Stade Abidjan’s incredible Christmas Day comeback

Joseph Bléziri of Stade d'Abidjan (left) passes the ball into the box.
Joseph Bléziri of Stade d'Abidjan (left) passes the ball into the box. © Jacob Adjobi/Mahjoub Archive/FIFA Museum

The second leg of the 1966 CAF African Champions League Final was played on Christmas Day. It proved to be a festive game with one of the all-time great fightbacks in the history of the tournament.

Al Ahly’s victory in the 2020 CAF African Champions League Final over fierce rivals Zamalek saw them extend their record as they became African champions for the ninth time. The much-delayed game had been scheduled for May, but Covid forced its postponement to the end of November. The delay brought back memories of when the Final was always a feature of the build-up to the Christmas period. Indeed, on one occasion, in 1966, the second leg of the Final was played on Christmas Day itself. And what a festive game it proved to be with one of the all-time great fightbacks in the history of the tournament.

In 1966, organised continental club football in Africa was in its infancy. The year before, Oryx Douala from Cameroon had beaten Mali’s Stade Malien in the first Final of the African Club Championship to win the N’Krumah Cup, named after Ghana’s trail blazing independence leader Kwame N’Krumah. Only nine teams played in the first tournament, and of the 12 teams that took part in 1966, all but two of them came from the newly independent countries of West Africa.

The holders Oryx were given a bye to the semi-finals but were beaten by Mali’s Real Bamako, who boasted a 20-year-old Salif Keita. Keita, or Domingo as he was known, was already regarded as the star of African football and he would go on to achieve fame and fortune in Europe with Saint-Etienne and Valencia. In 1970 he was voted the first African Footballer of the Year in the annual poll by France Football. In the Final, Keita and his team mates would meet Stade d’Abidjan from the Côte d’Ivoire, who had beaten Sudanese champions Al Hilal in the semis.

Keita seemed to have given Real Bamako one hand on the Cup with two goals in the first leg at the Stade Omnisports in Bamako. A third from team captain Idrissa Touré, who was known as Nani, ensured a 3-1 lead to defend in the second leg, two weeks later on Christmas Day in Abidjan.

The Stade Félix Houphouet-Boigny in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan is perhaps amongst the most picturesque in the world. Nestling on the shores of one of the many lagoons around which the city is built, it has been at the centre of Ivorian football since 1952. The academy of Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas is situated on the facing shore giving the young hopefuls a glimpse of what their future might hold. But in 1966, it was the supporters of Stade d’Abidjan, by far the most successful club in the country at that time, who made their way to the stadium on Christmas Day.

Cover of the Cote d'Ivoire daily "Fraternité Matin" from the day after the final (26.12.1966)
Cover of the Cote d'Ivoire daily "Fraternité Matin" from the day after the final (26.12.1966) © Fraternité Matin/Mahjoub Archive

They were hoping for a Christmas miracle, and remarkably, they got one. Keita may have been the star of the Real Bamako team, but Stade’s midfielder Lamizana played the game of his life to neutralise the threat from him. Instead, Stade’s 22-year-old Maurice Déhi had a first half to remember in which he scored twice to haul Stade back into the match. The first came on half an hour when he caught the Real defence napping following a pass from Henri Ahibo. His second, just before half-time, came thanks to a fine run from the halfway line by Joseph Bléziri.

Stade still needed a third to win but the game was in danger of slipping away from them in the second half as Real put the Ivorian defence under constant pressure. However, the combination of keeper Emmanuel Ezan and the post saw it finish 3-3 on aggregate after 90 minutes. That meant-extra-time. Seven minutes into the first period the crowd was stunned into silence when Real deservedly went ahead on aggregate through Moussa Diallo. The N’Krumah Cup looked destined for Mali.

In the second period of extra-time, Stade d’Abidjan drew on all of their reserves and with 12 minutes left Ahibo headed home a cross from Guy Cissoko. Then with just two minutes left and a replay on the cards, Bléziri unleashed a fierce shot from 30 metres out which left Sidicki Sackho in the Real goal rooted to the spot. Incredibly, Stade d’Abidjan were African champions.

There were wild celebrations across the Ivorian capital. Bonfires were lit and the celebrations lasted well into the Christmas night and for days after as the team was feted across the country. For Stade, it was, however, to be the pinnacle of their achievements as they were overshadowed in the years to come by both ASEC and Africa Sports. Their 1969 League title has so far proved to be their last. But they will always be remembered as the first Ivorian team to be crowned as African champions and it would be 32 years before ASEC could claim the same.

As for teams from Mali, having appeared in the first two Finals, they have yet to return.