Daily Trust (Abuja)

18 November 2012

Africa: Afcon 2013 - It Is Still South Africa!

Last week I thought I was done with commenting on Afcon 2013 until I arrive South Africa next January.

Last Wednesday night the result of the match between Zambia and South Africa has now forcefully brought me back again to the matter.

Zambia handed to South Africa a shocking 1- 0 pre-Afcon gift in Johannesburg. With the manner of the loss of that very important match to the defending African champions many people are already calling for my head for daring to dream that Bafana Bafana will win the coveted trophy. They are now either making me the butt of their jokes, following my 'dream' that already looks to be going awry with some 2 months to go to the start of the championship, or now expecting me to wake up from my slumber to the reality of the situation, and probably go back to sleep and dream another dream that would have a different ending. In short, I should go bury my head for daring to suggest that South Africa would win the championship.

Well, I have news for all cynics and sceptics. I am now even more convinced than before about the team that will likely be champion of Afcon 2013. Having finally watched and seen the Zambians play, now I know better.

Football is a 'crazy' game. Were it not so, why would I, after last Wednesday's match, still even be contemplating the possibility of Bafana Bafana winning the Africa Cup of Nations when Zambia that taught them some useful lessons in football would also be participating? But I am.

Look, I am a Nigerian, a proud one at that. Ordinarily, for patriotic reasons alone, I should be dreaming and 'seeing' the Super Eagles lift the African trophy. Indeed, I want them to make me eat my words and win it. I am going to give them any and all the metaphysical support I can muster. But, my head still tells me differently from what my heart wants to happen.

Back to the Zambia - South Africa match. I agree entirely with all those that may now have written off the South Africans as possible champions. Last Wednesday they simply did not give any one the confidence to think otherwise. But, once again, I say that football is a 'crazy' game.

Just to show you how crazy, let me tell you this story.

In 1996, on the eve of the Atlanta Olympics, the national Under-23 team of Nigeria, including all the great names in Nigerian football at the time, the majority of whom played and won the African Cup of Nations in 1994 and put up some wonderful performances at the World Cup in the USA two years before, played its last international friendly match against a team that had never beaten Nigeria before in any competition and at any level - Togo. The match was even played at the main bowl of the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, a venue that was dreaded by all visiting teams, and where visiting teams psychologically are defeated even before a ball is kicked.

Never had a Nigerian team played more badly. The Eagles suffered floundered badly.

Playing on a very bad turf and with the arrogance that all they needed to do to win was march out onto the field, stroll through the match, and victory was achieved, the Eagles put up a performance that left their supporters covering our heads in disbelief. So, poor was the performance and so scandalous the result, a 3-1 loss, that the players walked out of the field to the boos of the own crowd, their heads bowed, and their tails tucked between their legs, every hope lost that anything good could come out of Atlanta '96. No one gave them the least chance any longer. The rest of the team's preparations and even departure were done without much interest by Nigerians.

Let me cut a long story short.

Less than one month later, that same team, with the same set of players, with the same coach, unheralded and disregarded, stunned the entire world. They started and ended their campaign at the Olympics like a team possessed, putting up some of the best attacking football ever by any Nigerian national team. It was simply unbelievable. Nigerians could not believe their eyes when the lads marched out and started to play out their hearts. They probably were not the strongest team at Atlanta '96, but they played without the usual debilitating pressure of bloated expectations, and against opponents that under-rated them because of their well-advertised, poor, pre-competition performances. Instead, they were lifted by the singing and drumming of mostly USA-based Nigerian supporters plus the large population of Americans that had come to watch great football and to support teams that entertained them. And the Eagles, initially considered underdogs, provided both in abundance and secured the support of this vociferous crowd.

The rest of the story is now history. The Eagles not only played brilliantly throughout, they defeated two of the best teams in the world at the time (Brazil and Argentina) in a manner that left the world dazed and baffled at their complete transformation. Since then I have learnt never to under-estimate the power of a 'wake-up call' for teams that have glaring pre-championship advantages. South Africa are is not in the same kind of position or situation that Nigeria was in 1996, but they are jolted in the same manner as Nigeria in 1996 by their own poor

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