11 February 2013

Nigeria: 19 Years After - Eagles, King of Africa!

The Super Eagles of Nigeria ended a 19-year wait to regain the African Nations Cup after a stunning goal from home-based midfielder Sunday Mba gave them a deserved 1 0 win over the Stallions of Burkina Faso in the cup final at Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg, South africa, yesterday.

It was only the third time that both countries have met in the 56-year competition with Nigeria beating the then Upper Volta 4-2 in 1978 and Burkina Faso snatching a stoppage time 1-1 draw in a Nelspruit group game last month.

This victory, watched by 90,000 fans in the stadium and millions of others across the world, makes Stephen Keshi the second African to win the trophy both as a player and a coach after the Egyptian legend, Mahmoud El Gohary.

Nigeria were forced into a late pre-match change when striker and four-goal hero and leading scorer, Emmanuel Emenike, was ruled out by a hamstring injury sustained in the semi-final match against Mali and experienced Ikechukwu Uche took his place.

Match winner Mba, 24, struck after 40 minutes when the ball bounced off a defender and into his path as he advanced on goal. Mba flicked it over defender Mohamed Koffi then reacted quickest to score with his other foot low into the corner of goalkeeper Daouda Diakite's net in a move that showed sheer grit and determination. It was an opportunist goal by Mba and his second of the tournament, having struck a superb match winner in the 2-1 quarter-final win over pre-tournament title favourites, Ivory Coast. It was another sheer individual goal when he ran with the ball all the way from the centre circle, side-stepped Ivorian defenders and struck a shot that nestled at the top left corner of the post.

Mba's goal in the final match gave the Super Eagles a deserved 1-0 half time lead that followed a predictable script with Nigeria dominating possession and creating scoring chances while the Burkinabe relied largely on counter-attacks.

The early second half exchanges mirrored the first period, with the Nigerian team pressing for a second goal. That left the opponents fielding a lone striker in Aristide Bance who was hardly given a yard of space to aim at goal. In fact, the Burkinabes had only one shot on target all night. But for poor finishing by Super Eagles strikers, the Stallions would have conceded more goals.

Diakite did well to push away a hard, low Ideye cross-cum-shot and Moses should have done better in a two-on-one situation that favoured the Eagles only to timidly surrender possession with the Burkinabe goal in sight.

Underdogs Burkina Faso, in the final for the first time, seemed over-awed by the occasion until the last 20 minutes when they threw everything forward in search of an equaliser. But Nigeria, with John Obi Mikel superb in midfield and Efe Ambrose, Kenneth Omeruo and Elderson Echiejile dominant at the back, always held the upper hand. Echiejile later copped an injury and was replaced by Juwon Oshinawa.

It was a third African title for Nigeria and her first since Keshi captained the country to victory in 1994.

In the post-match conference, Keshi said he was happy to bring joy to the homes of his 160 million countrymen. He also indicated that the team was not yet the finished article.

"Winning the tournament is mainly for my nation," he said. "I am happy to make Nigerians happy once again. We are not there yet; we are still rebuilding the team."

For team captain Joseph Yobo, winning the cup was a fitting end to his international career, declaring that this was his last appearance at the Nations Cup.

Among the rewards for Nigeria are a $1.5 million cash prize and a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, where they will face world and European champions Spain, Oceania champions Tahiti and South American champions Uruguay.

My Story: Stephen Keshi

"Winning this tournament is an honour. I came on board a year and a half ago, and my dream was to make all Nigerians happy," said Keshi in a post-match press conference.

"We're not there yet; we're still in the rebuilding process. We have been praying for this. It's not for me alone. I hope that more African coaches will get to this position and make their nation proud.

"There is a lot of potential in this team, but we have to be patient. I'm so, so proud of what they did in this tournament. They kept their concentration, and I'm happy about that. I hope it continues."

Asked about what was going on inside his head in the final five minutes as Burkina Faso searched for an equaliser, he added, "You don't want to know. So many things were going through my head in the final five minutes. But, the way the boys were working, it kept me going, I knew we'd get there."

Keshi was heavily criticized in the build-up to the African Cup of Nations for his squad selection after he dropped Obafemi Martins, Peter Odemwingie and Taye Taiwo.

Big Boss, as the captain of the 1994 title-winning side is affectionately known, was hitting the continental jackpot as a coach at the third time of asking, after first-round knockouts with Togo in 2006 and Mali in 2010.

Part of the key to the Super Eagles' 2013 success has been the 51-year-old's bold yet heavily criticised gamble in calling up local-based players.

Keshi had described his players as 'his Hollywood Stars' after they sent Didier Drogba and company packing - but he, too, deserves an Oscar for defying the tens of millions of ultra-critical wannabe national managers back home in Lagos.

At times charismatic, belligerent, terse and witty, but never dull, the former bull of a centre-back gained entry to an exclusive club of those to be crowned kings of Africa as both player and coach.

The only other man to accomplish that feat was the late Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, who helped his country defeat Sudan 2-1 in the 1959 final and guided the Pharaohs to a 2-0 victory over South Africa 39 years later.

As a player, Keshi triumphed with a golden generation of Super Eagles in a 2-1 victory against a Zambia team rebuilt one year after the plane crash off Gabon that wiped out the national squad.

Reflecting on the differences between then and now, Keshi, who spent most of his playing career in Belgium, said: "The 1994 squad was unbelievable. We were brothers; there was a great spirit in the team.

"Now there is the talent, but we need a strong mentality and character. That takes time (to build)."

This win also laid to rest the bitter memories of the 1996 Nations Cup, when Keshi and his fellow Eagles were denied a shot at defending their title on South African soil when a political spat between the South African and Nigerian governments kept them at home.

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