By John EGBOKHAN
Tomorrow in Abidjan, the Super Eagles home-based team will attempt to break the jinx that has prevented Nigeria from qualifying for the last two editions of the African Nations Championship (CHAN), when they confront Cote d’ Ivoire in a second leg final round match at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium.
Since the competition, meant for players playing their professional football in Africa, made its debut in 2009, Nigeria, which boast of some of the best talents on the continent, are yet to make the grades, making mockery of the often-touted developmental strides in the local league.
The Democratic Republic of Congo won the maiden edition, courtesy of a 2-0 defeat of the Black Stars of Ghana in Abidjan. In the 2011 edition hosted by Sudan, it was Tunisia’s turn to taste the sweet taste of victory, as they ran away with a 3-0 spanking of the Palancas Negras of Angola in Merreikh.
Remarkably and sadly too, in those two editions, Nigeria, the most populated country in sub-Sahara Africa, were not there. But today, the Eagles are just a step away from reaching their first CHAN final, set to hold next January in South Africa, the same country, where the Super Eagles won their third Africa Cup of Nations crown in February, after a 19-year wait.
Leading the Eagles quest for a first CHAN ticket is Coach Stephen Keshi, who was at the helm of affairs when Eagles soared to their third AFCON title in Johannesburg.
Keshi, who happens to the first Nigerian to win the Nations Cup crown as a player and coach, takes the Eagles into tomorrow’s duel with the Elephants, with a 4-1 advantage from the first leg.
Despite masterminding the defeat of the Ivorians at the Ahmadu Bello Stadium, Kaduna, Keshi is keeping a calm head as he attempts to see out the Elephants over two legs.
Speaking before their trip to Abidjan, Keshi expressed confidence in his charges’ ability to hold their own against the Ivorians, who he admits would be backed by a partisan crowd at their National Stadium.
“We have the home work. All that is left to do is the hard job on the pitch, which I am confident would turn out in our favour. But our hosts are going to enjoy a lot of support from their home fans”, said Keshi, who is not unfamiliar with life in Abidjan, having started his professional career outside Nigeria from the Ivorian league, when he left New Nigerian Bank to join Stade d’Abidjan in 1985, before moving to Africa Sports, a year later, before going abroad to play for Lokeren of Belgium in the 1876-1987 season.
He will be counting on the experience of Nations Cup winners, Sunday Mba, Godfrey Oboabona and Chigozie Agim, with support from Solomon Kwambe, Benjamin Francis and Azubuike Egwuekwe.
“We have a good squad, who are hungry to break this jinx of not being able to qualify for the CHAN tournament. It is not going to be easy but we are prepared for whatever the Ivorians would bring”, said Keshi.