NINETEEN years ago, Nigeria won the African Nations Cup in Tunisia and performed well in the USA '94 World Cup.
But immediately after that, football suffered a plunge that made Nigeria lose its pride in the continent and beyond.
But a team of 23 players led by former captain, Stephen Keshi, yesterday restored it when they, in South Africa, lifted the 28th edition of the cup with a 1-0 victory against Burkina Faso, a strong team they drew with at the group stage.
Interestingly, Keshi was captain of the Super Eagles the last time Nigeria won the diadem. He stepped into the shoes of Egypt's Mohammed El Gohary, the only other African to have won the cup as a player and a coach.
It was such a glorious outing for the man the authorities were planning to disengage. He is the first indigenous coach to win the Nations Cup for Nigeria. The first man to win it was Otto Gloria, a Brazilian in 1980. The second was Clemens Westerhof in 1994.
From the man on the streets in Nigeria to President Goodluck Jonathan, yesterday was a glorious day, a day that would remain green in their memory and a day that potends greater things to come in their football.
They started their campaign with a 1-1 draw with Burkina Faso in January. 21 days after the tournament started, both sides met again in the final at a packed National Stadium in Soweto.
It took just a goal from from Sunday Mba, a home-based player of Warri Wolves, to seal Eagles AFCON glory. The goals were not in supply. This is not strange to followers of the game as only two goals had been scored in the four finals preceding yesterday's match.
The goal, a 40th minute strike was a brilliant one. It started as Victor Moses's shot from inside the area was blocked by the Burkina defence. The ball came out to the Warri Wolves midfeilder, who flicked it past one defender before poking the ball past goalkeeper Daouda Diakite.
It was a great finish from Mba. Under pressure he took it well. An outstanding finish, with two defenders around him. And psychologically that was a terrible moment for Burkina Faso to concede, five minutes before half-time. Now they had to attack, whereas Nigeria could defend. And how well the Eagles, parading Kenneth Omeruo, Godfrey Oboabona, Elderson Echiejile and Efe Ambrose held their own to keep Jonathan Pitroiba and Aristide Bance at bay.
Until this year, Les Etalons (The Stallions) as the Burkina Faso national side are called, had not made much of an impact at the Cup of Nations ever since they first attempted to qualify in 1968.
They did, as hosts, reach the semi-finals in 1998 only to go out to eventual champions Egypt. Before the match started, had predicted Nigeria as clear favourites to win the final.
Burkina Faso named the same starting XI that played in the semifinal victory over Ghana. With Diakite in goal, coach Paul Put fielded the likes of , Koffi, Kone, Koulibaly, Panandetiguiri, Kone, Captain Kabore, Rouamba, Nakoulma, Pitroipa and Bance.
Save for Ikechukwu Uche, who replaced injured Emmanuel Emenike, the likes of Enyeama, Echiejile, Omeruo, Oboabona, Ambrose, Onanzi, Mikel, Mba, Moses and Ideye all retained their shirts on the night.
Nigeria settled into this final a lot quicker and deservedly got the first chance of the night, which came in the 9th minute when a great chance went begging for the Eagles. A corner was played to the far side of the area before it was headed back into the danger zone. Burkina keeper Daouda Diakite failed to claim cleanly, allowing Brown Ideye a shot on goal. His effort flew over the bar from eight yards.
More action in the Burkinabe area. Chelsea's flying winger Victor Moses motored down the left and fired in a low square ball that Daouda Diakite just about gathered.
Burkina Faso had their chances later. 25 minutes into the game, Burkina Faso. Forward Aristide Bance, a star performer in the semi-final against Ghana, turned and thundered in a strike from 20 yards that flew a few feet over the bar.
On 28m, Burkina Faso got a free kick, which Bance took. The Augsburg forward fizzed a 25-yard free-kick about two yards wide
Eagles took the initiative from their foes in the 31st minute as Mba played in Uche, but the Villarreal man's touch was too heavy.
With less that 15 minutes until half-time and apart from one half and one three-quarters of a chance created by Nigeria, both teams were still trying to settle into a rhythm.
But the goal that changed everything came minutes later. As half time approached, Mba powered home a stunner, a goal worthy of winning the Nations Cup.
Eagles continued mounting the pressure. Moses continued with more great play. On the 50m, he moved up a gear, lost his marker then played in Brown Ideye, who fired a shot from a very tight angle across goal. It might have got a touch from Burkina keeper Daouda Diakite en route.
Very nice play from Victor Moses, and it was very hard for Ideye to score from there. It would have been a better option to cut the ball back but he tried his luck. The keeper had it covered. Burkina Faso still had not mounted anything resembling an attack. They needed fresh ideas.
Their moment came in the 77m, when Enyeama kept the score at 1-0 by making a superb save to prevent Wilfried Sanou's angled drive from going in.
Both sides continued looking for goals but Nigeria wasted a couple of chances while Burkina Faso also rattled the defence of the Eagles.
Nigeria held on, defended well and won the cup that sent Nigerians partying all night.
Jonathan hails Eagles
President Goodluck Jonathan, yesterday, joined millions of Nigerians to hail the Super Eagles of Nigeria for emerging the African champions at the just concluded African cup in South Africa. In his statement congratulating the national team and all Nigerians on the country's inspiring victory, President Jonathan thanked Coach Stephen Keshi and all members of the team "who have worked very hard and played with great focus, dedication, artistry and patriotism to make Nigeria the proud champions of Africa once again after 19 years of setbacks in the competition".
The President also "commended the Minister of Sports, Mr. Bolaji Abdullahi, the Chairman and members of the Nigerian Football Federation and all others who have contributed to the astonishing transformation of the Super Eagles from underdogs to gallant winners and glorious soccer champions of the African continent".
According to the statement, President Jonathan "believes that the team's amazing transformation from rank outsiders to champions is a clear manifestation of the even greater successes the country can achieve in all other fields of human endeavour if all Nigerians come together and devote their immense collective energies and resources to supporting the implementation of his Administration's Agenda for National Transformation.