AFCON Final South Africa - The Super Eagles of Nigeria will be chasing history on Sunday when they meet Burkina Faso in Johannesburg in the final of the 2013 African Cup of Nations (AFCON).
According to a Correspondent of PANA covering the event, the Nigerian team has a major assignment – to become the only team of the 47 entries that did not lose a single match from the qualifying stage to the final match.
Besides, it will be another all-West Africa final match in 21 years since the region produced two finalists. That was in Senegal ’92 when Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana met. Now it is the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Stallions of Burkina Faso, the underdogs that defied all odds to get to the final for the first time ever since the competition began in 1957.
Nigeria, an acclaimed football nation, is using the current competition to emerge from the football depression that hit the country since the end of the 1994 golden generation whose soccer artistry captivated the world.
Both sides had met at the opening stage and deadlocked the scoreline when Burkina Faso dramatically cancelled Nigeria’s solitary lead with the last strike of the 21 January match in Nelspruit.
South Africa 2013 may therefore be the time for Nigeria to reassert its superiority.
At the zenith of their fame, the Super Eagles became the first English-speaking African country at the World Cup in 1994. They were adjudged the second most entertaining team at the USA ’94 global football fiesta and were even at the verge of eliminating former two-time champions, Italy, which eventually became the runners-up behind Brazil.
At their peak in April 1994, the Super Eagles were ranked the fifth best team in the world by FIFA. Today, they are in an undignified 52nd position in the world and ninth in Africa.
The golden generation capped their achievement by forming the cornerstone of the Nigerian side that won the 1996 Olympic football tournament. They were not just the first African Olympic football champions; they were indeed the first non-European winner of the Olympic football event in 68 years!
What is more, Nigeria halted Europe’s domination of the Olympic Games football event as no European team has won since 1996 – 17 years of waiting to win football’s major honour apart from those of age-graded tournaments that are fast waning in importance.
In view of their achievements so far, one fact remains clear -- that Nigeria will rise significantly in Thursday’s FIFA World rankings.
The Super Eagles therefore have a lot at stake as they file out against the Stallions of Burkina Faso.
First, Nigerian football needs to regain its lost esteem to reclaim for the general populace the passion for the world's most beautiful game. Again, corporate bodies would have renewed their interest.
Having already knocked out the top-ranked African country in the quarter final, they eliminated the third-ranked Mali in the semi-finals, winning convincingly 4-1.
A win over Burkina Faso will not only give the Super Eagles a third victory in the African Nations Cup, the US$ 1.5 million cash prize and the qualification for FIFA Confederation Cup in June are added benefits. The June event will see the winner on Sunday drawn against World Cup and European champions, Spain, Tahiti and South American champions, Uruguay.
For Burkina Faso, the final match offers their Belgian coach, Paul Put, an escape from the scandal that is trailing his career. He is a "condemned" match-fixer who had been banned for three years by the Royal Belgian Football Association.
He is downplaying the favourite tag that has been placed on the Super Eagles, saying "I know that Nigeria is a big side, but we are also a big team and we certainly do not need to hide. We will have our chances in the game. Also, surprises are always there. Maybe this time is our time."
With Nigeria being the overwhelming favourite to win, traditionally there will be crowd inclination towards the underdogs. That may propel the Burkinabés to give the Super Eagles a good fight.
Already, the side received a major boost when their previously-suspended top scorer and Rennes of France striker, Jonathan Pitroipa, was cleared for the game against Nigeria.
Burkina Faso has enjoyed an uncommon privilege of being the only team to play all matches in one venue, the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, where the team played all its three group matches, the quarter finals against Togo and the semi-finals against Ghana.
Now, they have been uprooted from Nelspruit, which has a bumpy football pitch. They will now face Nigeria on the alluring turf of the National Stadium in Johannesburg.
The pitch appears a significant factor in this game. The Super Eagles were uncoordinated in their first two matches at Mbombela. But when they moved to better pitches in Nelspruit and Durban, their football found better expression.
That is the factor that may work in Nigeria’s favour, enhancing the free-flowing attacking football with which they have entertained all.
Ahead of the final match, Coach Stephen Keshi, who is gracing the African Nations Cup for the ninth time as player and coach, said that the key to his success has been to instill a mix of focus and enjoyment.
"We need discipline on and off the field. And we also have to have fun. Any job you do, if don't have fun doing it, you won't give a hundred per cent.
“That was the way I played when I was a player. That is what I want to see as a coach. Fun and also discipline, that's the key".
Keshi's previous appearances in the competition as a player were in 1982, 1984, 1988 1992 and 1994. He failed to honour the invitation to the 1990 tournament. He has led Togo to the 2006 finals in Egypt and Mali to the 2010 championship in Angola.