assistant, Augustine Simo, is the one actually organizing the strategies. Song clarified, “There are coaches and there are managers. I am a manager, which has a specific meaning. You do not coach a national team, you manage it.” However, the back and forth regarding André Onana does not reflect strong decision-making. Despite the hype, the Manchester United goalkeeper only played one match and did not make any saves.
In a competition known for its surprising inclusivity, both Nigeria and Cameroon stood out as outdated, clumsy teams playing in a style reminiscent of ten years ago. They focused on filling gaps, keeping a tight formation, and relying on set plays or moments of brilliance to produce results. This is a long-standing rivalry: since 1980, Ghana has not been able to replicate the success of CK Gyamfi, making Nigeria and Cameroon the most successful teams in sub-Saharan Africa and the only African teams to win Olympic gold. Cameroon has defeated Nigeria three times in the Cup of Nations finals.
The atmosphere at the stadium was electric, with a large crowd in attendance. It was clear that this game would have a lasting impact and be remembered for years to come, regardless of the final result. Both teams were struggling to find their footing in the current landscape, leading to a cautious and defensive approach.
It was inevitable that the opener would come from a mistake, as it arrived nine minutes before halftime. However, Osimhen’s awareness and selflessness were still required to make the goal happen. Despite only scoring once in the group stage and missing several opportunities, there is no denying that Osimhen is the key player in Nigeria’s attack. He showed great strength in holding off Oumar Gonzalez after catching him in possession. Instead of taking the shot himself, Osimhen unselfishly laid the ball off to Lookman, whose shot slipped past Fabrice Ondoa and over the line, with a desperate Gonzalez trying to recover on the slick turf.
Lookman scored his second goal after receiving a cross from Calvin Bassey, as Cameroon pushed for a late attack. It would be inaccurate to say that Nigeria simply managed the game after their first goal, as it would suggest a change in strategy. Instead, they maintained their cautious approach under Peseiro, allowing them to maintain a sense of control while their offensive opportunities were limited to Osimhen’s efforts.
Although it may not have been significant, it was still more than what Cameroon could produce.