Football is adored, from tackles and dribbles to goals scored. Comebacks, though, combine that adoration with exhilaration. Intrigue is assured and nothing less than two goals is guaranteed.
From emotions running deep to fans losing sleep, the best comebacks leave behind memories lasting a lifetime. However, depending on which side of the divide you are on, they can leave behind rather bitter tastes.
But it’s more fun to look at comebacks as joyful occasions. Let’s relish seven moments of African football that shook the world.*
*sorry if you were on the losing side, but someone has to be!
7. Nigeria 3-3 Sweden (8 June 2015)
Prior to the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, Nigeria, the most successful football country in Africa, could boast of being one of seven nations to have never missed the tournament. But of the elite seven, the Super Falcons were the only team never to reach the final.
Could 2015 have been their year? They stared straight into the Group of Death, with the United States, who has always had their way against Nigeria; Sweden, one of the women footballing powerhouses and led by one of the most successful coaches in women’s football, Pia Sundhage; and Australia, the ones who might pull out a few tricks.
The first game, against Sweden, came right after Germany beat debutants Côte d’Ivoire 10-0, and Africa’s pride was at stake.
Who didn’t know Sweden were better prepared for battle? But coach Edwin Okon was not ready to go down without a fight. And with his attack-minded starting line-up, he told Nigerians, “We can do this.”
Quick off the blocks, the Super Falcons still failed to take advantage of the Swedes’ surprisingly sluggish start. Instead Sweden made the most of Nigeria’s sloppy defending, scoring twice through corner kicks; an own goal by Desire Oparanozie and a tap-in from Nilla Fischer.
The first half ended 2-0, but whatever Okon said during the halftime break certainly yielded dividends.
In the second 45’, the Super Falcons struck early and scored twice in three minutes, with goals from Ngozi Okobi and Asisat Oshoala. The Swedes responded through substitute Linda Sembrant but Francesca Ordega would not have that. Though she had been quiet for most part of the game, she turned hero at last, completing a near-perfect comeback in the 87th minute – one that had mouths wagging at a possible bigger surprise in waiting.
Nigeria shocked the fifth-ranked Swedes but failed to follow it up, losing to Australia and the U.S. Unfortunately the one point was not enough.
But what we can’t forget is how the Nigerian stars were noticed and signed by clubs abroad. Ngozi Okobi and Josephine Chukwunonye joined Ordega at the Washington Spirit – both recently moved on to Sweden – while Halimatu Ayinde signed with the Western New York Flash.
6. Portugal 5-5 Cameroon (20 August 2003)
This world gives us far too few comebacks of this magnitude. Coming from 5-0 down? I mean, how DARE you? It only seems possible if you imagine the opposing goalkeeper has gone AWOL and has refused to return before the final whistle.
But Cameroon pulled off such a feat in the 2003 U-17 World Cup, holding the crowd at Finland’s Ratina Stadium spellbound as they watched a comeback classic.
The Africans needed a win to qualify for the quarterfinals, but their Portuguese counterparts, who needed just a point, did not allow them any breathing space. The first half featured an audacious goal by Vieira de Freitas from inside his own half and a quickfire hat-trick by Manuel Curto, giving Portugal a comfortable 4-0 lead going into the break, all but assured a place in the knockout round.
Technically down but not yet out, Cameroon returned in the second half sniffing around for a consolation goal. But Portugal had added a fifth through Bruno Gama before Les Lions Indomptables could begin their comeback.
With 20 minutes remaining, substitute Serge Ngal inspired his team to turn the tide. His 68th-minute effort was saved by Mario Felgueiras but his consistency paid off two minutes later when Tiago Costa scored past his own keeper.
Ngal quickly followed up with a brilliant brace in the 74th and 76th minutes before Joel Nguemo further reduced the deficit to 5-4 in the 88th.
And with the spectators now cheering the Cameroonians on to the impossible, the Africans got the equalizer two minutes into added time, thanks to a well-choreographed free kick, the ball pulled back and then ultimately volleyed in by Etoundi Mbia.
At 5-5, Cameroon were just a goal away from the second round.
No, the stupendous stunt — including that intelligent free kick routine — didn’t put them in the quarterfinals in the end, but was it worth it? Absolutely.
