Africans make their mark in FA Cup finals

When Crystal Palace beat Watford 2-1 in the semi-final of the FA Cup in late April, four African players were in action for the Eagles. If they get a chance to parade their skills in Saturday's FA Cup final against Manchester United at Wembley, their appearance will continue a long tradition for the continent in the final of the world's oldest competition.

The first African players to feature in the FA Cup final were South Africans, like Bill Perry, who starred in the so-called "Matthews final" of 1953, when a 38-year-old Stanley Matthews won his only FA Cup winners medal. It was the Johannesburg-born Perry who scored the winning goal for Blackpool in their 4-3 victory against Bolton Wanderers. In 1966, Albert 'Hurry Hurry' Johanneson became the first black player to appear in an FA Cup final, and although the South African was on the losing side as Leeds lost 2-1 to Liverpool, Johanneson blazed the way for many an exciting talent.

Since then the number of African players who have collected FA Cup final medals reads like a who's who of African footballers in England, with the Toure brothers, FIFA Ballon d'Or winner George Weah, Didier Drogba, Nigerians Daniel Amokachi, Nwankwo Kanu and John Obi Mikel, as well as Ghanaian Michael Essien famous for making the proud walk to the Royal Box.

Tragedy and triumph Although African goalkeepers in England have been few and far between, Zimbabwean international Bruce Grobbelaar was a highly successful exception, making an unlikely leap to Liverpool. He ultimately had a tremendous career that spanned over 600 games, six league titles, three FA Cup winners' medals and a winners medal from the UEFA European Cup. “I still remember watching the 1973 FA Cup final,” Grobbelaar remembered to “I was only 15 at the time. Jim Montgomery pulled off a world-class double save to prevent Leeds from scoring and Sunderland went on to create one of the huge FA Cup upsets by winning 1-0.”

In the 1986 final against Everton, Grobbelaar himself pulled off a save that is still remembered and talked about to this day. “That is probably my most memorable FA Cup final moment. Graeme Sharp headed the ball toward goal, and I had to run across half of my box before tipping it over. Sharp thought it was in. And from there, we went on to win 3-1.”

But Grobbelaar's FA Cup memories will always be accompanied by sadness, as he played in the 1989 semi-final match that led to the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives. “It was tough to go on after that, but what made the difference is that Kenny Dalglish, who was our manager at the time, made us go and visit the families of the bereaved. We counselled them and, in turn, we counselled ourselves.

“After beating Nottingham Forrest, we qualified for the final and it was fitting that it was again against local rivals Everton, as the whole city was grieving. We won 3-2.”

Mr. FA Cup Few players have dominated the FA Cup final as much as Côte d’Ivoire striker Didier Drogba, who not only has four winning medals in his trophy cabinet but also has the distinction of scoring in all four of those finals – twice the only goal of the game.

In the 2010 final, when Drogba's 59th-minute goal against Portsmouth gave Chelsea a 1-0 victory, the striker was one of nine Africans to tread the hallowed Wembley turf. One of them was Nwankwo Kanu, who has his own part in FA Cup final history.

Two years earlier the Nigerian striker became an instant Portsmouth hero as he helped the club to only their second-ever FA Cup victory, coming 69 years after their first. Kanu scored the winning goal against Cardiff and picked up his third FA Cup medal, having earlier twice won with Arsenal. “The FA Cup has always been a big thing for me. I grew up watching it on TV and every team wants to win the FA Cup. To make the final is something special.”

Kanu says winning the cup with Arsenal and Portsmouth were very different experiences. “With Arsenal, we just had to win a cup that season. We were so strong. But with Pompey it was different. When we started, we certainly did not see ourselves in the final and winning it. But once we won the quarter-finals and then the semi-finals, I knew that we would definitely have to win it. And then we did, and it was a special one for Portsmouth and the players. Because it is an old tradition, people in England really appreciate the FA Cup."

For Crystal Palace midfielders Yannick Bolasie (Congo DR), Bakary Sako (Mali), Senegalese defender Pape Souare, as well as Togo international striker Emmanuel Adebayor, Saturday's final against the Red Devils provides them with an opportunity to write yet another chapter in the glorious FA Cup final history of African footballers.