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Where Eagles dare

From the very moment football was introduced to Nigeria, around 1845, by Scottish missionaries it held the country spellbound and by her nose.

By the time Nigeria played her first quasi-official game – a 3-2 loss against the Royal Navy on 15 June 1904 aboard the HMS Thistle in Calabar – it had blossomed into a full blown love affair, rendering every other sport in the country to a permanent back seat.

Before Nigeria became the Eagles they wore red and white and were called the Red Devils. A late 1940s visit by the Pharaohs to Lagos, who brought only one red kit, forced Nigeria to change to a borrowed green one and the rest is history.

The Green Eagles were born and would lay the egg for the current Super Eagles, a name bestowed on them after they won Afcon in 1994. Their record at Afcon, despite only two titles, is solid as a rock and needs no further commentary.

Meanwhile, soccer in Mali took a different, murkier route. One school of thought gives credit to the Egyptians and Sudanese who, as the original three Caf members, helped fan the flames of curiosity with their respective team’s initial success and close proximity to the region.

Another school of thought gives credit to the French, who saw what a binding influence the game had become for the Germans among their sparring subjugates in then Kamerun. Just as Lord Stanley had done for the English with hockey in Canada, they wanted to replicate it. So behind horse racing, polo and traditional wrestling it sputtered into existence.

By the early ‘70s, while Nigerians fought themselves over Biafra, Mali had woken up and could field a solid team. In 1972 they reached the Afcon final but lost 3-2 to Congo. While they failed to qualify for the finals again until 1994, when they reached the semifinals, they repeated this achievement in 2002, 2004 and 2012. So they are far from being slouches. This is supported by the fact that in Africa the Malian league is presently ranked at third, ahead of Nigeria’s fifth place.

Wednesday’s game will be a mouthwatering chess match between the faster Nigerians and bulkier, taller and more physical Malians. Despite being able to render Drogba useless for 90 minutes, the Nigerians will have a very hard time replicating the same feat with enigmatic Seydou Keita. This is why I think stamina will play a big role in this game.

Back to Keita. In my opinion he has been Afcon’s best captain, even ahead of the Blue Sharks’ Nando. He has been his team’s undeniable dynamo, scoring twice and willing them on regardless of obstacle. With the tenacity of a Doberman he has hounded refs, pleading for calls in favour of his team or asking that unfavourable decisions be negated or diplomatically reconsidered. Nor is he afraid to get dirty and mix it up as we saw against Bafana Bafana when he was carded.

He has also put his money where his mouth is, promising to pay all team bonuses and extra expenses from his pocket if need be. Buoyed by this knowledge, as well as the fact that further victories may help with a resolution for the ongoing strife back home, Mali now believes that they are a team of destiny. They are undoubtedly the Zambia of 2013 and just as talented. That is dangerous for Nigeria.

However, Nigeria, despite her fickle fans, also believe that they have destiny on their side. Keshi last won the cup for them in 1994 and now wants to do it again as a coach. He has already anointed this team as capable of being better than the one he led then.

Nigeria recently sent troops to help the Malians fight the aforementioned insurgency. Keshi probably applauds this but knows that this is the only help she can afford to give her West African cousins – help that is off the field. On the field there cannot be one present, no matter how small, or she will be punished.

There can be no lapses or loss of concentration. Nigeria must play with her ears pinned down and with a snarl, just as she did against the Ivorians. The Super Eagles seem to know this. From their camp, Keshi’s birds are providing us with the proper sound bites suggesting that they are not too confident and remain focused on moving to the finals.

One thing is for sure. Come Wednesday, feathers will fly and beaks will be bloodied and at the end of the day only one species of Eagle will soar triumphantly. While I pray it will be the one named “Super”, I still want the best team win.

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