For the Super Eagles, today is the day of decision as they take on the Stallions of Burkina Faso in today's final of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. The match billed for the national stadium in Soweto South Africa offers a golden opportunity for the Super Eagles to win their third AFCON title.
Since after winning the trophy in 1994 under Dutchman Clemence Westerhof, the Eagles have not mounted the podium to be decorated with the ultimate prize. It has been near misses with the most painful experience being the loss in 2000 in Lagos when the star studded Super Eagles team lost 4-3 on penalties to the IndomitableLions after playing 2-2 in regulation time. Nigerians are yet to forget how Victor Ikpeba's well converted kick was disallowed after he chose to wince instead of celebrate what was a goal.
Since 2000, the Eagles have not played in any finals. A look at the team's record in the Africa Cup of nations shows that Nigeria has been champions twice, has won silver four times and bronze a record seven times. A breakdown of the records shows that Eagles were champions first in 1980 at home and 1994 in Tunisia. The Eagles got their first silver medal in 1984 in Cote d'Ivoire after they lost 1-0 to Cameroon in the final, they lost again 1-0 to the Lions of Cameroon in 1988 in Morocco, and in 1990 they lost again 1-0 to host country Algeria. The indomitable Lions were to deny the Eagles again in 2000 in the final match played in Lagos. The Eagles lost 4-3 on penalties.
Talking about third place, Nigeria has a record for winning the bronze seven times. Eagles have won bronze in 1976, 1978, 1992, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010 in Angola. This means the Eagles have been consistent on the podium since 2000 but not to the expectations of Nigerian fans.
It was therefore not hard to understand the joy of Nigerians when the Super Eagles against all odds qualified for this year's finals. What has made the feat of the Eagles even more intriguing is the fact that before the tournament, they were seen as complete outsiders as far as winning the title is concerned. Even the coach was confident his Eagles would soar this high. So for most Nigerians, this is another miracle.
The Super Eagles build up to the tournament saw them playing some international friendly matches which instead of eliciting support for the team further diminished the sagging confidence in the ability of the team to excel in South Africa. Apart friendly matches with clubs in Portugal which the Eagles won convincingly, the Eagles tested their skills against star studded Catalonia selected side and it ended 1-1. Eagles also played Cape Verde, the debutants who eventually emerged the surprise team of the tournament in South Africa and it was a barren draw. Eagles performance in the international friendly matches inspired little or no confidence that the team would achieve much in South Africa.
However, grouped along with defending champions Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, the Eagles survived the group in Nelspruit and went on to conquer the number one team, the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire 2-1 in the quarter-final to book their semi-final match with the Eagles of Mali. Against Mali, the Eagles maintained the tempo as demanded by Nigerian football fans and it was emphatic 4-1 drubbing of the Malians last Wednesday.
The Eagles resurgence in South Africa has thrown the country into frenzy. Former International, Garba Lawal said the Eagles are the type of birds the Nigerian fans have been yearning for. "Yes, these are the Eagles that Nigerian fans want. These Eagles have shown a new spirit and they will be crowned champions on Sunday".
Another ex-international Dominic Iorfa also believes the Eagles are good for the title. "The Eagles have restored confidence in the team. They are now playing the kind of football that Nigerians wanted to see them play. If they keep up the tempo against Burkina Faso tomorrow (today), they will be crowned champions in South Africa".
Such is the degree of excitement and expectations from Nigerians ahead of the all important clash. The Eagles are just 90 minutes away from another glory. How they manage the pressure that has inevitably grown will determine their fate today.
It has been reported that fashion designers in South Africa have since taken the measurements of players and officials' sizes for the purpose of sewing ceremonial suits for them. This is to underscore the fact that the Eagles are confident of victory.
However, such confidence can backfire, if not properly managed. The Eagles and the Stallions met earlier in the tournament at the group stage and it was not easy for either teams. Although the Super Eagles led till the last minute of added time, the Eagles did not overwhelm their opponents. The Burkinables showed exemplary fighting spirit and were duly rewarded.
Today provides the right setting for the two finalists to settle scores. The two teams are on a level ground. Neither has ben spared injuries to key players, with Burkina Faso's hitman Alain Traore pulling out of the tournament and Eagles marksman, Emmanuel Emenike being a big suspect for the finals.
No matter the magnitude of worries,history is beckoning on the Super Eagles and their coach. The 23 Eagles want to write their names in gold and their coach, Stephen Keshi is aiming to become the second African to win the Cup as a player and coach after Egyptian Mahmoud El-Gohary.
Burkina Faso are also on the threshold of history. They Stallions stand to make history, if they can win their first AFCON trophy just the way Zambia did in 2012. This is the Stallions' first finals and they are eager to make the best of the opportunity. However, to reach the zenith of African football, they must first beat the Eagles who have a psychological edge over them. For the Eagles and the Stallions, the die is cast.