By KUNLE SOLAJA, National Stadium, Johannesburg
On the alluring turf of the 90,000-seater National Stadium and in front of enthusiastic and appreciative crowd, it was Super Eagles all the way! They beat hard-fighting Burkina Faso 1-0! The Super Eagles are the champions for the third time. The inscription on their ceremonial dress after the final whistle says it all. “Nigeria are champions of Africa. And so, the almost impregnable back four of Burkina Faso was broken.
A defence line that had gone five matches of the final series with just two goals conceded finally collapsed under severe fire power of furious Super Eagles. And on a Sunday, Sunday Mba launched Nigeria unto victory path. The home lad whose superb body swerve and flick shot sent out pre-tournament favourites, Cote d’Ivoire was again on target in the 39th minute as he lashed on a Victor Moses’ shot and outwitted a defender before getting the ball past Goalkeeper Diakite Daouda.
He young lad, whose goal against Cote d’Ivoire was the life support that threw Nigeria into the semi-final, again became the hero. The Super Eagles set a record of not losing single a single match in a series of 10 games from the beginning of the qualifiers in Kigali on February 29 last year till February 10 this year. Booming crackers and fireworks greeted the new African heroes. Stand up for the new and deserving African champions and contender for the FIFA Confederation Cup in Brazil. And the 19 years of waiting to be crowned again is over! It has been 19 years of football depression in the country.
Now, Nigerians have something to cheer. The boys have conquered Africa. It was not an easy task, all the same, it is mission accomplished. Brazil is the next destination in four months time when they take on Spain, Uruguay and Tahiti on their way to add the FIFA Confederation Cup to the laurels for Nigeria. Thank you Stephen Keshi! He has become the only living man to win the African Nations Cup as a coach. His name will be ringing bell in the hearts of many football loving Nigerians from Aba to Zaria, from Abeokuta to Zungeru. He has proved that an indigenous coach can deliver if given a free hand.
The Super Eagles had kicked off in front of a capacity crowd that included South African president, Jacob Zuma, FIFA president, Sepp Blatter and numerous football chiefs all over the world. From the opening minute of the first half, the Super Eagles looked pregnant with possibilities. If they had been criticised for lack of innovation in the past, they have certainly improved a great deal. They relied on neat but quick build-ups. Inside the first five minutes, they had two oh-so-close moments but on both occasions the final ball let them down. Burkina Faso have built their reputation for being less flashy but efficient – a group of players will impressive work ethic. On Sunday night, it took them 16 minute to settle in and have their first attempt at goal.
The rest of the first half was characterised by a safety-first approach – both teams trying to catch each other on counter-attack with the long ball. Occasionally, Nigeria’s Eric Ambrose showed vision in the midfield, but he often found four Burkinabe bodies behind the ball whenever he got into the Stallion’s ‘red’ area. Nigeria went to the break leading 1-0. In the second half, Burkina Faso came with renewed vigour. While they had been cautious in the first half, they started to throw bodies forward in the second half in search of an equaliser.
On the 72ndminute, they were nearly rewarded when substitute Bakary Sanou’s strike shaved the upright. That moment looked to have spurred the Stallions, but the Super Eagles were also not holding back. Twice in the last 10 minutes of the game Nigeria should have scored, but they did not take their moment. Such missed chances could have mattered had they lost, but all will be forgotten and probably forgotten after the victory. Give credit to Burkina Faso. They laboured hard for the entire 90 minutes.
Throughout this tournament, they have shown a fighting spirit only equalled by a few teams during the event. On Monday morning – this edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will be remembered for many things: It was a tournament that had authored stories of hope, inspiration.
It was an occasion where some of the continental powerhouses shrug off the cobwebs of inconsistency and reclaimed dignity. It was a Nigerian come-back story as much as it was a Burkina Faso magnificent journey – two stories that will make for happy reading in years to come.