By KUNLE SOLAJA in Rustenburg, South Africa
A confrontation of epic proportion is expected as Africa’s highest ranked football team, Cote d’Ivoire, face two-time African champions, the Super Eagles of Nigeria in a quarterfinal duel of the 2013 African Nations Cup. The atmosphere at the Nigerian camp has been frenzy. The feeling has been centred at lifting the nation out of the present football depression.
The players and their coaches are aware of the feeling back home. Not many people believe that Eagles can scale the Ivorian hurdle. They are aware many have lost faith in Nigerian football, as most Nigerian football exports are no longer plying their trade in the big European clubs. This is in contrast to the Cote d’Ivoire’s side that is not only rated as the most complete side at the 2013 Nations Cup tournament, but the one with the largest number of stars. In contrast to Nigeria with just two English Premiership players in her fold, Cote d’Ivoire boasts of six Premiership players, the largest concentration among all the South Africa 2013 finalists.
Besides, the Ivorians have five players from the French League One as well as two from the German Bundesliga and another one from the Spanish League. For Nigeria, most players are from the backwaters of the European leagues and sprinkles of the lowly rated Nigerian League. Besides, the statistics of the competition skews in favour of Cote d’Ivoire, which, with seven goals so far, is the best attacking side. But the Super Eagles are more determined than ever. Coach Stephen Keshi said yesterday that he expected his team to give its all to come out tops in a match that has been projected as a spectacle.
Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) President, Alhaji Aminu Maigari, has described the encounter as the “final before final”. Indeed, it is. Confrontations of Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire in the African Nations Cup finals had always been titanic. There have been five of such duels. The last two clashes in 2006 and 2008 were in favour of the Didier Drogba-inspired side. But that was where the odds ended on the side of Cote d’Ivoire. On occasions that they overcame Nigeria, they ended up not winning the African Nations Cup.
That happened in 2006 when they beat Nigeria 1-0 through a 46th minute goal by Drogba in the semi-finals and in 2008 group game when Salomon Kalou’s solitary goal was the decider. But on editions that Nigeria either beat Cote d’Ivoire or stalemated the score lines, the Super Eagles emerged champions. That was the case in 1980, when Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire ended their group game barren and also in 1994 when the semi-final clash ended 2-2 and Nigeria became victorious in a penalty shootout despite the initial setback of Samson Siasia missing his kick. For Nigeria, Coach Keshi said it’s a team still under reconstruction.
But for Cote d’Ivoire, it’s the final chance for the country’s golden generation, as most of the stars are likely to bow out after this tournament. In fact, Didier Drogba has announced his imminent retirement. “We must take our chances,” Maigari, the NFF boss remarked while attempting a review of what is easily the most difficult match for Coach Keshi since becoming the Super Eagles’ handler in November 2011. “Our country is one of the biggest and most respected football-playing nations of the world.
At every opportunity, we must fully underscore this fact. We are a powerful nation on and off the field,” said Maigari. Keshi appears to plan for a cagey defensive style and looks like opting for a 4-5-1 team formation. In contrast, the Ivorian Coach, Sabri Lamouchi may retain his 4-2-1-1 formation, which potency has seen the side scoring the highest number of goals so far in the competition. This will be the 21st encounter ever for both sides and honours were almost evenly shared. Nigeria has won six and lost five times to Cote d’Ivoire. The nine other matches were drawn.