The Super Eagles take a group photo before their AFCON 2023 semi-final game against South Africa. Photo: AFP
The past three weeks have seen a resurgence of patriotism among Nigerians, even in these dire times.
A great percentage of the over 200 million people inhabiting the country are striving to survive the harsh economic situation, but the hard times have not stopped the citizens from rallying around their darling team, the Super Eagles, who, against all expectations, are contesting for the Africa Cup of Nations title with hosts, Cote d’Ivoire, in Abidjan, today.
Nigeria has been gripped by inflation with the majority of the people living below the poverty line, but that has not mellowed the joy they display every Super Eagles’ match day. Today is one of such days, but the stakes are higher as the reward for victory is no longer three points or passage to another round, but the highest height of African football.
A win today for the Super Eagles will not only fetch them N10 billion but also give Nigerians something to celebrate and perhaps, usher in a new wave of optimism that it could bring a change in the country’s economic fortune.
Nigeria’s march to the final game of the Africa Cup of Nations has been a pleasant surprise to many of their followers, who derided and wrote the team off before the games began last month. The reason for such low regard for the team is that under the current coach, Jose Peseiro, Nigeria, ranked 42 in the world, had lost to such countries as Guinea Bissau and Guinea and only managed draws with Lesotho and Zimbabwe in their last four games before AFCON
The withdrawals by top players like Wilfred Ndidi, Victor Boniface, and Taiwo Awoniyi owing to injury, as well as the poor state of the team’s goalkeeping department, were enough reasons to write the Super Eagles off. But here they are, changed in all facets, with a new goalkeeper who has not conceded any goal in open play since the 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea in their first match of the group stage of the championship.
The Super Eagles have had the upper hand in clashes with Cote d’Ivoire in the Africa Cup of Nations. In eight games, Nigeria has won three out of eight previous games, with two draws and two losses.
With the current African Footballer of the Year, Victor Osimhen, in their lineup, the Super Eagles are expected to be too strong for the Ivoirians, who conceded four goals against Equatorial Guinea. But the problem is that Nigeria is not a high-scoring side. The Eagles relied on a penalty to beat the hosts in their first meeting in the competition.
Talisman, Osimhen, has scored only one goal in six games, although one can argue that he has been unlucky to have had two of his goals chalked off for offside. The Napoli strongman has, however, been a thorn in the flesh of opposing defenders, with his swashbuckling style earning Nigeria two penalties in the competition.
While they are not a high-scoring side, the Super Eagles have made up with a stout defence that has been the meanest in the championship with only one goal conceded in open play. In Stanley Nwabali, Nigeria has a goalkeeper that has brought confidence to the team’s defence, and the players now do their job knowing that they have a capable hand to make up for any lapse.
Although the Super Eagles are playing against the host nation, they will not lack in vocal support as many Nigerians, both from home and the countries bordering Cote d’Ivoire, have been trooping into Abidjan to lend their voices to the quest for success.
The players have also been assured that a grateful country will open the cash vaults to reward them if they win their fourth African title today. Already, they have earned a substantial sum from their fans, including the Progressive Governors’ Forum, who rewarded them with N250 million for beating South Africa in the semifinal.
Vice President, Kassim Shettima, who has been leading Nigerians in supporting the team from the stadia stands since the quarterfinals, has assured the team that the Federal Government will host and reward them adequately for their efforts in Cote d’Ivoire.
Shettima will be joined in the Eagles’ corner by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who, according to CAF President, Patrice Motsepe, will attend the final at the Alassanne Ouattara Stadium, Ebimpe.
Team captain, William Troost-Ekong, who has equaled Stephen Keshi’s record as the highest-scoring defender in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations, has assured Nigerians that the Super Eagles would rather die on the pitch than allow Cote d’Ivoire to beat them to the title.
Troost-Ekong, who is reportedly being courted by clubs in Saudi Arabia due to his sterling performances at the AFCON, has described winning the championship as an extraordinary moment for him and the country.
“You dream about moments like that. I’ve seen it so many times. And I’ve closed my eyes. To be there on Sunday and have the chance to do that will be amazing,” he said.
One of the most assured optimists and believers in the Super Eagles’ ability to win the championship is coach Peseiro, who from the onset has been drumming that the country will conquer Africa this term.
Explaining his belief in the team, Peseiro said: “When I signed the contract, I said I want to win the Afcon. Either way, I don’t know if everybody believed or not. I have believed since the first moment. We haven’t won anything until now – we want to win the AFCON.”
Peseiro’s mandate is to take Nigeria to the semifinals of the championship and also qualify the Super Eagles for the 2026 World Cup. He has already achieved the former and is now on the verge of adding the cup to the bargain.
But his team will be up against a Cote d’Ivoire side that has been on the ascendancy since they managed to qualify for the round of 16 of the championship with three points.
The hosts were almost down and out of the race after losing two of their three first-round games to Nigeria (1-0) and Equatorial Guinea (4-0), but they sneaked in as one of the best four third-placed teams after the group stage.
Since then, they have not looked back. Since the exit of their technical adviser, Jean-Louis Gasset sacrificed because of their poor group stage performance, the team has been on a different side under Gasset’s former assistant, Emerson Fae.
Now, the fans, who went on a rampage, destroying shops and vans after their 0-4 loss to Equatorial Guinea, have trooped back and are ready to push the Elephants to a third AFCON victory.
Describing the new wave of optimism among his compatriots as magical, former Cote d’Ivoire captain, Kolo Toure, told BBC that the loss to Equatorial Guinea “was a big wake-up call for the players because they saw that fans in the country were angry.”
He said a few things that happened after that game made the players realise how important the tournament is for the country.
Toure, who was in Cote d’Ivoire’s last team to lift the trophy in 2015 alongside Coach Fae, said the team has been on a rollercoaster ride since the round of 16, beating such luminaries as Senegal, Mali, and DR Congo to get to the final.
“Emerse has brought discipline both on and off the pitch to the team. He has brought tactical discipline because we have a midfield with really good players – Ibrahim Sangare, Franck Kessie, and Seko Fofana – but against Equatorial Guinea, I felt those three were running all over the pitch with no discipline,” he said,
Nigeria is the overwhelming favourite to win the title, but Ivoirian midfielder, Franck Kessie disagrees.
“As long as you still have a five percent or 10 percent chance, you need to keep believing, because that is what makes football beautiful,” he said after the semifinal defeat of DR Congo on Wednesday.
Although this team lacks star performers like the 2015 set, they have built a unit that is hard to shove aside since Fae took over.
“We need to keep going like this because you can’t go all the way to the final only to then give up,” Kessie says.