It’s been 13 years since their last final appearance but Nigeria are back there once again after securing their place in the African Cup of Nations final. After qualifying from a tough group that contained reining champions Zambia, new boys Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, they faced favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter finals. After taking the lead, Nigeria (known as the Super Eagles) were pegged back by a Chieck Toite goal that looked to have swung the balance back in favour of the White Elephants (Ivory Coast) and all but end their run. But midfielder Sunday Mba had a different plan and hit the wining goal twelve minutes from time to put Nigeria into the semi finals. Surprise package Mali awaited for them there after knocking out host South Africa in a dramatic game eventually settled by penalties. Mali were 90 minutes away from their first final appearance since 1972 and approached the game with confidence. What they didn’t expect was to face a youthful Nigeria side out to prove a point and keen to secure their place in Sunday’s showcase match. A stunning first-half display helped the Super Eagles demolish Mali 4-1 at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban and book their place against Burkina Faso in the final.
Nigeria’s management team of Stephen Keshi and Daniel Amokachi, both legends in Nigeria, knows all about winning this tournament. Alongside the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Amuneke and Rashidi Yekini, they were part of the famous Super Eagles team that won the countries last African Cup of Nations title in February 1994, before going on to compete in the 1994 World Cup held in the USA. As they look forward to Sunday’s final, they will know that success is within their grasp especially now as they face Burkina Faso, who shocked the world by knocking out Ghana in the semi finals on penalties. But Nigeria will be weary of the surprise package after drawing 1-1 with them in their opening group game some three weeks ago. Keshi’s young squad is still growing in stature but this will be a huge challenge for the manager to mental prepare his team for their first cup final.
After leaving out a host of more established players like Taye Taiwo, Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, and Yakubu Aiyegbeni in favour of blooding a host of stars for the future, Keshi looked to be adopting a risky strategy coming into the tournament, but his faith in his young squad is paying off after some blistering performances. Whilst it is still early days for his new look squad, Keshi knows that the goal is ultimately to recreate the brotherly like bond that was found in that 1994 squad, that was the platform for the Super Eagles to build a successful international team around that was feared throughout the football world:
“There is a lot of talent and potential in this team, but it’s going to take a while to get them up to where I want to. So far it’s gone well. There were lots of problems back home when I left out some of the senior players in the team, but I had my own reasons, which are known to me only. I know that some people did not understand, but I knew exactly the type of players we wanted, the mentality, the players who can work for the team. It took us five years to build the 1994 squad, this one is just five weeks old. That was a wonderful squad, the spirit in that team was unbelievable, we’re friends, we were brothers. Until I can get that same atmosphere from this team, we can’t really compare. I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves; as I said, we’re still building. I Don’t think we’re there yet.”
Keshi and Amokachi can further cement their legendary status in Nigeria by helping their country to lift the trophy on Sunday but that will matter little to the two former players. This tournament is part of a long-term plan that will hopefully take Nigeria to the World Cup Finals in Brazil next summer. A win on Sunday would be the perfect platform to build upon and give this young squad the confidence it needs to push forward. With the luxury of being able to bring back some of the more established members of the squad after the tournament, Keshi knows that his team can only get stronger and can hopefully recreate the family like atmosphere that the 1994 squad had. Ten years on from that team, it looks as though the next generation of Super Eagles stars has arrived and is keen to make their mark on the world game once again.