By Lolade Adewuyi
For many, it seems like Stephen Keshi’s side have rolled back the years with their performances during this tournament, which more were reminiscent of the powerful side that he captained to Afcon glory back in 1994.
That strong collective rode roughshod over the continent, and then reached the round of 16 at its maiden World Cup appearance, and even though Keshi claims that this current team is still a work in progress, they have showed enough potential to hint at even better things to come.
They were never one of the favourites when the competition started on January 19, yet on Sunday, Keshi made history by becoming only the second man to win the trophy as both player and coach.Many of today’s young Nigerian football fans have never known this much joy watching the Super Eagles. Nineteen years is a long time to wait since last tasting victory at senior level and for many younger fans, their team was never expected to perform as well as they have done.
|NIGERIA'S AFCON HAT-TRICK|
South Africa 2013
Nigeria’s journey to the Afcon title was, however, never easy. Keshi announced a squad of 17 new faces in his 23-man squad, with six playing in the Nigeria Premier League. And that inexperience showed, with the team starting the tournament on a shaky note, drawing their first couple of matches.
But the 2-0 defeat of Ethiopia courtesy of penalties from Victor Moses – a player who had only recently changed allegiance from England to Nigeria – gave them confidence going into the quarter final encounter against Cote D’Ivoire.
But the Elephants were so psychologically superior that even the Nigeria Football Federation held little hope - they had begun making plans to buy return tickets for the players immediately after that quarter final game, such was the lack of belief in their team’s ability to conquer the Ivorians who had become a thorn in their flesh for the past seven years.
Didier Drogba’s side seemed to relish inflicting pain on Nigeria ever since his lone goal sent the Super Eagles packing in the semi final of Egypt 2006. It was the turn of Salomon Kalou at Ghana 2008 as the Elephants once again proved superior.
However, Keshi’s men turned the fear into positive energy and went on to stun the Elephants with goals from Emmanuel Emenike and Mba.
After conquering their biggest foes since the rivalry with Cameroon, the door was opened for Nigeria to dominate their other opponents and win the title. This they did with relish, mauling Mali 4-1 in a one-sided semi final in Durban and setting up a final encounter with the Stallions who had already achieved more than they could ever imagine on the international stage.
Paul Put’s men were by no means a pushover. They played compact football, had strength typical of West African teams and had the flair of Jonathan Pitroipa who had been cleared to play the final after Caf rescinded his semi final sending off against Ghana.
However, they missed the goal-scoring ability of Alain Traore whose injury meant that he could not reprise his late goal against Nigeria in their opening game of the tournament.
Nigeria were the favourites going into the final match – they had won two Afcon titles in the past and had finished in the top three of the competition more times than any other nation.
Still, the battle needed to be won on the pitch and the Super Eagles dominated. They should have scored more, but were denied by wasteful finishing, although it didn’t help that they were without the services of burly Spartak Moscow striker Emenike who had come to be known for his bullish attitude towards defenders.
Just as the first half neared its end, youngster Sunday Mba turned up with a shuffle and sidefooted the ball past Daouda Diakite. Nigeria held on to their lead, mindful of not letting the Stallions back into the game like they have done in the past. And at referee Djamel Hamoudi’s final whistle, goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was not sure whether to pick up the referee on his shoulders or go on his knees. Luckily, he chose to celebrate with his colleagues as the stadium erupted.
Public announcement | The Nigerians are backThe Super Eagles will leave Johannesburg with the continent at their feet. However, there’s more ground to be conquered.
The Fifa Confederations Cup will be their first test on the world stage in June. They have been drawn with world and European champions Spain, South American winners Uruguay, and Oceania champions Tahiti. This is the next step to proving their worth.
But first, they will savour this conquest for many months to come because suddenly, it is once again fashionable to be a Nigerian.