The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is here and the usual championship fever has already caught up with football followers across the continent.
One of the legends of the age-long tournament, Nigeria’s Olusegun Odegbami, is optimistic that Super Eagles will prove doubters wrong at the event. According to him, the team, which forced the star-studded Catalonian team to a 1–1 draw in a recent international friendly, has the character of a winning side.
Going down memory lane, Odegbami said: “My relationship with the Africa Cup of Nations has been long. In 1976, I was a close observer of what my colleagues in the Nigerian national team did in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.
“That would have been my first AFCON experience, but for my academics, which took precedence in my scale of preference then. Nigerian players returned from that championship for the first time as genuine African football heroes.
Before 1976, Nigeria had not made any significant impact on the African championship. By the end of the 1976 championship, the country came third in an event it could have won with a little bit of luck, and the players returned with individual awards for their exceptional performances.
Half of the team was made up of my colleagues in Shooting Stars International FC of Ibadan. I was not in the team to Dire Dawa.
Third place was the highest position ever attained up till then by the Green Eagles (as the national team of Nigeria was called at that time) in the African football fiesta. It was such a great achievement for Nigeria that it served as a psychological boost for the country’s footballers, igniting the belief in them that they had the capacity to win laurels at continental level. It completely changed Nigerian football and footballers. The country stopped playing second fiddle.
By the end of that year, the national team qualified and represented the continent at the Montreal Olympics in Canada and the country was solidly on the march to an authentic attempt to qualify as Africa’s sole representative to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. It was also no surprise that in 1978 Nigeria was the favourite with Ghana to win the championship, which Ghana hosted. I was a member of that team. I scored three goals in that championship and was the second highest goal scorer at the event.
Although Nigeria once again came third, the players left the championship without a doubt that they were potential future champions. It did not take long. In 1980, Nigeria strolled to victory, winning the most coveted trophy in African football for the first time and with three goals, I emerged the highest goal scorer of the championship and moved up from third best player in African football in 1977 to second best in 1980. That was the end of my involvement in AFCON as a player.
From the 1994 edition, up till the current edition, I have been a part of all but two or three of the championship, serving in different capacities and in various roles.
In 1994, I returned to the national team, now the Super Eagles, as team manager, a back seat position that required taking care of the welfare of players and being the link with administrators. That year, in Tunisia, Nigeria won the championship for the second and last time.
Since 1994, I have been a reporter, researcher, television and radio producer, match analyst for the BBC, member of CAF delegation, member of the football committee and part of Nigeria’s official government delegation to the championship. So, those are the experiences with which I go to AFCON 2013.
I still have goose pimples and football fever before every championship. Being a Nigerian, my view of AFCON 2013 cannot but be diluted. I can only preview the championship through the obviously prejudiced eyes of one looking through the prism of the Super Eagles and how the team will fare in the championship.
In the final two weeks before the championship, we have started to see a few of the teams a little bit better through their results and performances during their friendly matches. Below is my review of the teams to the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa.
Super Eagles of Nigeria and Stephen Keshi have been very interesting to watch. Keshi is sticking to his game plan and embedding several players from the domestic league in his emerging team, particularly in defence where the team appears to have some weakness. To have survived against a Barcelona FC-loaded Catalonian team penultimate Wednesday (in a friendly match that ended in a 1–1 draw) is indeed a great feat.
The Super Eagles have continued to look stronger. The only distraction has come from one or two players who have been ranting over their exclusion from Keshi’s list of invited players. Otherwise, Eagles will storm AFCON 2013 as the real dark horses of the championship, unknown, mysterious, difficult and dangerous.
The friendly match between the Tafa Stars of Tanzania and the defending African champions, the Chipolopolo of Zambia, was revealing. Before that match, not many knew that Zambia’s records since winning the championship last year have not been as impressive as assumed by all those who have declared them favourites again to retain the trophy.
I guess the shock 1–0 loss, which added to their previous four losses and four victories in all competitions in 2012, has thrown the team into contemplative mode. That defeat speaks volume. It could bring the Zambians down to earth and to the reality and enormity of the task ahead, or serve as a wake-up call for the team not to take things for granted and assume it could ride on the back of the 2012 victory to win again in 2013.
Without doubt, the Zambians must now know that the honeymoon of 2012 is over. It is a new year, with new teams and a brand new championship. The more I peer at my now infamous crystal ball, the less I see of the Chipolopolo coming forth to do it again this year.
Ivory Coast, with her team of ageing players, is still lumbering along. Her last friendly game, a drawn match against Russia, was flattering. That result confirmed that the team is not completely spent as a force. But everyone knows that we saw the same team one year ago at it best, but it could not complete the job.
With several of the players now past their prime, the team does not look as strong as it were last year.
I listened to the sound bites from the Black Stars of Ghana the other day. The players are sounding rhetorically confident as usual, but without the backup of visible, measurable and convincing performances in their pre-tournament matches.
South Africa’s Bafana Bafana has continued its steady, little heralded preparations. I still see the team as the surprise one to beat in this championship (unless it meets Nigeria any time before the final match).
Meanwhile, through past championships, I have seen too many players from Europe, who failed to ‘raise’ their games to the standard of the rough and tumble of African football and so, were made to look ordinary and to collapse under the weight of excessively high expectations. Playing in Africa is a different ballgame. It is hard, rough and tough, as AFCON 2013 will prove to be in the next few weeks.