1980, 1994, 2013. After 19 years, the Africa Cup of Nations is back in the hands of one of the continent’s giants. Since their last victory, the Super Eagles have endured four semi-final defeats and the shootout loss in 2000. So often amongst the favourites, so many disappointments. In 2011, they sunk to their lowest ebb – failure to qualify for the 2012 tournament altogether. But since then, Stephen Keshi has worked hard with this group of youngsters and today it paid off – a deserving victory. For once, there had been low expectations – for once, they delivered when it mattered.
A moment of magic lights up Soccer City
The only change amongst the two teams was enforced – top scorer Emmanuel Emenike had reportedly shaken off a post-semi final injury niggle but was not risked, meaning Ikechukwu Uche started as the loan front man, with Brown Ideye and Victor Moses in support. Burkina Faso were unchanged, with the impressive front three of Nakoulma, Pitroipa and Bance. Alain Traore returned to the substitutes bench after flying back from Lorient, but it was only to support his team due to the injury he picked up in the final group game.
As is so often the case with major finals, it was a nervy affair from the start, and it was Burkina Faso, playing in their first Africa Cup of Nations final, who seemed to be struggling under the weight of the occasion. Nigeria settled immediately and started pressurising goalkeeper Daouda Diakite, who looked susceptible to high balls. Just 10 minutes in, he dropped a high corner at the feet of Brown Ideye, but the Dynamo Kiev striker snatched at the chance and sent it into the Soccer City crowd – a big let-off for Burkina Faso, but one that wouldn’t help their nerves.
In all honesty, Burkina Faso created little in the first half, despite retaining much of the possession. Aristide Bance seemed to be suffering the most with the nerves, showing good touches but rarely finding the target, including smashing a free kick just wide. Similarly, a Kabore delivery found Bakary Kone at the far post, but his header went into the ground and bounced harmlessly well wide.
It looked as if the match was developing into a tepid affair, much like the last few finals – 2004 was the last time there was more than 1 goal in a Cup of Nations final. But then, out of nothing, the ball bounced free after Koulibaly clattered Ideye, from which referee Haimoudi played an advantage. Nigeria broke down the left with Uche (who looked perhaps marginally offside). He found Moses, whose shot from the edge of the box was blocked, sending the ball high and across the penalty area to Sunday Mba. He controlled the ball with his left foot, and then, with echoes of Paul Gascoigne against Scotland in Euro 96, flicked the ball over a sprawling Koffi with his right and volleyed it with his left into the far corner beyond the grasp of Diakite. A second excellent Afcon goal from the Warri Wolves midfielder, who is unlikely to remain in the Nigerian Premier League after another impressive display of talent. He had a second chance shortly after but could only clear the crossbar.
So the first half ended 1-0, and Nigeria were deservingly in front. It was difficult to see where Burkina Faso could grab an equaliser from.
The Player of the Tournament battered, bruised and marginalised
Nigeria began the second half in a similar manner to which they ended the first – the ever-exciting Moses slipped in the similarly impressive Ideye but found Diakite in the way of his shot, and another counter-attack shortly after also came to nothing. Burkina Faso looked powerless to respond, and their problems soon increased when Jonathan Pitroipa, soon to be named Player of the Tournament, hobbled to the sidelines for treatment for a knock from which he would never fully recover. It never quite came together in this one for the Rennes winger, who will be disappointed with his performance here despite a sterling tournament overall. Efe Ambrose did well to keep him quiet at right-back, making up for his sending-off in the corresponding fixture in the group stage.
Despite a rare chance for Burkina Faso, with Bance heading another Kabore free kick straight into the arms of Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria remained in control, even after the loss of left-back Echiejile to injury. Wilfried Sanou’s addition to the Burkina Faso attack made little difference. Any time the Stallions threatened, Enyeama was more than equal to their efforts, the big ‘keeper leading by example by dominating the goalmouth every single time.
Nigeria created a couple more opportunities as the clock ticked down but ultimately it was a comfortable win. Unfortunately it seems Burkina Faso never really adapted to the much better playing surface of Soccer City, in comparison with the rough surface of the Mbombela that they had so often succeeded on. Perhaps future Afcon organisers should consider rotating venues more, as it does seem pitch conditions helped those used to playing on them.
Nonetheless, the Burkinabe players should be proud of their performances in the tournament – last year they were seconds away from being eliminated in the final qualifying match against the Central African Republic, which would have been a massive disappointment; Alain Traore stepped up that day as he did against Nigeria and Ethiopia, and it’s a desperate disappointment that the player who showed more in one match than most of the other attackers in the tournament showed in 3 or more could not be a part of the big occasion. As he watched on from the bench, Pitroipa et al could only struggle against a hard-working Nigerian back-line.
But for Nigeria, an end to the years of frustration, and with a young unheralded squad that has the potential to grow into a dynasty. It’s amazing to think that even John Obi Mikel, who once again dominated the midfield, is only 25 years old. Mba and Oboabona, along with 4 other squad members, play their club football in Nigeria, though it would be wrong to cast it an NPL-based team – the XI included players from Chelsea, Dynamo Kiev, Celtic, Braga and Lazio, not to mention CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa and Fenerbahce’s Joseph Yobo (who finally gets a winner’s medal after 12-year long international career) who came off the bench during the match, and Spartak Moscow’s Emenike who played such a key role in getting them to the final. While the bigger names like Yakubu, Martins, Taiwo, Utaka and Odemwingie have been ditched, it has proven to be the right decision, earning Stephen Keshi deserved praise for his work – the legendary player has now become a legendary coach. Some other international managers could do well to look at the example he has set – yes, Mr Hodgson, I’m looking at you…
So to sum up, this is the end of a great tournament for the Super Eagles, as they have at last reached the summit of African football once again – and no one can begrudge them this, as they have been the best team throughout. But this doesn’t have to be the end – it is time now to turn this success into the beginning of a new era of domination, something they have never quite managed to do before.
In the past in African football, we have had teams who have consistently done well at World Cups but never succeeded at the Cup of Nations, and we have had teams who have dominated the Cup of Nations but never reached the World Cup. The next target will be for Nigeria to reach Brazil next year, which all begins in a month’s time, and then to defend their crown in Morocco two years from now. But with this group of talented young players, with more emerging behind them like Joel Obi, Sone Aluko and a new crop from the Nigerian Premier League that Keshi has slowly begun introducing to the team, you wouldn’t bet against them doing both.
Unlike Zambia last year, we can safely say this was no fluke, and that there may be more yet to come.
Man of the Match: Sunday Mba
Mba sums up what this team is all about – relatively unknown outside of African football circles before the tournament, he has shown that while he doesn’t carry the big name status and ego of some of his predecessor Super Eagles, he has just as much talent. That goal today, along with his earlier winner against Ivory Coast, will be one for the montages for years to come. At 24 and tied only to a NPL club, the footballing world is his oyster – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him to head to Europe this summer.