5. Cameroon 2-2 Spain (30 September 2000)
Over 104,000 spectators watched at the Stadium Australia in Sydney as the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon perfected a dramatic comeback against a superb Spain side to ensure Africa enjoyed back-to-back Olympic gold.
Nigeria had won the first ever football gold for the continent at Atlanta 1996, also in memorable fashion, dispatching Brazil and Argentina via comebacks in the semi-final and final respectively.
Four years later, Cameroon came back from two goals down to draw level at 2-2, then went on to upset the odds, beating Spain 5-3 on penalties to clinch the country’s first gold medal in any Olympic sport.
The match looked done and dusted at half time. After just 78 seconds, a Xavi Hernández free kick – which he judiciously curled above the Cameroonian wall and into the side netting – put Spain in front, and a Gabri one-on-one doubled their lead. It could have been three, but for a penalty save by Cameroon’s 16-year-old keeper Carlos Idriss Kameni, in between. Spain, winners in ‘92, were coasting to gold.
But the wounded Lions emerged hungry after the break. Patrick Mboma’s cross forced an own goal off Iván Amaya for the Cameroonians’ first goal before Mboma set up Samuel Eto’o for the equalizer five minutes later.
30 minutes left to play and the score was tied 2-2. The situation escalated from bad to worse for Spain. Gabri got his marching orders after 70 minutes, while Jose Mari saw red for pretending to be injured…for the second time.
In the penalty shootout, Cameroon took advantage of the massive support from Australian fans at the stadium to finish off the game. After Amaya hit the bar, Pierre Wome sent in the decisive penalty — the ninth kick taken.
Cameroon coach Jean-Paul Akono said, “I think this a motivational development not just for Cameroon but for African soccer.”
Cameroon certainly deserved the applause, however, especially as they’d also captured the Africa Cup of Nations earlier that year.
4. Chelsea 2 – 3 Kanu (23 October 1999)
In August 1996, Nigerian football legend Kanu Nwankwo was diagnosed with a heart defect, dealing a huge blow to an astonishing career.
Fresh from Olympic glory, the former Nigeria captain had his first heart surgery in November of that same year, then returned to action for Inter Milan in April 1997.
Papilo, as he is fondly called, joined Arsenal on February 17 1999, looking to rejuvenate his career. There’s no doubt that his magical touch on that round leather ball helped make the Premier League more popular in Africa, while also providing a huge African influence in England.
“I believe I was the first [African] person who came to England and who did very well,” Kanu told the Arsenal website. “After that the doors were opened for African talents so, with Arsenal behind me and what we did with Arsenal, everybody now tends to follow the English league, and wants players to come and play in the English league.”
The two-time African Footballer of the Year was ranked Arsenal’s 13th greatest player of all time in a 2015 fan poll, conducted on the club’s official website.
Kanu Nwankwo appeared 198 times for the Gunners, scoring 44 goals from 1999 to 2004, winning two Premier League titles and two FA Cups in the process. But a hat-trick laden 15 minutes were enough to engrave his name in the history books of not just the club, but the Premier League too.
It was October 23, 1999 at Stamford Bridge, and Tore André Flo and Dan Petrescu had put Chelsea 2-0 up with a quarter of an hour left to play, and it was not unusual that, as Kanu put it, “everybody believed it was over, even me.”
Lanky Kanu had beautifully controlled a wild Marc Overmars shot to pull one back for the Gunners. He leveled proceedings eight minutes later by drilling past Blues goalkeeper Ed de Goey.
“I was like, OK 2-2 is enough for us because we were two down. That’s enough, then we can go eat. We share the points.”
But some opportunities one cannot dare to miss. Deep in extra time, Nwankwo chased down a failed clearance, rounded the onrushing keeper and fired a shot over the head of two defenders, tucking it into the far corner of the net.
The away fans were delighted. Even Arsène Wenger was stunned.
I expected him to cross. If he hadn’t scored it could have upset you because he really should have passed. However, great players can prove you wrong. It is one of the best goals I’ve seen.
For Kanu Nwankwo, it was an unforgettable moment, “I have very good memories of that game. It felt great to score against such a formidable team as Chelsea and it just shows the game is not over until it is over.”
