50 years ago yesterday, on 16 February 1970, Sudan beat Ghana 1-0 in the Final of the Africa Cup of Nations to win their first and biggest international title to date.
There is little respite from the burning Khartoum sun at any time of the year and in the usually cooler winter months of December to February the temperatures still make it into 30s. Sitting at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, the city is divided by the river into three districts - North Khartoum, Omdurman and Khartoum itself. While the two major club sides in the country, Merreikh and Hilal, hail from Omdurman, it's in the latter where you will find the Municipal Stadium. Built for the first Africa Cup of Nations, which the Sudanese capital hosted in 1957, it was also one of two venues used in the 1970 tournament. There’s no roof to protect the spectators from the sun, so, sensibly, matches in the 1970 tournament were scheduled for the evenings.
Sudan had stepped in as host nation at the last moment, because the Six Day War with Israel had effectively shut down football in Egypt, who had been chosen initially to host the tournament. A record 23 of the 37 nations then affiliated to CAF and FIFA had entered a qualifying tournament, although four withdrew before playing a game. Losing 2-1 on aggregate to their neighbours Algeria, the biggest casualties in the qualifiers were Morocco, who had just qualified for the FIFA World Cup Mexico 1970. The teams to beat were Ghana and fellow two-time champions Egypt. In addition to the two favourites and hosts Sudan, the field was completed by Cameroon, the Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Congo-Kinshasa and Guinea.
Initially no-one gave the hosts Sudan much of a chance as they had failed to make it through to the finals of the two previous tournaments. They had, however, remained a significant force throughout the 1960s, and had reached the final round of World Cup qualifying round. Prime Minister Jaafar Nimeiry, who had overthrown the government in a military coup in 1969, was also a huge football fan, something that was a big advantage in African football at the time.
The tournament kicks off
Debutants Cameroon made a double winning start in Group A when they beat the Ivory Coast in the opening match, followed by a win against Ethiopia. Still they missed out on a place in the semi-finals! It was the Ivorians who secured top spot in the group. After losing to the Cameroonians, they went on to beat hosts Sudan 1-0, in a game described as the best of the tournament. The winner came a minute from time, a diving header by Tahi from a Laurent Pokou cross.
Pokou proved to be the star of the tournament. He had finished the 1968 finals as top scorer, and he did so again in Sudan, in no small part to the five goals he scored in the Ivorians 6-1 victory in their final group game against Ethiopia - an individual feat yet to be matched in the Nations Cup. He finished the tournament on eight goals, a total surpassed just once – in 1974 by Zaire’s Ndaye Mulamba who scored nine.
Joining the Ivorians in the semi-finals were hosts Sudan. They had to beat Cameroon in the final group match to qualify ahead of their opponents on goal difference. A goal by striker Hasabu ensured the Sudanese made it through the group in second place, much to the dismay of some Cameroon fans who attacked the referee on the pitch at the end and chased the officials all the way into their changing room.
Based in Wad Madani, 136 kilometers to the south of Khartoum, Group B kicked off with a repeat of the 1968 Final between Ghana and Congo Kinshasa. Thanks to two goals from star striker Kwasi Owusu, Ghana gained some measure of revenge for their defeat two years earlier.
Egypt cemented their status as favourite from the very first match. A month before the tournament, Egyptian club Ismaili had become the first Egyptian team to win the African Champions Cup. Four of that team were included in the national team, most notably Ali Abou Greisha, who according to France Football was "certainly the best Egyptian footballer of today, and who can single handedly turn the result of a match." He scored two goals in the first ten minutes in the opening match against debutants Guinea and then the winner against Congo Kinshasa as the Egyptians topped the group.
The two favourites Egypt and Ghana had drawn their second group game against each other which left the Ghanaians needing a draw in their final group match against Guinea. Football in Guinea had been heavily influenced by Hungarian coaches József Zakariás and László Budai, both players in Hungary's Golden Team of the 1950s. Players like Cherif Souleymane and Petit Sory would go on to dominate African club football in the 1970s, but this tournament came too soon for them. Guinea took an early lead against Ghana but despite dominating for most of the match, Owusu levelled the game for the Black Stars and they were through to a semi-final meeting against neighbours Côte d'Ivoire.
