By Patrick Omorodion
Exactly seven days from today, the 19th edition of the Africa Nations Cup will kick off in South Africa but action for the Super Eagles under the tutelage of Stephen Okechukwu Keshi will actually begin two days later when they confront fellow West Africans, Burkina Faso in their first game.
Last year when the competition was co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, Nigeria was conspicuously absent after Eagles’ immediate past coach, debonair Samson Siasia bungled the country’s chances right on the turf of the Abuja National Stadium when a more determined Syli National of Guinea picked a deserving 2-2 to grab the lone ticket from their group.
That disappointment caused Nigerian football fans to turn their backs on the Eagles and rightly or wrongly, vented their anger on the country’s football governing body, the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF.
From 2008 in Ghana to 2010 in both Angola for the Nations Cup and South Africa for the World Cup, the Eagles were tutored by four coaches, Berti Vogts, Shaibu Amodu, Lars Lagerback and Siasia, a mix of foreign and local players. Therefore when Siasia failed, the cry was for an indigenous coach and the lot fell on Keshi who had handled both Togo and Mali after his stint with Amodu in 2002.
He began by going back to the basics, like his former coach, Clemens Westerhof did while he was in the saddle between late 1989 and mid 1994, recruiting deserving home-based players from the local league for a rebuilding process.
Even though Nigerians saw what he did with little Togo which he qualified for their first and only World Cup in 2006 in Germany, they were not quick to nurse any hope of he reviving the fortunes of the Eagles whom they booed each time they played on home soil.
That feeling gradually gave way to optimism when the so-called home boys spiced with a handful foreign-based players held their own even before big football Nations. The drubbing a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina handed the Eagles last year didn’t change their feeling much as the Eagles’ earlier 4-1 drubbing of the same team in Abuja, though without Messi, was a enough to massage the ego of the fans.
With Keshi in-charge, the Eagles did not struggle too much to qualify for the Nations Cup but Nigerians were not too optimistic they could pull any surprise in South Africa, their grouping with Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia notwithstanding.
However, following the 3-1 win over Venezuela and the pulsating 1-1 against a star-studded Catalonian side parading a bunch of Barcelona FC and Spain’s World Cup winning players, the same fans were beginning to dream that the Eagles will not only qualify from their group but come tops ahead Zambia and Burkina Faso until last Wednesday’s drab 0-0 draw with giant-killing Cape Verde made them have a rethink.
However, it is the belief of every Nigerian football follower that if the team could get the maximum points against Burkina Faso, a team that have not really given them a scare in the past, in their first match on January 21, it could boost their morale against Zambia when they meet on January 25 for an outright win or draw at the worst to make qualification for the quarter final brighter.
Even though the England-based duo of Shola Ameobi and bulky Danny Shittu whom Keshi had invited to boost the confidence of his young side failed to join the team, the Illah-born gaffer still believes he has good enough players for his title campaign.
With the semi final target handed down to Keshi by the NFF, he and his boys must play to top Group C and avoid an early quarter final clash with Cote d’Ivoire who are brimming with star players led by former Chelsea hero, Didier Drogba. These Ivorians have been a bone in the neck of the Eagles since the 2006 edition held in Egypt.
If the Eagles avoid the Ivorians in the quarter finals, they are likely to meet another rival in the Black Stars of Ghana in the semi finals. The Black Stars are favoured to top Group B and meet host South Africa who are unlikely to topple either Angola or Morocco as Group A leaders, for a semi final ticket.
If it turns out this way, it will be the second time in 21 years both sides will be playing in the semi finals since legendary Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew led Ghana to stop the Eagles 2-1 in Abidjan in 1992. Ayew however, missed the final that year following a second yellow card and Ghana were beaten 11-10 on penalties by Cote d’Ivoire who went on to win the trophy that year.
Anything after the semi final for Keshi is a bonus as that is the mandate given him by his bosses at the NFF but Nigerians will want the team to go the whole hug if they are able to scale the Ghana hurdle more so when their tormentor in-chief, Cameroon and the competition’s all time masters, Egypt are absent from the continental party.
Keshi may also be nursing the ambition of winning the cup as a coach having done that as a player in 1994 and go further to qualify the Eagles for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, at least to prove that his effort in the same direction with Amodu in 2002 and alone with Togo in 2006 were no flukes.
If it happens that way, Keshi would see the promised land as it is not likely that he would be denied again as was done by both Nigeria and Togo to lead the team to the World Cup in 2002 and 2006. Then he could retire as a fulfilled man.