Nigeria deservedly toppled title-holders, Zambia’s Chipolopolo and dismantled a resurgent Cote d’Ivoire’s star-studded Elephants enroute to winning the African Cup of Nations in South Africa.
Our Sports Editor, story teller, Tony Ubani, who followed the team from Mbombela to Rustenberg and to Durban and Johannesburg chronicles the story of the surprise success that has sent warning signals to African teams and made many Nigerians eat their words and put Stephen Keshi in a king-size position against his detractors.
Our goal is always to play well as a team, a collective.
We all work together as a unit with a great sense of cohesion; for us this is the greatest component”. Super Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi remarked before their opening game against defending Champions, Zambia. His words seem almost prophetic in retrospect as the steel-willed Super Eagles produced the most remarkable and sparkling performances of their championship run when the collective unit fired on all cylinders to move from zero to hero.
Conversely, the team’s weaknesses were only revealed when the cohesion showed brief signs of fraying at the preliminary stages.
And that was when the heavens opened its mouth to swallow the team. A colourless draw with defending champions Zambia sparked off the criticisms. Truly, the Eagles lacked bite and finesse. Their physical strength to withstand the 90 minutes was suspect as they put every foot wrong. The Zambians, too, were not different from the Eagles.
As defending champions, many had expected to see a sparkling performance that would send signals to other opponents that they were in South Africa to retain the trophy. Honours were shared and bookmakers dissected the chances of two of Africa’s powerhouses with the hammer falling heavily on Nigeria, a two-time winners of the African prize. Keshi tried to weather the storm but the second match against Burking Faso almost justified all fears that Nigeria was in the competition to complete the numbers.
The Sports Ministry, like every other interested partner expressed disgust and breathed down on the Nigeria Football Federation while the NFF transferred the anger to Keshi and crew and told them to justify the huge money and free hand given them. Nigeria was on the edge of suffering a huge humiliation facing a possible exit not getting to the quarter finals. “I still have absolute confidence in this team. Despite that we are staying together as a unit for the first time(three weeks), they have the character of champions”, Keshi said at the post conference to which he was greeted with hisses and sighs from the ever-critical press. Some lily-livered Nigerians changed their flight ticket dates while Nigerians resident in South Africa complained bitterly. Distraction set in. An un-confirmed information that Nigeria was searching for world-class foreign technical adviser leaked . Keshi naturally lost weight. But he still carried along knowing that his chances of surviving as coach of the Eagles was on a thread. Ethiopia beckoned. Before now, the Wayas of Ethiopia had given Africans much to deliberate on with their champagne display. “The Eagles do not have the strength, they do not have the star players, their midfield will not contain the Ethiopians”. Fear spreads.
But once the Ethiopians were crushed, Nigeria had set up the most mouth-watering quarter-final cracker with the most dreaded Ivorian squad, having such stars like the dreaded Croc, Didier Drogba, Alain Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou, Cheik Tiote, Gervinho, Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Souleman Bamba. Big names in World football. Millionaires! It was going to be the battle of David and Goliath. And the Ivorians walked with an air of arrogance and enjoyed all the trappings of a champion waiting for the trophy to be handed over to them. Eboue heightened the tension when he was alleged to have posted on twitter that the Ivorians would devour fried chicken or fried Eagles. Keshi and his team went to work while the Ivorians went to sleep. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama sensed danger and declared that big names don’t play football. Assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpalla professed that the Eagles had gotten to a level that no team would stop them – not Cote d’Ivoire. It was such an exciting match that even the most impartial fans were jumping up and down in the stands. There could not have been a better thriller.
To and fro, backwards and forwards, shots at and into goal, rebounds off posts, and crossbars, dazzling moves, mesmerizing dribbles, a match contested with passion and fairness – in short, a showcase of pedigree. Could these be same Nigerian team that wobbled in the prelims?”, many asked as the Nigerian team matched them grit by grit and over-powered the showmanship of Drogba. Mikel imposed himself in the match and saved what could have turned the match in the favour of the Ivoirians. Unknown little players whose sign-on fees and salaries could not match the one-week pay of Drogba, Toure and their likes kicked dust into their eyes. How were the mighty fallen!
It took the bullet of power-horse, Emmanuel Emenike to break the ice and Tiote brought things at par, before a home-made Eagle, one of the revelations of the Nations Cup, Sunday Mba put it beyond the loquacious Ivorians. The camp of the Eagles rumbled in Rustenberg. It restored confidence and made Nigerians walk with their noses in front. The drive to the camp of the Eagles was long and loud. Songs of praise were rendered in the luxury, banters were thrown while it seemed like a fairy tale. But Keshi would not let it slip. Against all odds, he gathered the players and thanked them for their resilience and pointed out a few errors and insisted that there would be training the following. “The battle is not yet over. This is the time we have to up our games.
