The Penalty Curse: Victor Ikpeba

This series looks at the players who fell foul of the dreaded penalty kick: a task which, on paper, looks the easiest of all for a professional footballer, but which, in reality, is perhaps one of the most difficult.

After Reynald Pedros’ miss at Euro 96 got things underway, this time it’s the turn of former Nigerian international, Victor Ikpeba.

Many stars have fallen to the dreaded penalty kick. Photo: Aquila via Flickr

In 1984 and 1988, Cameroon beat Nigeria in the final of the African Cup of Nations. So when the two sides both made it to the culmination of the tournament in 2000, the Nigerians, in front of a home crowd, were out for revenge.

Under the guidance of Dutchman Jo Bonfrere, the Super Eagles had done well to reach to the final – topping a tough group ahead of Tunisia, Morocco and The Congo, and beating Senegal and South Africa in the knock-out phase to set-up a tie with two-time champions Cameroon.

Nigeria themselves had been victorious in the competition twice before too, having won it in 1980 and 1994, but the fact that the first Cup of Nations of the 21st century was being co-hosted in their country made it an even sweeter prospect as they looked to make it a hat-trick of trophies.

However, Cameroon hadn’t read the script, and opened the scoring after 26 minutes when 18-year-old Real Madrid hotshot Samuel Eto’o netted his fourth goal of the tournament with an instinctive turn and shot. Eto’o’s experienced strike partner – Cagliari frontman Patrick Mboma, who went on to win that year’s BBC African Footballer of the Year award – made it 2-0 just five minutes later when Nigeria ‘keeper Ike Shorunmu allowed Mboma’s tame shot through his legs.

The Nigerians pulled one back in first half stoppage time, though, when Chukwu Ndukwe capitalised on some lax Cameroonian defending to fire in from inside the box, and the co-hosts’ comeback was complete when flamboyant midfielder Jay-Jay Okocha rocketed in from 25 yards just after the break. The two sides played out the remainder of the half, with neither of them able to grab a winner in normal time, meaning an extra 30 minutes were in order.

Now, you may have noticed that the subject of this article – Victor Ikpeba – hasn’t been mentioned as yet. That’s because the Borussia Dortmund forward didn’t get on to the pitch until the 96th minute, when he replaced midfielder Mutiu Adepoju as Bonfrere’s side searched for an extra time winner.

Ikpeba, who scored twice in Nigeria’s opening match of the tournament – a 4-2 win over Tunisia – made little impact in the 24 minutes he had on the pitch, with the scores remaining goalless after 120 minutes of football, meaning it would go down to a penalty shoot-out to decide who would go home with the trophy.

With Okocha and Mboma both converting their spot-kicks, followed swiftly by Godwin Okpara and Pierre Wome’s successful penalties, the scores stood at 2-2 as Nwankwo Kanu stepped up for Nigeria. The beanpole Arsenal forward’s effort was palmed away by Alioum Boukar, though, despite the Cameroonian goalkeeper straying some way off the goal-line – a missed decision that just a few minutes later would seem tame in comparison. With Geremi making it 3-2 to Cameroon with his spot-kick, the pressure was on the Super Eagles’ next penaty-taker, Victor Ikpeba.

Off the field, the ‘Undisputed Prince of Monaco’ was witnessing his wife, Atinuke, battle breast cancer – a battle which she would sadly lose just months later. However, despite the unenviable personal tragedy Ikpeba was facing, he stepped up to take a penalty for his country.

He thrashed at the unmoving ball, hammering it past Boukar’s dive. The ball then ricocheted off the underside of the crossbar, and looked to have landed well over the line, before bouncing back towards the onlooking Ikpeba. The referee, Mourad Daami, said he had missed, and without any questioning of the Tunisian official’s decision, the Nigerian simply turned back towards his team-mates, holding his head in his hands in disbelief and defeat.

Replays showed that the ball definitely and categorically did cross the line, with Daami and his assistant on the goal-line seemingly oblivious to the obviousness.

Marc-Vivien Foe failied to score Cameroon’s fourth penalty, but Kanu’s earlier miss meant that despite Sunday Oliseh’s successful spot-kick for Nigeria, Rigobert Song was able to bring the trophy home for his country by slotting past Sharunmu in the Nigerian goal, with the Nigerian media quick to lament Daami’s officiating of the game.

Following his penalty miss that never was, Victor Ikpeba’s career slowly deteriorated. His time in Dortmund turned sour after a disagreement with the manager, and he subsequently had unsuccessful spells in Spain, Libya, Belgium and, briefly, Qatar, before hanging up his boots in 2005, aged 32.

The death of his wife is obviously incomparable to the relatively meaningless act of missing a penalty, but Ikpeba’s story at the 2000 African Cup of Nations is arguably one of the best-laid cases for goal-line technology to be introduced into football. Yet still, 11 years later, we wait.

Full highlights of the final can be found here.

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