A moment of glory for Nigeria and African coaches at the 2013 African Cup of Nations (AFCON)
When the curtains drew on the 2013 AFCON in South Africa it was the Super Eagles of Nigeria that received the final applause. Thanks to a brilliant wonder strike from Sunday Mba on the Sunday the tournament ended, Nigeria lifted the trophy to a well deserved standing ovation after a pulsating final against the Stallions of Burkina Faso in Soweto.
Not that the Burkinabe were a push over. They were not. The one goal victory for Nigeria speaks for itself. And the two West African teams had met in the group stages and drawn square. Yet the Nigerians truly dominated the final from start to finish and might have carried the day with more goals than one but for a conspiracy of hard luck and poor finishing.
The tournament itself kicked off to a cautious start with a goal dearth hallmarking the first matches in the group stages. It was not for long however. In Port Elizabeth, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo quickly brought the drought to an end with a scintillating performance that ended all square with a 2-2 score line.
When Burkina Faso humbled Ethiopia with four goals to nothing in Nelspruit it was clear the tournament had decisively entered into scoring gear. And from this moment the Stallions never looked back. They did not only qualify for the quarter finals but ruled the summit of their group. While everyone in Burkina Faso jubilated, the rest of the world marvelled with amazement.
If Burkina was a marvel, Cape Verde was an awesome revelation. They came to South Africa as debutants or what some pundits preferred to call an 'unknown quantity'. Well, that was before the tournament, not any more. The Blue Sharks, as the national team is known affectionately, could easily pass as the giant killers in African soccer. The tiny islands nation was on a soccer spree and memories of their coach racing across the pitch with the Cape Verdean flag after beating Angola will linger on for a very long time.
The first major casualty came in the quarter finals when the Super Eagles exited the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire with two goals to one. The match was probably the final before the final and was billed to tantalise. It did not disappoint. The disappointment was for those who bet on the usual pre-tournament number one favourite to clip the wings of the Nigerian Eagles even before they could take to the skies. The Eagles proved too tactical and cleverly eluded the stampeding Elephants with some of the finest goals in the tournament.
With the sun failing to rise on the golden generation of Ivorian football yet again all eyes turned to the other serial favourite in AFCON tournaments, the Black Stars of Ghana. Ghana managed to scrap through the quarter finals against a much more determined and fluid Cape Verde, but against Burkina Faso in the semi finals the Black Stars were compelled to finally doff their caps. The Stallions were obviously better suited to racing on the pitch and with their heels dug in, they simply out manoeuvred the Stars and clouded them from shining.
From this moment, the rest of the script was a Nigerian narrative. The sun had already set on the fortunes of host South Africa after being edged out by Mali in the knock out stages. And Zambia, the reigning champions, had bowed out much earlier without a din from the Copper Bullets. But no one genuinely expected Nigeria to do well initially let alone reach the final. They had had a nervy start before peaking against Côte d'Ivoire in the quarter finals and Mali in the semi-finals. This returned them to the spotlights of the bookies. Against an even less fancied pre-tournament favourite such as Burkina Faso the Eagles were naturally tipped for a super flight.
The heroism of the Nigerians was superintended by one of their own. A former Eagle himself, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi had always dreamed of handling the Nigerian national squad. Here he was in charge, this was his moment. Burkina had already over achieved by reaching the final. It was their first ever final, a win would savour their fairy tale; a loss would hardly undermine their gallantry. The pressure was on Nigeria and very much so. The mood back home was equally expectant. The Super Eagles responded well to both and lifted the trophy for their third time in AFCON history.
For Keshi this was history and it was remarkable. He was the captain of the Super Eagles in 1994 when Nigeria won the Cup for the second time. In Africa he is second only to Mahmoud El Gohary of Egypt who was the first to set this record of winning the African Cup as a player and subsequently as a coach.
Keshi's decision to field six players from the domestic league had received criticisms from sceptics including many in the corridors of power of Nigerian soccer. By scoring the winning goal against Côte d'Ivoire in the quarters and the lone goal that secured the Cup for Nigeria in the final, Sunday Mba has rightfully become the toast of African local leagues, but even more importantly a vindication of the strategic depth of the coach.
Having previously coached in Mali and Togo, coupled with direct experience in his native Nigeria, Keshi is fully conscious of the challenges of African coaches and dedicates his victory to their struggles with national football associations and federations across the continent. He is a living testament to their collective competence and might just help put to sleep the scepticism of engaging African coaches for African teams in African tournaments.
While that may remain the hope or expectation of Keshi and pan-Africanists in particular, the reality is that the Super Eagles of Nigeria are now the reigning Kings of African football and a savvy African coach conducted them into their new soccer royalty.
Congratulations Nigeria! Congratulations AFCON! Congratulations Africa! Congratulations world soccer!
Samwin Banienuba (UK)
International Spokesperson for Humanitas Afrika