Both semi-finals go to extra-time
Both semi-finals were close affairs that needed extra-time. Played as a double header, like all the matches in the tournament, first up was Ivory Coast - Ghana. Described by France Football as "undoubtedly one of the most brilliant and attractive in Africa " the Ivorian national team struggled mentally to overcome their poor record against Ghana who had knocked them out of the two previous Nations Cups. The Ghanaians made it three in a row despite the fact that the Ivorians had much of the game. Joe Ghartey crossed for Ibrahim Sunday to drive home the opener for Ghana but with the crowd firmly behind the Ivory Coast, they were brought to their feet with just ten minutes to go when Diomandé Losséni scored the equaliser. In extra-time, however, a defensive blunder gifted Malik Jabir the winner and Ghana were through to a fourth consecutive Final.
The semi-final between the hosts and two-time champions Egypt was a cagey affair that sprang into life in the last ten minutes. With just seven minutes left, striker El Issed scored what looked to be the winner but within a minute Chazli had equalised for the Egyptians. This was the fourth meeting of the two teams at the Nations Cup and the Sudanese had yet to win any of them, but they claimed a first victory when El Issed scored a spectacular winner just before the break in extra-time. The Egyptians had to be content with third place medals after beating the other defeated semi-finalist Ivory Coast 3-1.
Stade Municipal, Khartoum, 16-02-1970, 12,187
Gebre-Yesus Tesfaye ETH; Alphonse Mahombe COD & Jean-Louis Faber GUI
SUDAN 1-0 GHANA
SDN - Abdellah Abdel Aziz - Elsir Abdella 'Kaunda', Abdel Kadir Suliman, Zaki Amin Mohamed (c), Salem Mahmoud Saeid 'James' - Abdel Nadif Bishara, Wahba Bushra - Mohammed El Bashir 'El Issed', Osman Izzeldin 'Dahish', Abbas Nasr El-Din 'Djaksa', Omer Hasab El Rassoul 'Hasabu'.
GHA - Robert Mensah - Edward Boye, Alex Mingle, John Eshun, Oliver Acquah - Joe Ghartey (c), Ibrahim Sunday, Cecil Jones Attuquayefio - Robert Folley, Kwasi Owusu, Jabir Malik.
Revenge in the Final
So, first things first. There are conflicting reports as to who scored the winning goal for Sudan in the 1970 Africa Cup of Nations Final. The general consensus is that Hasabu scored the winner after just two minutes of the game. The Egyptian Gazette puts the goal time as eight minutes, the Ghanaian Times at ten minutes and France Football at 11 minutes. The noted African football historian, Faouzi Mahjoub, lists the scorer in his book on the Nations Cup as El Issed after 12 minutes!
It was a tense match played before a fiercely partisan crowd. On neutral territory Ghana might have been expected to win, but injuries had restricted team selection to the same group of players for all five matches and they were visibly fatigued by the end of the match. Star-striker Owusu was carefully marshalled by the Sudanese defence around captain Amin Zaki. Two of their defenders, Kaunda and Suliman had been introduced only in the semi-finals and their freshness told.
The Final was a repeat of the 1963 tournament which Ghana had hosted and won with 3-0 in the Accra Sports Stadium. But on their home turf the Sudanese got their revenge and held on to win 1-0. Ghana complained that few decisions went their way. When the final whistle went the team were reported as refusing to collect their silver medals from Prime Minister Nimeiry. Indeed, they were expelled from the country for their snub and forced to leave the country before the night was out.
The Ghanaian Times, however, put forward a different version of events. According to them, the usual practise was have a closing ceremony where the winners were presented with the Cup and their medals last. But as the crowd had already stormed onto the pitch, the Sudanese were given their medals and the Cup first, while the Ghanaian players left for the dressing room confused due to the change. By the time hurried efforts were made to bring them back, the Sudanese anthem had been played signifying the end of the ceremony.
It was an unfortunate postscript to a tournament that saw Sudan win its only international honour to date. And the names of the team have endured in Sudanese folklore over the half a century since that historic night in Khartoum. The forward line of Djaksa, El Issed and Hasabu will always be heroes as will the winning captain Amin Zaki, who received the trophy from a smiling General Nimeiry.