African football lost one of its greatest ever players on Thursday 15 November, as former Cameroon midfielder and captain Theophile Abega passed away from a heart attack at the age of 58. A legendary performer for the Indomitable Lions, he notably propelled his nation to victory at the 1984 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Côte d’Ivoire.
During that tournament, the skipper scored a brace against Togo in the first round and also found the net versus Nigeria in the final at Stade Felix-Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan, before becoming the first man in Cameroon’s history to hold aloft a continental trophy.
Two years prior to this triumph, Abega had already contributed to another ground-breaking achievement, helping his country qualify for their first-ever FIFA World Cup™. Although the African side failed to advance from the group stage, they nevertheless departed Spain 1982 unbeaten, after securing three draws against Peru (0-0), Poland (0-0) and future champions Italy (1-1).
“It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Theophile Abega, one of African football’s most outstanding representatives, captain of Cameroon, part of the team that became African champions in 1984, and a man that I had the privilege of knowing personally,” said FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter in a letter of condolence to Cameroon Football Federation President Mohammed Iya.
“Please allow me, on behalf of FIFA and the entire football family, to pass on my sincere condolences to you as well as to the Cameroon Football Federation,” he added.
A highly skilful player and a creative fulcrum for every team whose shirt he donned, Abega's iconic status was also cemented by his character and leadership qualities. Nicknamed ‘The Doctor,’ a reference to an uncle who practised medicine and offered him health advice, he enjoyed his greatest domestic success at Canon Yaounde, where he won three Cameroonian league titles and two African Cup of Champions Clubs crowns, in 1978 and 1980.
Abega’s excellent performances at the Cup of Nations did not go unnoticed by European clubs, and he would subsequently sign for Toulouse in France, a move which likely sealed his capture of the 1984 African Footballer of the Year award, before joining Swiss outfit Vevey-Sports.
“His most treasured memory was without a doubt winning the 1984 Cup of Nations in Abidjan,” recalled his former team-mate, Joseph Kamga. “And his lowest moment was probably the injury he suffered against Zambia in the same competition in Egypt two years later, because it caused the end of his international career,” he continued.
Abega also brought the curtain down on his club career soon after, and returned home from Switzerland to take up a management role at Canon Yaounde.
Abega’s leadership attributes would prove equally useful in later life, as he went on to become club president as well as be elected mayor of a district of Yaounde in 2007. Although he stated recently that he was being kept busy by a number of projects, the man who described himself as ‘a true icon of Cameroonian football’ will unfortunately not have the chance to oversee them.
He did, however, manage to guide his nation to glory and leave an unforgettable imprint on African football, and for that fans of Cameroon will forever be grateful.