By Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
THE first was a fine header and the second, a penalty converted with ease, thrust him into an elite company of goal-scorers after a remarkable match which came within just one goal of matching the then 41-year record for the most goals scored in a single AFCON finals game.
Along the way he joined Frederick Kanoute of Mali, then playing for English Premiership giants Tottenham Hotspur, and Cameroon’s Patrick Mboma, considered one of the finest African forwards of all-time, among the joint top-scorers with three goals, in the first two matches, of the 2004 Nations Cup finals.
And, in scoring his memorable brace in that showdown in the Tunisian southern coastal city of Sfax, on January 29, 2004, Peter Ndlovu became the FIRST player to finally find a way to score TWICE against the Indomitable Lions in a Nations Cup game in SIX years. Today marks exactly 15 years since that day, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, when the immortal Ndlovu produced a vintage individual performance, consistent with his leadership role for the Warriors, in which he pushed the continent’s most formidable defensive unit to its limits.
Sadly, it also marked the end of a golden era — the last time the inspirational Ndlovu, the first skipper to lead his Warriors to the AFCON finals, would also score his final goal at the continent’s biggest football festival.
But, for one hour 17 minutes, the time it took him to score his three goals at that AFCON finals, fittingly against the two most successful nations in the tournament’s history (Egypt and Cameroon), the fairytale romance was refreshingly beautiful while it lasted. King Peter didn’t get his hattrick – to join the likes of Mboma, Benny McCarthy, Kalusha Bwalya, Joel Tiehi, Barnard Chanda, Laurent Pokou, Hacene Lalmas, Hossam Hassan, Hassan El Shazly,Mohmoud El Gohary and Ad Diba who have done that at the AFCON finals – but, for a rookie forward at this tournament, this was as good as it gets.
The Warriors might have lost that match 3-5 but the way they battled, long and hard, against the Indomitable Lions who had won the last two AFCON tournaments, was roundly praised by many of the game’s seasoned analysts.
That eight-goal thriller in Sfax came within just one goal of matching the game which held the record of the most goals scored in an AFCON final, the nine shared by Egypt and Nigeria, with the Pharaohs winning that encounter 6-3 in 1963.
It also marked the first time the Indomitable Lions conceded more than two goals, in an AFCON match – either a qualifier or at the finals – in eight years with the last time having come on January 24, 1996, in Durban in a 3-3 draw against Angola at the ’96 Nations Cup finals.
Joni, Paulao and Quinzinho scored for the Negras Palancas that afternoon while Francois Omam-Biyik – the hero of the Indomitable Lions’ shock 1-0 win over then defending World Champions Argentina at Italia”90 – Georges Mouyene-Elong and a late own goal by Helder Vicente meant the spoils were shared.
Maybe, the Warriors had long perfected the art of scoring a lot of goals against these Indomitable Lions, with a ’96 AFCON qualifier at the National Sports Stadium on January 22, ’95, having ended in a crushing 4-1 victory for Zimbabwe.
Vitalis Takawira scored a hattrick that day while the late Paul Gundani completed the rout as the Warriors, who were still unhappy with the controversial way their winner-take-all ’94 World Cup qualifier in Yaounde had been decided two years earlier, appeared on a mission to inflict as much damage as possible on these Indomitable Lions.
However, the withdrawal of Lesotho and Swaziland and the outbreak of Ebola in the DRC all worked against the Warriors in that qualifying campaign and Cameroon recovered from that bashing in Harare to top the group and make it to the ’96 AFCON finals in South Africa.
Cameroon might have suffered a 1-3 home defeat to Ghana on October 4, ’98, in the qualifiers of the 2000 AFCON finals but the result of that game was nullified after CAF switched the tournament from Zimbabwe to Ghana and Nigeria.
And, for six years, until they came face-to-face with Ndlovu and his Warriors in Sfax on January 29, 2004, the Indomitable Lions played 25 AFCON matches and, the most they had conceded in a match, were two goals against Gabon, Nigeria and Guinea. Along the way they had faced some of the continent’s best forwards, Nwanko Kanu, Raphael Chukwu, Julius Aghahowa, Tijani Babangida, Finidi George, El Hadji Diouf, Henri Camara, Khalilou Fadiga, Papa Bouba Diop and some of the best midfielders, Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh, but they had not conceded more than two goals a match in an AFCON game.
The Indomitable Lions defence was built around Bill Tchato, Pierre Wome, Rigobert Song, Raymond Kala, Lauren and tough midfield shields like Geremi and Marc Vivien-Foe.
The Cameroonians won 15 of those AFCON games, drew nine and lost only one. However, on January 29, 2005, they met a Warriors team that proved they could concede more than two goals, in an AFCON game, with Zimbabwe scoring three times that day while Peter Ndlovu became the first player, wince Souleymane Oulare of Guinea on February 8, 1998, to score twice against the Indomitable Lions in an AFCON game.
Oulare won the Belgian Footballer of the Year in 1999 after a starring role at Genk, where he scored 17 goals, but a life-threatening blood clot in his lungs detected after signing for English side Stoke City heralded the beginning of the end of his career.