In just a matter of days the African Cup of Nations will commence in South Africa and ‘ardent’ fans of the Super Eagles will be hoping their side can win a long overdue third African title 19 years after the team’s last triumph.
The first time the Nigerian national team won the African Cup of Nations was back in 1980 when the tournament was staged in Africa’s most populous country.
Playing in front of a capacity crowd of over 80,000 at the National Stadium in Surulere (the venue wasn’t an all-seated stadium back then) in the final match against Algeria, the Green Eagles, as the Super Eagles were known back then, went gaga against their North African rivals scoring three unreplied goals much to the delight of their teeming fans.
Any dream of another African title had to wait until another 14 years when a side captained by current Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi and coached by the enigmatic Dutchman Clemens Westerhof conquered the continent in Tunisia, beating Zambia 2-1 in the final.
The team looked set to defend the title two years later when the tournament was staged in South Africa only to pull out a few days to its commencement owing to a political rift between the Nigerian government and their South African counterpart.
And after missing the 1998 tournament in Burkina Faso, thanks to a ban from the continent’s football body, CAF, the Super Eagles returned two years later and made it all the way to the final only to suffer a penalty shootout loss to Cameroon in front of a disappointed home crowd in Surulere.
Since then, it has been a series of near misses for the Super Eagles with the team crashing out at the semi-final round in four out of the six tourneys that have taken place since that year 2000 loss to the Indomitable Lions.
And as the latest instalment of Africa’s biggest football tournament gets set to commence on January 19 in South Africa, the question on the lips of most fans of the Super Eagles is whether the current crop of players assembled by Keshi are capable of conquering Africa when the tournament draws to a close three weeks later in Johannesburg.
I don’t think so, and I won’t lose any sleep if the team fails to make it past the group stage!
It’s not that I am pessimistic, but gone are the days when the Super Eagles consisted of players who were household names across the continent. In their place, instead, are a mixture of players, most of them far from being superstars, plying their trade across Europe and a handful of ‘stars’ from the Nigerian top flight division incapable of instilling fear in the hearts of opposing sides.
Also gone are the days when the side headed into an Afcon tournament as pre-tourney favourites with that honour now reserved for the likes of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, who, once again, are most pundits’ favourites for the title in the absence of continental giants Egypt.
In fact, that had always been the case, at least over the course of the last three or four tournaments, but for some reason or the other, these two powerhouses of African football always have a way of faltering at the very last moment.
It was for this reason that a side like Zambia, against all odds, emerged victors at the end of the last Afcon co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, beating the Ivoirians after a pulsating penalty shootout.
Most members of the Didier Drogba-led Ivoirian side know South Africa 2013 will be their last opportunity to add a second title to the solitary one won by the French-speaking country so many years ago, back in 1992 in Senegal, before hanging up their soccer boots and will be giving it their all in the Rainbow nation.
But their task won’t be helped by the fact that South Africa 2013 looks set to be the most open Afcon tournament in a long while with so many teams, no doubt inspired by Zambia’s shock victory last time out, confident of springing a surprise or two against the so-called giants.
However, regardless of how open the tournament looks set to be, I don’t see this present Super Eagles side going all the way in South Africa.
True, there are a couple of players in the squad capable of singlehandedly changing the outcome of a game with a moment of magic, such as Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa, Nosa Igiebor and Ikechukwu Uche.
There are also a number of seasoned campaigners with three or more Afcon experiences behind them such as the goalkeeping duo of Vincent Enyeama and Austin Ejide, Mikel Obi and team captain Joseph Yobo, who is set for his 6th Afcon. But all in all, there are far too many players making their Afcon debut in Keshi’s side – a total of 17!
That is an incredibly high figure for a side thinking of becoming African champions in South Africa. But what do I know? I’m just an avid football lover.
And knowing how crazy football can be, anything can happen.
Or is it not in this crazy sport called football that an unheralded and hastily assembled Danish side conquered the rest of Europe back in 1992 at that year’s European Championship? And they did it without a single player with experience from a previous Euro Championship.
Or need I remind myself for the umpteenth time of Zambia’s remarkable achievement in 2012?
So, what do you think? Are these current Super Eagles players good enough to conquer Africa in South Africa? Or is victory at the next Afcon in Morocco, come 2015, a more realistic target?
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