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Nigeria’s AFCON Victory: The Super Eagles Have Landed

Local players and a local no-nonsense coach have ended 19 years of woe. Can the Nigerian dream be kept alive?
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Performers entertain football fans during the closing ceremony of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations . Photograph by GovernmentZA.

Nigeria was crowned football champions of Africa after defeating the tournament’s surprise package, Burkina Faso, 1-0 in Sunday’s final. The Super Eagles, who were seen as too young and too inexperienced by many commentators prior to the tournament, thereby ended their 19-year wait and lifted their third African Cup of Nations trophy.

The tournament was relocated to South Africa after original hosts Libya were forced to withdraw following the turmoil of 2011. South Africa was seen as a ready-made option after it hosted a successful 2010 World Cup, and it didn’t fail to live up to expectations – although the sandy pitches did come in for criticism.

"I would score the tournament's organisers and CAF [Confederation of African Football] an A", Ifeanyi Abanum, founder of allnigeriasoccer.com, told Think Africa Press. "Despite the short notice, the organisation was almost flawless. Really, no other country except South Africa would have been able to do that.”

The tournament came and went with its usual mix of attacking football, colourful vivacious fans and numerous surprises, in which Nigeria provided the perfect closing act.

Local success after 19 years of hurt

Nigeria’s 19 years without winning the title had led to much soul-searching within the country. Many had questioned the mentality and nerves of their national team after four losses in the final and a record seven third-place finishes. Nigeria is still behind its two greatest rivals – Ghana and Cameroon, who have both won it four times – and are well off Egypt’s record of seven titles.

Politics may have intervened to prevent the Super Eagles from winning their third title before this year. Nelson Mandela’s criticisms of the human rights abuses of the Sani Abacha regime caused Nigeria to withdraw from the 1996 tournament, which led to their suspension from the 1998 edition. This deprived the so-called ‘golden generation’ of Nigerian football, which came to prominence in the 1994 World Cup, two chances to compete.

Nigeria shamefully failed to qualify for the last tournament in 2012, with many pointing the finger at uncommitted European-based players and an ineffective Nigerian Football Federation (NFF). Criticism of the NFF has been dampened by Sunday’s victory.

Abanum told Think Africa Press: “The NFF got this one right. Friendly games were arranged. Even before international games, domestic players had about 2-3 weeks to prepare, so the Federation was very supportive.”

Lolade Adewuyi, Chief Editor at Goal.com Nigeria, found more indirect reasons for their success, commenting that, “as much as possible, the NFF and sports ministry didn't interfere with the coach and his selections. Although they were waiting for him to fail in order to bring in a European coach.”

The appointment of Stephen Keshi, himself a winner of the cup as a player, as coach was crucial to Nigeria’s victory. Described as ‘The Big Boss’, Keshi adopted a hard-line stance with his players, especially those based in Europe, whose egos had been seen to be undermining team morale and unity. He took the bold step of selecting players from the Nigerian local leagues, using them as the bedrock of his new team. It was only at the latter stages of the qualification process that he began to reintroduce the bigger name European-based players to the side – once they had regained their hunger for success.

National team ‘untouchables’ such as West Bromich Albion’s Peter Odemwingie and Levante’s evergreen Obafemi Martins were excluded from the team and replaced with more untested players such as Spartak Moscow’s Emmanuel Emenike, Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Dynamo Kiev’s Brown Ideye.

This strategy of selecting relative unknowns was risky but paid dividends. Adewuyi explained, “17 new faces in a team is never something one would expect to triumph with. Nigeria is lucky to win it this year and it is testament to the hunger of the lads”.

Football's coming home?

The team very much matured as the tournament progressed. After consecutive draws with Burkina Faso and Zambia, qualification from the group stages was by no means a foregone conclusion. However, two Victor Moses penalties secured a much-needed victory against Ethiopia and gave them the momentum they needed.

This lacklustre start to the tournament was enough for the Super Eagles to reach second place in the group, scraping into the quarter finals. Things picked up with a superb performance against pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter finals. The defeat spelt the end for Ivory Coast’s gilded age of players – Drogba, Toure, Gervinho et al – possibly the last chance for them to win silverware.

Nigeria were heavy underdogs, and satirical stories abounded of Nigeria’s officials from the Sports Ministry fleeing South Africa when they realised that Nigeria had drawn the dreaded Ivorians. Goals from tournament revelation Emanuel Emenike and local boy – now local hero – Sunday Mba were highlights in a stunning exhibition of energetic, determined football from the ascendant Eagles.

The Super Eagles continued to soar in the semi-final, dispatching Mali with consummate ease, in what was perhaps the most fluid and attacking display from any team throughout the tournament.

Nigeria found themselves with just one more team to beat as they entered their first final since losing to Cameroon in 2000. Minnows Burkina Faso were the opponents, but with Nigeria’s recent history of losing to lesser sides and a longer history of falling at the final hurdle, complacency had to be guarded against.

Burkina Faso, to their credit, had showed relentless spirit after losing top goalscorer Alain Traoré to injury and played well throughout the tournament, beating Ghana in the semis and displaying a brand of football well-suited to the African game. But they proved no match for their more fancied opponents, as Sunday Mba scored the game’s only goal, underlining the success of Keshi’s local league strategy. The Super Eagles of Nigeria had become champions of Africa once again.

Back of the net

Captain Joseph Yobo, who had watched the majority of the tournament from the substitute’s bench following an injury in the opening match, lifted the cup high above his head amidst the showers of confetti.

Nigeria, a country known for its love of football, now has new heroes. Emenike was the tournament’s top scorer, earning him The Golden Boot. Emenike’s proud agent, Erdem Konyar, told Think Africa press that, “to win it [the Golden Boot] is a monumental achievement that gives him deserved publicity on the international stage. To receive increased recognition for the player's talent is always positive and in this case completely deserved”.

He is joined in his country’s affections by the whole squad but especially the final’s goal scorer, Mba, defensive duo of Kennth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona, veteran goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, and Chelsea pair of John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, who both bossed Nigeria’s midfield.

Upon arrival to Nnamdi Azikiwe airport in Abuja, crowds swelled and celebratory singers welcomed the players as they disembarked from their chartered plane. Both players and coach were treated to a state house reception by President Goodluck Jonathan, where they were showered with cash rewards totalling more than $2 million, plots of land in the Federal Capital Territory and various national honours.

The victory seems that much sweeter with Keshi’s focus on local talent, putting to bed the myth that only a highly-paid foreign coach can bring success. Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba told Think Africa Press that, “the experimentation with a local coach, Steven Keshi, is commendable.”

Preparations for next year’s World Cup in Brazil will soon be underway and it is hoped this could provide another pleasant surprise to African football fans.

Dignity has been restored for the time being to Nigerian football, with citizens hoping the Nations Cup success will spread the winning spirit across society. Senator Ndoma-Egba hopes so, telling Think Africa Press that, “Every member of the squad played with a common spirit of achieving success and that is a lesson for us all. That, with the right determination, we can make the Nigerian dream possible.” In a country where football really matters, Nigerians will be praying that he is right.

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