Nigeria hopes to end 19 years of waiting for Africa's biggest prize in football, the Nations Cup, when it takes on Burkina Faso here on Sunday in the final match of the 2013 AFCON in South Africa.
Significantly, it was Stephen Keshi who was the last Nigerian player to lift the cup. On Sunday, he will lead the Nigerian team as coach, perhaps to win the cup again.
Since 1994, Nigeria has made 12 failed attempts, the most painful being the final match of the 2000 edition when Nigeria lost the trophy on home soil to Cameroon. In 2002, the Super Eagles crashed out in the semi finals just as they did in the 2004, 2006 and 2010 editions.
The Ghana 2008 edition was also bad for Nigeria, which crashed out in the quarter finals stage. And last year when Gabon and Equatorial Guinea hosted, the situation was even more appalling. Nigeria did not qualify.
It is interesting that it is in South Africa that the opportunity to win the African Nations Cup for the third time is unfolding. The Super Eagles as the 1994 champions failed to defend their title at South Africa ’96 owing to the political row between the governments of Nigeria and South Africa, occasioned by the backlash that followed the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists.
South Africa 2013 has therefore provided a ‘coup de grace’. Coach Keshi will not want to talk on whether Nigeria would have won if the Super Eagles had attended the 1996 tournament.
“That’s some years back. I will rather be focused on the current match than to start talking about an event of 17 years ago,' he remarked at the final press conference organized for the Nigerian team.
On four occasions -- 1984, 1988, 1990 and 2000 -- Nigeria lost in the final matches. Three of those losses were to Cameroon.
Responding to another question, Keshi said the absence of Cameroon has made winning easier. But Skipper Joseph Yobo added were Cameroon to be in the final with Nigeria, the Indomitable Lions too will entertain some fears. “We are two great football nations in Africa, and I think we have mutual respect for one another.”
Keshi is happy about the decision of CAF to allow the initially-suspended Burkinabe striker, Jonathan Pitroipa, to feature. “I applaud the decision on him. I too watched the video clips and I think he was punished unjustly and actually deserved to have a penalty kick in his favour.
“It is good to have all good players to feature in the final. The watching crowd deserve to have the best of entertainment. Besides, you don’t get to play the African Nations Cup final every day. Sometimes, it's just a life experience,” said Keshi.
He, however, said that the return of Pitroipa has not altered his game plan for the final match, adding that the spirit in the camp is rising and everybody is just roaring to go.
Skipper Yobo added that the Super Eagles’ players have worked very hard for this tournament and deserve to win. “I will be very disappointed if we don’t win”, said the player who is attending his sixth African Nations tournament but getting to the final for the first time.
In comparing the present squad with the previous five, he said that the current team is more cohesive and there is more unity in it than the previous ones that were even star-studded.