columnBy Conrad Angula
SO we have finally come to the end of what turned out to be an exciting and dramatic edition of the Africa Cup of Nations.
A new champion will be crowned on Sunday when Nigeria engage Burkina Faso in the final scheduled for 20h00 at the National Stadium in Johannesburg.
I am glad that the Stallions of Burkina Faso made it to the final instead of Ghana. Firstly, because they deserved it. Secondly, because the prospect of a big-team, small-team matchup should make for a more open and exciting encounter.
Needless to say, the Super Eagles of Nigeria will go into this match as clear favourites while the Burkinabe will be the underdogs.
What I like about this year's tournament is that the theory of 'football giant' was finally nipped in the bud and that no team enjoyed the privilege to claim automatic qualification base on their historical pedigree in continental football.
Following their heroics against the much-fancied Black Stars of Ghana, Burkina Faso have won themselves hundreds if not thousands of new supporters and many a neutral football fan will support their cause in Sunday's final.
Such a performance is sure to have Nigeria thinking they would have preferred to face the under-performing Ghanaians.
Sunday's match-up is very good for the game in many aspects: it shows that continental football is on the up; that lesser acclaimed teams like Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Mali and Burkina Faso are ready to compete against the best and, most importantly, that it is about time that southern African football leaders get together and discuss a way forward for the region.
It is really shocking that there was no representation of the region in the semifinal stage of the tournament despite the fact that the event was staged in southern Africa. What happened to the phrase 'home-ground advantage'?
Defending Zambia, who carried southern Africa's main hopes at this tournament after enjoying surprise success at the Equatorial Guinea and Gabon co-hosted championships last year, abysmally failed to emulate the giant-killing form they displayed throughout last year's campaign.
But coming back to the business on hand, Nigeria will fancy their chances against the battle-weary Stallions of Burkina Faso, who will enter the field on Sunday without their most influential player Jonathan Pitroipa suspended for the final after Tunisian referee Slim Jedidi, who made several dubious calls against the Stallions, sent off the skilful winger for alleged simulation.
That could serve as a heavy blow for Burkina Faso who have already lost the services of their top scorer Alain Traore to injury. The Stallions will have to dig deep to come up with enough ammunition to outgun the powerful Nigerians.
The Super Eagles will probably be buoyed by the prospect of setting a record for their coach Stephen Keshi who could emulate Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary by becoming the second to win the tournament as a player and a coach.
The Super Eagles last claimed the continental competition in 1994 and they were ironically captained by Keshi who led a star-studded team with the likes of Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amokachi, Samson Siasia and Jay Jay Okocha to victory against Zambia in Tunisia.
But they know that they cannot rely on history alone if they want to claim their third Nations Cup win. But history doesn't really count in the favour of the Super Eagles, who have made six final appearances and have only won on two occasions.
On the other hand, Burkina Faso will not feel any pressure to lift the cup as much as the Nigerians because everyone expects them to succumb to the might of the Super Eagles.
However, the continent is well aware what the virtually unknown stars of Chipolopolo did against the much-heralded superstars of Ivory Coast last year.
The Burkinabe are playing with fear, and this makes them formidable contenders for the continent's biggest football prize. Should they manage to keep their composure like they did against the Black Stars, then the battle is half won.
The final will be preceded by the third-place playoff between Mali and Ghana, with the former hoping to reproduce last year's exploits by reclaiming the bronze medal.
Last but not least, I would like to congratulate South Africa for yet another well-organised major football tournament, apart from some of the atrocious pitches.
May the best team win!