17 February 2013

Nigeria: Super Eagles and Nigeria's Moment in the Sun

The victory of the Super Eagles over the Stallions of Burkina Faso in the final of the 2013 edition of the African Nations Cup (AFCON) tournament that came to an end last week in South Africa has given Nigeria a glittering accomplishment to celebrate. Nothing about the team actually indicated that the Super Eagles could achieve such a feat. After completing its training in Faro, Portugal, the team played friendly matches with Catalonia and Cape Verdes---the former a region in the north of Spain and the latter an island nation just off the coast of Mauritania that knocked out Cameroun from the tournament. Both matches ended in draws, and they revealed nothing spectacular that could have suggested the team would win the trophy.

Grouped together with Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia in the early stages, the Super Eagles were billed to go no further than the quarter-finals and the results of the matches with Zambia and Burkina Faso which also ended in low scoring draws all but confirmed the notion that no hope should be invested on the team to go beyond that stage. Indeed the Super Eagles qualified for the quarter-final stage after the last match of the group stage by defeating Ethiopia -the minnow of the group. Had the match ended in a draw as the first two matches, the team would have headed home. The group was topped by Burkina Faso followed by Nigeria. Zambia, the champions at the last edition followed Ethiopia to go home as the two crashed out at the group stage. And when it was revealed that Nigeria had been pitted against the Elephants of Cote D'ivoire- the tournaments overwhelmingly acclaimed favourites--it was thought the Super Eagles had itself reached its "waterloo", so to say.

For many years now, the prized trophy had eluded the Elephants even though they parade one of the best footballers on the continent. In 2012, the Ivoriens got to the final against Zambia which comprised largely of home based players and after a barren draw at the regulated and extra times, the game went into penalty kick. The Chipolopolo of Zambia converted all their spot kicks while the Elephants squandered a few of their own thereby failing to win a cup that everyone had thought was theirs to simply pick up. This year the Elephants have been hyped so many times as the team to beat so much so that they let down their guards and forgot that no match is won by word of mouth but on the field of play. This was proved succinctly in the match against Nigeria, they played as if they had won the match and then the Super Eagles in one brilliant move scored shortly before the intermission.

Stung by that goal, the Elephants suddenly realized that the Super Eagles were not about to give up easily and that their reputation as a team of Africa's best footballers was at stake. As a result they quickly leveled up at resumption of play, bringing the score to one apiece, and there after settled to their usual pattern of play. But the Super Eagles now emboldened by the ease with which they scored the first goal decided to hit again and in another mesmerizing move that left their opponents befuddled, a perfectly taken volley sent the ball straight into the back of their net. The goal came so late in regulated time that the Elephants knew fate was about to deal them another brutal blow. When the final whistle came the team of Africa's best players, of Dideir Drogba, Yaya Toure and his bearded brother KoloToure, Solomon Kalou and Gervinho who plays for Arsenal, as well as Dideir Sakora and the others, somnambulantly sauntered out of the stadium in a dazed state wondering how on earth they lost an important match to a team of Nigerian footballers many of whom are still playing at home in the much maligned Nigerian league.

Well, Drogba and his super star colleagues would have time enough to evaluate what went wrong, meanwhile with Cote D'Ivoire out of the way, the Super Eagles now felt the trophy was at their grasps if only they kept a cool head and played according to the boss's instructions. And on the final match day, they did just that and they were rewarded with a goal that came from the boots of Sunday Mba whose tentative move enabled him to ghost past three defenders of the Burkinabes to slot the ball into the net which clinched the prized trophy for Nigeria.

With this victory Nigeria has now won the trophy three times, by so doing edging ever closer to Egypt and Ghana as countries with more trophies under their belt. For me, this victory owes a lot to the grit brought to the preparation for the tournament by Coach Steven Keshi who decided to call the bluff of many foreign based players and invested his hope on mainly local boys, who anyway were hungry to showcase themselves to the world. It would be recalled that a furore had ensued when Steven Keshi left out a number of foreign payers for not coming for pre-tournament assessment which caused some people to call on him to reverse his decision. It is good he stuck to his decision and pinned his hope on the largely rookie players he took to South Africa, who thankfully did not fail him. The rookie players succeeded because they did not exhibit airs and pomposity and other negative attitudes that had caused the failure of national teams in several important tournaments in the past.

Steven Keshi's success in bringing home the 2013 AFCON trophy shows that home grown coaches have come of age; they now can hold their own against the best coaches anywhere and that if given the opportunity they can out- perform the best from other places. One way to build on the success achieved is for the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to invest in training of local coaches and give them the responsibility to put their training into practice. One reason Keshi complained about for attempting to resign is disrespect of local coaches in the hands of the sports ministry officials and members of the NFF. Added to this is the delay in paying salaries and entitlements of coaches. The NFF and the sports ministry would have to learn to treat those who are in their employ with the respect they deserve.

The players and the coaching crew have been fittingly showered with monetary and other gifts as reward for their exquisite achievement. They deserve all of it and many more for their sterling accomplishment.

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