As the Nigerian team prepare to play their first African Cup of Nations final in 13 years, the image of the side has been revived, and is now something to cherish.
On Sunday, Nigeria play against Burkina Faso in Johannesburg for the right to be called the Champions of Africa. The Super Eagles’ journey into the final is an odyssey that has transformed the image of the team once derided for its unpredictability and lack of spine.
Once upon a time, our national team was given all sorts of names, ‘The Super Chickens’ being the most humiliating moniker of all. That name came when Nigeria lost 2-1 to Ghana in the quarter final of Afcon 2008 in Accra, and our old enemies haven’t wasted any opportunity to chide the national side.
As a witness of that game at the Ohene Djan Stadium, it was difficult to argue against the annoying emblem that was bestowed on us by the Ghanaians, particularly having lost a game which we had never looked like throwing away.
However, with the impressive run of Stephen Keshi’s “five weeks-old” squad in South Africa, the Super Eagles have begun to give joy again. Yesterday evening, having visited the Ushaka Marine World with a trio of Nigerian journalists, I encountered some young South African boys having a kick-about along the beautiful Durban coastline around South Beach.
In trying to encourage the boys to train and play better, I suggested that one day they might be able to represent Bafana Bafana.
Wrong call. An outspoken member of the youthful cluster retorted: “No not Bafana, they’re a poor team.”
So I said which team he would like to play for?
“Nigeria,” he said. “That’s a good team.”
I didn’t know what to say afterwards, all I could do was walk away with silent joy in my heart. This is the same team that many had given up on even before this tournament began and during the first set of matches.
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Even the once-proud Ghanaians had started to get jittery about meeting the new Super Eagles.
Watching the Ghana-Burkina Faso semi final game on a big screen at the Durban beach on Wednesday night, Dela Ahiawor, a Ghanaian journalist, told me that many of his people had prayed to avoid Nigeria in the final.
By that time Nigeria had already qualified for the final. Would they rather not qualify for the final in order to avoid the Super Eagles? Well, the Black Stars failed to shine that night in Mbombela as they were outplayed by the Stallions.
Sunday’s final match is a rematch of our opening Group C draw against Burkina Faso. While we played on a terrible pitch in Mbombela with a squad that was just getting to understand each other and also lost a player early in the second half, the final will be between two sides that are resilient and brave, having proved themselves over in the intervening period.
While Nigeria now find themselves as favourites for the title, Burkina Faso cannot be underestimated. Having come this far, they have all the motivation to prosper, particularly with star player Jonathan Pitroipa looking to return from suspension after befuddled Tunisian referee Slim Jdidi admitted the error of his ways.
We will be treated to an energetic feast of West African football at Soccer City by two sides who have great confidence in their abilities to play good football.
Like many Nigerians here, I will wear my national team jersey to Soweto with a pride the like of which I’ve never known before.
It’s definitely fashionable to be a Super Eagles fan once more.