Keshi's belief rewarded
I have developed a sense of attachment to the present crop of Super Eagles that I never have with the previous teams.
These players looked proud to play for Nigeria and they wanted so much to make Nigeria proud in this competition. In Faro, Portugal, the majority of them were not arrogant at all and were willing to make chitchat. It made me feel there was something brewing here and it smelled really good.
Another factor is coach Stephen Keshi. Despite what many journalists might write, Keshi is a football hero to many Nigerians of my generation. He was a footballer who was so talented he could have played for any generation of Nigerian teams – a proper leader of men on and off the pitch.
In many of my discussions with him, the man believed in this team. His belief was unshaken that "we are going to do something in this tournament". It was a mantra he kept repeating to me even after the team arrived here in South Africa.
Going into the quarterfinal match with the tournament favourites, not many gave the Nigerians a chance understandably so. This was an inexperienced Nigerian side against an Ivorian side seemingly destined to win the tournament. Nigeria had appeared to struggle in their group matches, even if the reality was different as they conceded late equalisers to Burkina Faso and, farcically, a penalty to Zambia.
Keshi, kept repeating the mantra when I met him at the team's hotel a few days before this match. He never told me his tactical plans but kept saying I should not worry. I worried nevertheless!
The Ivorian coach, Lamouchi, said he was wary of the Nigerian team in his pre-match press conference.
It is not easy being perennial favourites. I believe this generation of Ivorian players have never been able to carry it well. In my column here after Zambia had won the tournament last year, I wrote and believed it was Ivory Coast's best chance to win as a lot of the strong nations did not appear in that tournament.
In this match the players seemed weighed down by the expectations, as the Nigerians raised their game and took the match to their vaunted opponents. Nigeria's midfield trio of Onazi, Mikel and Mba were quick, sharp and very progressive in their play. At the back, the partnership of Oboabona and Omeruo were not intimidated by the presence of Drogba, while the excellent Efe did not give Gervinho a moment's respite. Only Kalou got change out of Echiejile, who somehow seemed not on the same level as his defenders.
It was up front that Keshi played a blinder. Moses had the licence to get the ball and attack his defenders. Eboue got a proper chasing from Moses, while Bamba and Zokora could not handle Ideye all game. Emenike was a menace to Tierney, crowning his efforts with that violent strike gave Nigeria a very deserved lead. I can confess that when I saw him lining up to strike the ball I was shouting that it was too far out for a strike on goal.
I believed it helped Nigeria that the Elephants equalised very early in the second half. That early equaliser might have led the team to think that they could win it and they did threaten to take total control of the game. However, the Nigerians got the initiative back and started to up the tempo bit by bit again.
That Nigeria had only one major scare after that, when Mikel nipped in to thwart sub Lacina Traore, is a testament to how well they played and deserved their victory.
Watching the players dancing on the pitch with Keshi and the rest of the coaching crew, I actually held back tears. I was so happy for them. With Nigerian songs playing out on the PA system, it was a Nigerian party in Rustenburg.
The trophy is not in the bag but it is as Stephen Keshi said back in Faro, "I believe this team can be as good as the '94 set. Oboabona has the kind of qualities that I have and in Emenike we have someone that can be like Yekini".
Please search supersport.com and read that interview again. The team has overcome a major hurdle and will only get better mentally and psychologically by it. They will be prepared to face Mali.
The omens are good for Nigeria: every time they have won the tournament they have faced Ivory Coast on the way. Also, Nigeria was the last team to win the tournament without topping their first round group. The Super Eagles finished second behind Egypt in their group back in 1994. That year Mali also made the semifinals.
Whatever happens in Durban, a new crop of Nigerian players are ready to hoist the Nigerian flag high, thanks to the vision and persistence of Stephen Keshi in sticking to his principles with regards to his squad composition.
It will be sensational if he wins this. If he and his team get to the final, they will win it. It seems to be their destiny.