This cup is starring us on the face. We have to work hard for this opportunity of our lives time”, he said as the players roared in ecstasy hailing him ‘big boss’, coachila!”. Like they say, it is not the strongest who win, but those who want it the most. There was this joke in camp that those who asked Keshi ‘who are you now turned around to ask him how are you?’ . Confidence soared. But Keshi tightened the noose on discipline as bed time was adhered to, breakfast was compulsory and timely and importantly, no phone calls during meals and bedtimes.
NFF President, Alhaji Aminu Maigari remained resolute in prayers. “I believe in this team because we agreed with Keshi on his transformation agenda. We gave him all and he showed the appetite to work with local players. That’s when I knew and believed that he had something to offer. No coach will ordinarily want to start with local players in the midst of stars all over the big clubs”, Maigari offered.
Mali! They owe their existence to fire-power of the Nigerian troops sent to bring peace to their troubled home. They knew that the bell tolled for them after Ivory Coast were shoved aside. They too bite the dust and Burkina Faso who also started the mediocre play in the group with Eagles faced the firing squad in the final.
But back to the camp of the Eagles, the players were disillusioned by talks that Keshi was going to be sacked, and the coach after gaining respect with his victories threatened not to continue with Nigeria. Sunday Mba, the Lion-heart, Elderson Echiejile felt troubled.
“This is the not the time to be talking about sacks”, Eagles spokesman, Ben Alaiya complained but trusted in the professionalism of Keshi to tinker the team to victory. “This team is a winning one. They are a family and Keshi’s has shown why he is called the Big Boss. The team have also hit form and understanding”, Alaiya a Journalist of repute before he crossed the border said.
Questions were posed to Sports Minister, Bolaji Abdullahi on the allegations of his wanting Keshi to be replaced by a foreign technical adviser.
“I don’t think that Keshi belived. There is no such thing. How can you? After the match against Burkina Faso where we conceded the last minute goal, I told Keshi that there is no need to dwell in the past and lament on what would have been done. A tournament is not decided by one match. We did not set any target for the Eagles. That has helped because there is no deadline. It has allowed them to express and rediscover themselves.
Having said that, no Nigerian can say that he was happy with our first two games in the tournament.So doubts were created, fears were expressed, sentiments, anger ruled the air. Maybe people picked up all these and thought the Minister will react. Don’t forget the coach is hired by the NFF. I have absolute confidence on the team. That’s why when I left after the prelims I told people that I would be back for the finals to watch the Eagles. People looked at me with disbelief”, the Minister who has added the trophy to one of his achievements as Sports Minister said.
And the final hour came. Burkina Faso again! “We were not blended when we played them in Nelspruit. Also, the pitch was not conducive for smooth playing”, one of Nigeria’s highest import to the world of soccer Mikel Obi said. And truly, he shone gloriously that he won individual awards for his artistry. The final was yet to be played on a Sunday and in the Eagles is one Sunday Mba, a local material who extinguished star millionaires and made them look miserable. He rose to the occasion and nicked one goal against the Burkinabes. That was enough to set the skies of Johannesburg ablaze with colourful fire-works. Stephen Keshi raised his head and hands unto heaven apparently from where he draws his strength. The players ran riot in celebration. The stands where the drumming Nigerian supporters were draped in green white green signatures of Nigeria were in amok. A peep at the VVIP stand saw Senate President in banters with mighty men who came to lend their support to the team.
Daniel Amokachi who played great football in his days, lifted Keshi aloft on his shoulders to show him to the World. Other assistants, Sylvanus Okpalla, Ike Shorunmu lent a hand. Overwhelmed by emotions, Keshi waved to the jubilant crowd and tears glistened from his eyes. He has created record as the only player to have played and won the Nations Cup as skipper and also as coach. The other one of blessed memory is El-Gohary of Egypt. Brand new T’Shirts from the NFF came out declaring them; “Nigeria: Champions of Africa”.
The Press rumbled to get an interview from the indigenous coach who dismissed all the foreign coaches to crown Nigeria as third time winners of the African Cup of Nations.
“Are you still going to remain as coach of Nigeria?”, I fired.
Keshi smiled and fired back; “Do Nigerians want me as their coach? They do not appreciate me”.
And appreciation came in rains and Dollars with Telecommunication guru, Dr Adenuga splashing millions of Dollars on the team. An appreciative federal Government sent a chartered aircraft to ferry the players and coaches draped with their gold medals to the Federal Capital Territory. When skipper Joseph Yobo held the cup aloft, a tumultuous crowd surged to appreciate Keshi and his players, but the security guards with their dogs barring fangs charged to keep them at bay.
Senate President David Mark revealed that the Nigeria Football Federation had pressured Keshi into signing a fresh clause in his contract that would have placed a foreign technical adviser above him.
With a national award of CON, N10 million and land in Abuja, I crept to ask Keshi if he was still going ahead to resign? He looked at me and smiled; “this is not the time to talk about that. The Senate President and others are on it”. He looked at the crowd and declared; “I’m happy to see Nigerians happy”.
Who says that Nigerians are not appreciative? No. Nigerians are critical but very appreciative.