Johannesburg - Nigeria will hope to end an astonishing 19-year wait for a continental title on Sunday evening at the National Stadium when they take on Burkina Faso in the Africa Cup of Nations final.
Stephen Keshi was the Nigeria captain back in 1994 in Tunisia, though he missed the final with an injury, as the Super Eagles beat Zambia 2-1, with an Emmanuel Amuneke double.
Since then, despite producing a litany of talented players, Nigeria have continually failed to live up to continental expectations, their last final appearance coming way back in 2000. Now with Keshi at the helm as coach, they have a fantastic chance to make amends.
There is also a particular irony to the fact that it is on the shores of South Africa that Nigeria have created this opportunity.
Bafana Bafana won the Nations Cup subsequent to Tunisia ’94 on home soil in 1996. Yet Nigeria, the holders, were missing from that competition, boycotting South Africa in the midst of a political row.
Nigerians have always maintained that the Super Eagles would have won in 1996 had they attended. Capturing the 2013 edition at South Africa’s National Stadium will provide an interesting coup de grace.
Not too much was expected of the current Nigerian side when the Nations Cup began.
Keshi put together a side made up of fewer overseas-based stars than previous editions, leaving out the likes of Peter Odemwingie. And criticism grew as Nigeria drew their first two games with the Burkinabe and Zambia.
Indeed, it took a couple of late Victor Moses penalties against Ethiopia to book the Super Eagles’ place in the last eight. Nigeria, however, have caught fire in the knockout rounds, stunning tournament favourites Ivory Coast with a sensational display, and then walloping Mali in the semis.
Keshi made the brave decision to drop his captain, Joseph Yobo, after the first game, and Nigeria’s defence has been resolute ever since, while in midfield, John Obi Mikel is finally living up to his reputation in international colours.
In attack, Victor Moses has been sensational, tearing Mali to shreds in the early stages of the semi-final, and Emmanuel Emenike of Mpumalanga Black Aces and FC Cape Town fame, is another living up to the hype in the Nigerian attack.
In Nigeria’s way, however, is a Burkina Faso side proving that the underdog’s bark remains firmly as fierce as its bite at the Africa Cup of Nations. As Zambia unexpectedly surged all the way to the title last year, so Paul Put’s Burkina Faso will hope to stun another higher-ranked side in Sunday’s final.
The Stallions have built their run to the final on an immense defence, with just two goals conceded, one from open play (albeit against Nigeria), in the entire tournament so far.
In attack, meanwhile, even the loss of Alain Traore to injury has not stalled their progress, winger Jonathan Pitroipa already a candidate for player of the tournament and giant striker Artistide Bance stepping up to net the vital equaliser in the semi-final against Ghana.
Burkina Faso, having overcome a dreadful refereeing display from Slim Jedidi in that semi-final, may also feel that their name is somehow on the trophy this year.
Nigeria have their own reason to believe in destiny. A cracking final, in front of a sell-out crowd, is on the cards.
Charles Kabore (Burkina Faso) v John Obi Mikel (Nigeria)
Kabore, the Burkinabe captain, has run the midfield hard yards with aplomb for the Stallions in this tournament, be it winning the ball back for his country or supplying sublime passes for his front line. The Marseille midfielder is only 24, but this is his third Nations Cup finals and his experience will be crucial on Sunday. In Mikel, however, Kabore has a counterpart in the international form of his life. His performance against the Ivory Coast in the quarter-final was exceptional, taking Yaya Toure out of the game, and his standard has not dropped much in the rest of the tournament. Mikel has plenty of attacking qualities too, if not necessarily in his goalscoring, notable in the brilliant pass that sent Ahmed Musa through for Nigeria’s fourth in the semi-final thrashing of Mali.
Aristide Bance (Burkina Faso) v Emmanuel Emenike (Nigeria)
With Alain Traore injured during the group stages, striker Bance has become a figure of increasing importance for the Burkinabe at this Africa Cup of Nations. In the semi-final it was Bance, with his distinctive blonde locks, who was the right man in the right place, popping up to curl home the Burkinabe’s equaliser against Ghana. Bance then kept his cool to net his side’s final penalty in the shoot-out. Emenike, meanwhile, netted Nigeria’s goal in the January 21st meeting with the Burkinabe in Nelspruit and has carried his good form through the tournament, netting in the 1-1 draw with Zambia, in the 2-1 quarter-final win over the Ivory Coast, and, albeit via a massive deflection, in the 4-1 semi-final win over Mali. The top goalscorer award looms, and, he will hope, the continental title too.