19 January 2013

Africa: The 29th Africa Cup of Nations Finals

After all has been said and done, the stage is set for the opening ceremony of the 29th Africa Cup of Nations, South Africa 2013.

Today at the National Stadium (formerly First National Bank Stadium, formerly Soccer City), South Africa's Bafana Bafana take on the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde in the opening match of the three-week, 16-nation tournament, after what is expected to be a colourful ceremony depicting the culture and artistic beauty of South Africa and perhaps, the entire continent.

For avoidance of doubt, the idea of a Confederation of African Football (Caf) was mooted in 1956 after prominent football officials from the continent attended the Fifa Congress in Lisbon, Portugal. A year later, the Caf was founded on 8th February, 1956 with top officials from Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa in attendance.

The Africa Cup, later to be renamed the Africa Cup of Nations, was launched in 1957 in Sudan.

The history of the Africa Cup of Nations can be likened to the history of Africa's own growth, in several respects. The Cup of Nations started as a three-nation competition, following the barring of South Africa from the first edition as a result of the country's refusal to field a multi-racial team. Today, it is a 16-nation finals, with all the glamour and regard that you can only dream of.

Top managers in Europe always reckon with the Africa Cup of Nations, as it affects them at the beginning of every even (now, odd) year. They have offered different opinions and views on the competitions' timing, but Caf has refused to yield, only agreeing to take it to the odd year so that it is not staged in the same year as the FIFA World Cup.

As a country, we started participating in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1963, but ended up receiving heavy thrashing in the hands of Sudan and Egypt. A certain Hassan Chazly, who would be named Player of the Tournament, scored four of Egypt's goals in the 6-3 mauling of Nigeria in Accra. Sudan also defeated Nigeria 4-0.

Surely, we have made good progress over the decades. Our country did not appear at the championship again until 13 years later, when the likes of Baba Otu Mohammed, Muda Lawal, Godwin Odiye Christian Chukwu, Sam Ojebode and Joe Erico dominated the tournament in Ethiopia in 1976. The Cup holders, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) arrived with understandable pomposity, having triumphed in Egypt two years earlier with class and represented Africa at the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

But the Green Eagles had no respect for pedigree and promptly dazed them 4-2. Before they knew it, the tournament was over for them. If not for a lack of concentration in the latter stages of their match against the Moroccans and the fact that the competition was played on a odd league-basis, the Eagles could have won. They ended up with the bronze medal.

Two years later, we ended up with the bronze medal again after unfortunately losing to Uganda in the semi finals in Ghana. But in 1980, the Green Eagles would take no prisoners by winning the trophy, following a 3-0 defeat of Algeria in the final match.

We were unable to impress in Libya in 1982, thereby surrendering the trophy tamely, with losses to Algeria and Zambia, after beating Ethiopia handsomely in the first match. In Cote d'Ivoire in 1984, a very promising young squad, captained by Stephen Keshi (now our coach and pilot light) reached the final and played impressively against the more experienced Cameroonians. Experience and street wisdom won the game as youth and talent bowed inside the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium. 3-1 it ended in favour of the Indomitable Lions.

That match still ranks as one of the best Nations Cup final matches ever, alongside the 1994 final that Nigeria won against the Zambians.

In 1986, we did not qualify (just as happened last year) but in 1988, the Eagles were again in the final in Morocco and were again to hold the wrong end of the stick against Cameroon. The cunny Roger Milla concocted a penalty and that made the difference, despite a scintillating display of attacking football by the likes of Henry Nwosu, Ndubuisi Okosieme, Sam Okwaraji (of blessed memory), Rashidi Yekini (of blessed memory), Folorunso Okenla and Humphrey Edobor.

Nwosu even scored a beautiful goal that many Nigerians still believe, till this day, was a legitimate one.

In 1990, a largely home-based squad reached the final, with the overseas-based contingent, including Keshi, overlooked. New Coach Clemens Westerhorf wanted to make a statement and he surely did, with only a few foreign-based considered. In the end, the team also reached the final, losing to the host nation by the odd goal.

Another bronze in 1992, following defeat by Ghana in the semi final and defeat of Cameroon in the third place match in Senegal, preceded the second triumph in Tunisia in 1994, which came just before our debut outing at the FIFA World Cup finals in USA. The Eagles were not in South Africa in 1996 to defend their title, for political reasons, and were thus barred from the 1998 event in Burkina Faso. Two years later, Nigeria and Ghana co-hosted and the Eagles lost to Cameroon in the final on penalties. But, did Victor Ikpeba's kick in the shootout cross the line?

Then followed bronze runs in 2002, 2004 and 2006, quarter final defeat in Ghana in 2008 and another bronze in Angola in 2010.

Now is the time to make a strong statement that we are tired of bronze, and what better way to make it clear than by firing from all cylinders against Burkina Faso in Nelspruit on Monday? And then going ahead to defeat Cup holders Zambia and Ethiopia? I tell you, the Super Eagles can do it, and will surely do it.

I use this medium and platform to call on ALL NIGERIANS, wherever they may be, to unite behind the Super Eagles as they target a third Africa Cup title. They can do, and will do it.

Up Eagles, Up Nigeria!

NEXT WEEK: Expectations for First Quarter of 2013!

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