There can be few more evocative fixtures at an Africa Cup of Nations than a meeting between Nigeria and Cameroon, and this Saturday’s last-16 encounter in Ivory Coast will surely bring back plenty of memories for Indomitable Lions coach Rigobert Song in particular.
Cameroon’s tally of five Afcon titles is bettered only by Egypt’s seven, and their first three victories at the tournament were all secured by defeating the Super Eagles in the final.
Roger Milla’s Cameroon came from behind to beat Nigeria 3-1 in the 1984 final, and a side coached by Claude Le Roy then came out on top when the teams met again in 1988 in Casablanca.
Most recently, and most infamously, they clashed in the 2000 showpiece in Lagos, a match that went to penalties after ending 2-2 at the end of extra time, with a young Samuel Eto’o among Cameroon’s scorers.
Song, the Cameroon captain, converted the decisive penalty in a shoot-out that Nigerians will always remember for Victor Ikpeba’s kick that appeared to cross the line after hitting the underside of the bar, but was not given by the referee.
“I have not set foot in Lagos since then, and I don’t really have any intention of doing so,” Patrick M’Boma, who scored for Cameroon in normal time in that game and in the shoot-out, told Jeune Afrique magazine recently as he recalled that day.
Now aged 47 and on the bench, Song leads his country into the latest meeting with their neighbours at Abidjan’s Stade Felix Houphouet Boigny, which was the venue for the 1984 final between the teams.
While Nigeria eased through the group phase unbeaten with seven points and just one goal conceded, Cameroon lost to Senegal and only made it this far thanks to a remarkable 3-2 victory over Gambia in Bouake, after they had been 2-1 down with five minutes left.
Song, though, is no stranger to dramatic comebacks, whether on the pitch or off.
He was just 40 when he suffered a stroke in October 2016 and went into a coma, before making a full recovery.
“I have already been declared dead and yet here I am, still alive,” he said earlier this week as he prepared for Cameroon’s vital final group game.
While their last-16 opponents are led by the African footballer of the year in Victor Osimhen, Song’s Cameroon side lacks obvious star names.
The most recognisable is Andre Onana, but the goalkeeper who is enduring a difficult season at club level with Manchester United was dropped by Song for the decisive match against Gambia.
Most of the attention around the Indomitable Lions focuses on Song himself, at least when it is not on Eto’o, now his boss as president of the Cameroonian Football Federation.
Song was under pressure after his team’s poor start at this Afcon, but he insisted that was not a concern.
“I don’t panic, I don’t get stressed. I listen to and understand the criticism, I know what I have to do and I stay calm,” said the former Liverpool, West Ham United, Lens and Galatasaray player.
“I have lived with pressure since I was young. It is part of the game.”
Song was appointed coach after Cameroon lost in the semifinals as hosts of the last Cup of Nations in 2022 and oversaw a famous win against Brazil at the World Cup later that year.
It was the first ever victory for an African team against Brazil at a World Cup.
Now the hero of that 2000 final must mastermind another victory over Nigeria, who notably came out on top the last time the sides clashed at the Afcon, winning 3-2 at the same last-16 stage in 2019.
Whoever emerges victorious will advance to a quarterfinal against either Angola or Namibia.