The triumph of a united team
At halftime, during the Afcon 2013 final, I heard a Ghanaian journalist say, “I can't believe this useless Nigerian side will finish as African champions."
I stopped, looked at him intently and then broke into a smile and walked away triumphantly, with my heart still thumping with hope that the Super Eagles would hold on or score more goals in the second half.
The Super Eagles, masterfully tutored by Stephen Keshi, are deserved champions after a brilliant second phase of the tournament. The strength of a tournament-winning side is the entire squad and this present team proved that every place was up for grabs. The manager believed in his players and the players trusted him and his methods.
Going into the tournament, I felt this was a group of players determined to make a name for themselves and proud to play for Nigeria. During every interview before and after matches the mantra was always the same, "We are here to do the country proud and, as we play according to the instructions from the big boss, we know we will be fine.”
There is no way anyone can objectively deny this team’s claim to the title. They scored first in EVERY match. It took a last-minute equaliser for Burkina Faso to draw level with them in the opening group game. It took a shockingly poor penalty decision to get Zambia a draw in the next match.
Against Ethiopia, the young side were nervous but finally they did put the East Africans out of their misery. It was against the tournament favourites that they turned up the turbo and let rip.
The Ivorians had no idea what hit them as the rejigged midfield of Onazi, Mikel and Mba had the movement and athleticism to subdue Yaya Toure and company. Mali were simply blown apart in the semis with a brutal attacking play that rendered the Malians’ physical advantage irrelevant.
In the final, Jonathan Pitroipa and his fellow Burkinabe players could not establish any foothold in the match, as the Super Eagles just snuffed the life out of any attempt to establish any rhythm, with Mikel and Onazi supreme in the midfield. Sunday Mba's brilliant goal deservedly won the match.
Stephen Keshi deserves every accolade that comes his way. He chose these players and stopped his ears to all the mindless chatter around him because of those who were left out. He set his team out to play in a 4-3-3 formation with the front three having the freedom to interchange and move as the match evolved.
It was evident from the first match that skipper Yobo was struggling. He never started another match. The central defensive partnership of Omeruo and Oboabona didn’t look to be in trouble in most matches and the biggest factor was their ability to communicate. Those boys never stopped talking on the pitch, with Vincent Enyeama acting as the screamer-in-chief.
Against Ivory Coast they made light work of the presence of Drogba, Toure, Gervinho and Kalou because they spoke to each other. Efe Ambrose, at right-back, provided so much attacking impetus it is hard to believe that he is a centre-back at his club Celtic. Elderson Echiejile, on the other flank, opened the floodgates in the semis.
This team conceded only two goals from open play in the tournament, which is a tribute to the organisation of the defence.
One of the biggest factors after the group games was Mikel's growth and maturity. The Chelsea man decided to start doing what he does best; break up play in front of his defence, get the ball, pass it and just let Mba and company get on with the job of prising open the opponents' defences.
Every tournament winner needs one or two special players and Nigeria had two.
Emmanuel Emenike is special in that he almost guarantees goals when he starts. His power and pace, when in tandem with the willing and equally powerful Brown Ideye, was too powerful for defences to handle.
The Nigerian team could and should have scored more goals. Emenike's violent strike that thundered past Boubacar Barry in the quarterfinal is a highlight.
The second special player Nigeria had was Victor Moses and the Chelsea player should have won the player of the tournament. Moses had a slight groin injury he picked up in Faro, Portugal, during the friendly with Sparta Rotterdam, so he missed the opening game.
Against Ethiopia, in the final group match, he showed mental toughness to convert two penalties inside the last ten minutes to send Nigeria through. Against Ivory Coast he absolutely tormented the Ivorian full-backs. Moses has that bravery that makes him demand for the ball, then almost always goes for the jugular with his dribbling runs.
He does not shy away from taking direct shots at goal and his deliveries from set-pieces made Nigeria more dangerous. In the semifinal he showed his bravery by playing through the pain barrier after turning his ankle very early in the match.
He had the freedom of the pitch and went around as he wished, setting up the first and then playing in Emenike, who squared simply for Ideye's second goal. Mali could not handle him. By the time he pulled up early in the second half, the match was already won.
Skipper Joseph Yobo has the final word on why this team won. At the press conference before the final match, he said, "I have been in squads that had bigger players or even more talented ones but I have not been in a squad that has the UNITY that we presently have. I like it and I have enjoyed every minute of it." That, folks, is to the eternal credit of Stephen Keshi and his squad composition.
For every match Nigeria won, from the quarterfinals, I always said thank you to Keshi. I say to him here again, “Thank You boss.”