African Cup

NIGERIA; Like Amuneke like Mba: From obscurity to hero

sunday mbaSuper Eagles victory in far away Tunisia in 1994 could be likened to last Sunday’s win in South Africa in many respects.

First, both wins were on away soils and the teams were propelled by two people you could label father and son. Clemens Westerhof who tutored the 1994 squad, being the father as he coached Stephen Keshi who was part of the squad then.

Keshi as captain of the Westerhof team, could be rightly called the son, who learned great things from his Dutch benefactor and rightly applied the same tactics for the 2013 victory.

When Westerhof was in-charge, he included home-based players as well as some who plied their trade in some African countries like Emmanuel Amuneke, who was new as a player of the great Egyptian club, Zamalek.

The 1994 squad had great players like the Late Rashidi Yekini, who was the hottest striker in the continent at that time as well as Samson Siasia and Mutiu Adepoju. Therefore, Amuneke, as a young  and fresh member of the team was on the bench till the final against Zambia when Westerhof introduced him as his joker.

As one of the journalists who covered that tournament, I could recall how Amuneke’s introduction changed the course of the game as the Kalusha Bwalya led Chipolopolo knew next to nothing about him. And rightly he did the damage, scoring the two goals that gave Nigeria the victory.

Only Westerhof knew why he introduced Amuneke. He must have watched him closely at training sessions and  felt he could always sneak in behind the defence of the Zambians whose eyes must be on Yekini.

Keshi also adopted the same tactics in the 2013 AFCON. He selected his team, and boldly included six home-based players, a departure from the usual scenario of inviting and using only Europe-based players after the departure of Westerhof from the Nigerian scene.

Not many people, including his employers, the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, who wanted only foreign-based players who they thought were better exposed to tackle other teams in the competition, could spare Keshi a tongue-lashing for including Sunday Mba and five other home-based players for the Nations Cup assignment.

Emmanuel AmunekeBut like Amuneke in 1994, Mba became the saviour of the Eagles in the most crucial matches of the 2013 AFCON. First against Cote d’Ivoire in the quarter finals when all had thought the Eagles had reached their final destination, Mba, hungry to make an impact, took the fight to the Ivorians and unleashed a ferocious shot that beat the Ivorian goalkeeper for the winning goal.

That singular victory gave the Eagles the push and can-do-it spirit that propelled them to roll over Mali in the semi final before the crunchy tie against the rugged and determined Burkinabes in the final. There were palpable fear among Nigerians that Jonathan Pitriopa, just recalled after a wrong card call that ruled him out of the final, could inspire the Stallions to upset the Eagles, but the Eagles held their own, playing cautiously until Mba again, did a yeoman’s job of waltzing through the Burkina Faso defence to chip the ball beyond their goalkeeper for the lone goal that separated both teams.

After the 1994 final, Amuneke moved from Egypt to Europe where he starred for Sporting Lisbon in Portugal and Barcelona in Spain. That could be Mba’s lot too after he superlative performance at the 2013 AFCON where could have caught the attention of some agents and clubs alike.

Many have said that the Warri Wolves player, who moved from Rangers Football Club of Enugu, may not stay too long on the Nigerian scene before he is snapped by European clubs. And he is already dreaming it as was quoted to have said that “I hope I can also get a deal in Europe after what I achieved at the Nations Cup.”

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