17 February 2013

Nigeria Back From the Dead


It may have taken 19 years, but what counts most is that Nigeria finally put an end to that long wait by lifting the coveted African Nations Cup this month.

In 1996, when the Super Eagles were reigning champions, a bitter diplomatic rift between the Sani Abacha regime and the Nelson Mandela government denied them the chance to defend their title on South African soil under the captaincy of Stephen Keshi.

But last week, on the very spot where the South Africans seized their chance, Keshi wrestled back the crown, only this time as coach- the second man to achieve the feat after Mahmoud El-Gohary of Egypt who topscored with three goals in the 1959 Nations Cup and then guided the Pharaohs to victory over Jomo Sono's Bafana Bafana in Ouagadougou in 1998.

On top of that, it was also the first time in 21 years that an African coach had won the cup - Ivory Coast's Yeo Martial being the last to do so in 1992.

In the final, the Super Eagles were consistently dominant, while never quite finding their stride. But when the solitary goal came, it was refreshingly worthy of the grand stage of a packed National Stadium. And it was fitting that it was delivered by one of the home-based players whose selection attracted so much criticism from the Nigerian press.

Sunday Mba, who plays for the Warri Wolves midfielder, showed electrifying speed as he put the ball beyond the reach of a Burkinabe defender with his right boot, surged into the box and before scoring with an accurate left-footed volley.

The execution may not have been technically astonishing but in the heat of the moment, it mattered less. Since then, a number of European clubs are said to be eyeing the 24-year-old with Bundesliga side Bayern Leverkusen topping the list.

It was a win that was fully deserved as Nigeria comfortably beat a tired-looking Burkina Faso, who struggled to make an impact in their maiden final appearance.

And perhaps it was one game too many for the Burkinabe, who had failed to win a single game on foreign soil in the Nations Cup before this tournament but shocked many by going so far this time round.

After the tense final, Keshi's voice was hoarse following two hours of bellowing at his troops, but his intense pride was unmistakable.

With a 2014 Fifa World Cup finals looming, the future looks tasty for this young Super Eagles side, who may in time mature into a generation to rival Keshi's 1994 champions. John Obi Mikel has finally emerged as a superb holding midfielder, and a natural heir to the famous Sunday Oliseh.

Victor Moses is an intelligent winger of great promise. And the four young defenders sparkled in the knockout rounds. But at this point, Keshi was unwilling to declare the victors the equal of that side.

For the Stallions, it was a sad but honorable exit. Jonathan Pitroipa was once again thrilling to watch, with his fine control and speed marking him as a rising luminary of African football. In fact, I was not surprised when he was voted player of the tournament.

Nigeria's arch-rivals along the coast, Ghana, will be hurting but they can still brag that they are 4-3 up on the trophy wins list.

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