By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (March 5th 2022)
Fifty years ago today Congo’s Red Devils shocked the football world by beating Mali 3-2 to clai the 8th Africa Cup of Nations. It was the first time Cameroon had hosted the tournament but the Indomitable Lions could only manage third place. Congo progressed to the last four by the skin of their teeth. With identical points and goal difference to Morocco’s Atlas Lions, the toss of a coin sent Morocco home. The Red Devils made the most of their opportunity, beating Cameroon 1-0 in the semi-final courtesy of the only Congolese player to make the top ten of the 1972 African Player of the Year awards, Noël Minga-Tchibinda.
Defending champions Sudan departed, having finished bottom of Group B. Kenya and Togo failed to make the knockout stage from Group A. Zaire topped a tight Group B, earning a semi-final against Mali and Cameroon faced Congo. Mali beat Zaire 4-3 after extr time – it was 3-3 in normal time – to advance to the final.
The Indomitable Lions took out their frustrations on Zaire, beating the Leopards 5-2, but it hardly mattered. Third place was seen as a failure and it took half a century for the class of 1972 to be embraced by Cameroonian football after newly elected FECAFOOT President, Samuel Eto’o Fils invited them to Cameroon’s second AFCON. Cameroon remain by far the most successful nation never to have won AFCON on home soil – all five of their triumphs were on foreign soil. Meanwhile, Congo beat the more fancied Mali 3-2 to lift their one and only AFCON trophy. Astonishingly, neither Player of the Tournament, François M’Pelé nor his teammate, Jean-Michel M’Bono made the top ten ofFrance Football Magazine’s African Player of the Year Award. M’Bono had scored two braces to finish second top scorer to Mali’s Cheikh Fantaady Keïta – one of which was in the final. M’Bono also provided the assist for M’Pelé’s trophy winning deciding goal.
Last year I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing four of the AFCON winning Red Devils. They included Gabriel Dengaki, Augustin Ngouli and Africa’s Tostão, Jonas Bahamboula. The quartet detailed their recollections of that memorable tournament and how they had fared in the intervening years. Bahamboula won 56 caps for the Red Devils. He hung up his boots holding the record for the most appearances for his country.
The interview will be published shortly. They had been invited to Cameroon by CAF for last year’s African Nations Championship CHAN. Despite winning the major tournament for nations in 1972, they were conspicuous by their absence from this year’s AFCON – a glaring omission.
Today African football should pay tribute to AFCON’s unlikeliest winners, Congo’s Red Devils. Brazzaville should be honouring the most remarkable team that sliver of a country on the Atlantic coastline of Africa ever produced. It is the least these remarkable Red Devils deserve. CAF too ought to honour them too – they earned it.