By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 13th 2020)
The inaugural African Player of the Year (APotY) Award in 1970, then organised by France Football Magazine was won by the great Salif Keïta with Ivorian legend Laurent Pokou in second place and Abu Greisha third. Jean Kalala N’Tunba was fourth, so voters knew of him, and he plainly had a better 1972 than 1970.
The same could not be said of the Republic of Congo who were only in Cameroon to make up the numbers, but the minnows did not know or accept their place in the pecking order. They remain the greatest surprise winners in Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). It was perhaps one of the greatest achievements in African Football.
There were at least three Congolese players who should have made the top ten – only one did. And then there’s Godfrey Chitalu – two African Cup of Champions Clubs records and two World Records and 5 domestic trophies within one year and he was not in the APotY Top Ten for that year!
Nigerian legend Segun Odegbami was yet to make his assault on football’s record books in 1972, but he recognised greatness and an injustice when he saw it.
“That he scored over a Century of goals in the 1972 Zambian football season, with evidence to show for it means that he was ‘short-changed by France Football Magazine that was singularly selecting the Top 10 best African players of the year at the time,” Odegbami said.
The Unlikeliest Champions
Incredibly, Chitalu was not the only glaring omission from the APotY vote for 1972 in a year of incomprehensible selections. The Republic of Congo were to use a cricketing term, not meant to trouble the scorers. Their players, however, had other ideas.
They were fortunate to make it out of their group. They were equal on points and goal-difference with Morocco and progressed on the drawing of lots. Perhaps that contributed to the high placing of Morocco’s Ahmed Faras in the APotY vote – after all it’s a hard way to lose dreams.
Inter Club Brazzaville did nothing special in 1972, but one their players secured immortality. Noël Minga Tchibinda was one of the Red Devils, as the Republic of Congo were known. Having proceeded with luck to the knockout stage, Congo rode that luck all the way. Minga scored the only goal of the semi-final – the goal that broke the hearts of the hosts.
The Republic Congo progressed to the final. Mali had a harder route, beating Zaire 4-3 in the other semi-final. N’Tumba opened the scoring but it proved not to be enough as Mali progressed after extra time. Zaire lost the consolation match to Cameroon 5-2.
Meanwhile, despite losing their star player, Salif Keita to injury less than half-way through the first half, Mali took the lead through Moussa Diakhité. A crazy 6 minutes in the second half turned the tide of the match as Etoile du Congo’s Jean-Michel M’Bono scored a brace and then delivered an assist to the Player of the Tournament, François M’Pelé to give the Red Devils comfort they would not yield. Although Moussa Traoré made it interesting with 15 minutes remaining, Congo held on for their first and to date only Africa Cup of Nations title.
Jean-Michel M’Bono scored four goals – one behind top-scorer, Mali’s Fantamady Keita. He scored a brace in the final and bagged an assist for the winner but incredibly he wasn’t named in the Team of the Tournament – what more did he have to do?
And Player of the Tournament, M’Pelé scored the trophy winning goal as well. He was in the Team of the Tournament. As the competition’s best player, he could not be left out. However, the Congolese duo did not feature in the APotY top ten.