3. Soviet Union 4 -4 Nigeria (25 February 1989)
Now to Saudi Arabia, where the Miracle of Dammam is regarded as one of the most pulsating quarter-final matches in the history of the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
1989 marked Nigeria’s fourth appearance in the tournament, and they began their campaign by defeating the hosts 2-1, courtesy of goals from Mutiu Adepoju and Christopher Ohenhen. The Flying Eagles then fell to Portugal, 1-0. However, Coach Tunde Disu’s lads ensured a place in the quarterfinals after an Ohenhen strike secured a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia.
Their quarterfinal opponents, the USSR, was then a force to be reckoned with. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that Nigeria trailed 2-0 at halftime, or even that the USSR compounded their woes by adding two more goals by the 58th minute. Key players came off and it looked as though the USSR had closed up shop.
Instead, they’d simply passed the goal-scoring baton to Nigeria. The comeback began in the 61st minute with a goal from Ohenhen, followed by a second in the 75th. “Prophet” Samuel Elijah and inspirational captain Nduka Ugbade each scored, within minutes of one another. It was 4-4, forcing the match to a penalty shootout.
Their opponents must have thought they were starring in a film, but there was no happy ending for the USSR. Mirdjalal Kasimov missed his spot kick and the Nigerians triumphed 5-3 on penalties!
Nigeria ultimately finished second, to Portugal, but that miraculous day in Dammam still lives on.
2. Angola 4-4 Mali
Now, this is about as ridiculous as it can get: with 11 minutes left to play, Mali staged a magnificent comeback against Angola in 2010.
The 2010 Africa Cup of Nations had hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Two days before the tournament began, the Togolese national team were attacked on their way to Luanda. Three died and nine more were injured. When a devastated Togo withdrew from the tournament, they were later disqualified by an insensitive CAF, who at one point threatened them with a ban as well.
The opening match kept the world talking. Angola president José Eduardo dos Santos watched as the hosts appeared to have launched the tournament with a bang, leading 4-0. But it turned out that Mali, who’d played second fiddle for much of the match, had other ideas.
With 11 minutes remaining, the hosts certainly believed they were high and dry, thanks to a brace from striker Flavio and penalties from Manucho and Gilberto. Flavio and Gilberto came off, while Mali unleashed Seydou Keita.
Keita’s first goal came in the 79th minute. Two minutes before fulltime Frederic Kanoute made it two with a bullet header.
No, they were not done.
In the four minutes that were added, Keita scored again before Mustapha Yatabare delivered the final blow, leaving Angola dejected and stunned.
Neither side would go on to win the tournament, but who cares? Mali executed one of the greatest comebacks in football history.
1. Brazil 3-4 Nigeria (31 July 1996)
This is not a story you’ve heard. Not a story you’ve read. But there’s a lot that needs to be said.
The story still feels like a dream. Who survives a 3-1 onslaught by a star-studded Samba squad — and goes on to win 4-3? Nigerians watched the match in the wee hours of the morning, the period when sleep tends to be sweeter, but the result was certainly real and definitely more delicious.
Parading around the likes of Bebeto, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Juninho, Aldair, and Roberto Carlos, Brazil were overwhelming favourites to clinch the Olympic gold at Atlanta ’96. Nigeria brought their dream team — Kanu Nwankwo, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, and Sunday Oliseh, coached by Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere — but it’s possible not one soul believed they could get a result.
3-1 down and with 12 minutes to go, either a comeback spirit possessed Nigeria, or the team was lifted by thousands of prayers muttered half a world away. Ikpeba reduced the deficit from 20 yards before captain Kanu equalized with a goal mouth scramble.
Then, three minutes into extra time, the whole of Nigeria quaked with thunderous screams of “goal!”
It was not just any goal; Kanu’s second was plated with gold.
Wild celebrations erupted across Nigeria. People filled the streets, some running stark naked, some lighting up the dark by burning tires. There were drinks aplenty as shops and restaurants reopened to make massive sales. It felt as though Nigeria had already won the tournament.
And that they did. Nigeria went on to beat Argentina 3-2 in the final — with another comeback, of course — , clinching the gold medal and making Olympic football history by becoming the first African team to do so.
After the historic match, forward Sunday Oliseh said, “I guarantee you that as I talk to you now, everyone in Africa is celebrating. There is no sleeping tonight. Everyone will be happy. This is for all the African countries.”