Super Eagles’ Mikel Obi (L) in action against Cape Verde
In barely five days from today, the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations will kick off with Nigerians and citizens of other 15 African countries hoping for the best for their teams.
Expectedly, Coach Stephen Keshi who won the cup as a player and captain in 1994 will be under tremendous pressure to deliver. Keshi will want to score another first as the only player to win the trophy as both former captain and coach! But will the task be an easy one considering the Big Boss is still in rebuilding mode, having taken over the job from his former team mate and friend, Samson Siasia barely a year ago?
Is a top-three finish possible for the team that is gradually turning a bronze medal specialist?
Going down memory lane, statistics show that the Super Eagles have competed at 16 tournaments spanning 50 years and won two, finished runners-up four times and third seven times an incredible record of consistency.
Only in 1963 and 1982 (first round) and 2008 (quarter-finals) have the Eagles failed to collect medals and they look good for at least a last-eight place in South Africa after drawing Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Zambia in Group C. Countries finishing first and second in each of four mini-leagues advance to the quarter-finals and Nigeria and defending champions Zambia are considered the likely survivors.
The Super Eagles surprisingly failed to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea and Coach Samon Siasia paid the price when his contract was not renewed.
Keshi, a no-nonsense coach who skippered Nigeria the last time Eagles conquered Africa with a comeback 2-1 triumph over Zambia in Tunis 19 years ago took over the job with so much promise.
He was a physically formidable centre-back who led by example and has spent the last few weeks at a training camp in Portugal trying to instil the same passion for the green and white colours that he possesses.
"I want footballers who are hungry, committed and proud to play for Nigeria," stressed the coach who handled Togo and Mali without getting beyond the first round at previous Cup of Nations tournaments.
"It is good to see players working so hard to win places in my starting line-up. Such competition gives me a nice kind of headache. No one has a permanent shirt in the team: they must fight to get it and fight to keep it."
Centre-back and captain, Joseph Yobo playing in his sixth AFCON tournaments, backs the views of his boss.
"Winning the trophy is not going to be easy, but I promise we will give it our best shot. I urge Nigerians to keep praying for us and to believe in this team," pleaded the former Everton defender now based in Turkey.
"We are travelling to South Africa ready to don the colours of our nation and we will not relent until our goal is reached. Luckily, we have a coaching team that understands us well and I am sure the players are ready to deliver.
"Let us not get beyond ourselves, though. The focus for now is one getting past the group stage and only then should we think about the quarter-finals and, hopefully, the semi-finals and final."
Yobo is the defensive general of the Eagles, much is expected from Chelsea pair John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses in midfield, and Ikechukwu Uche from Spanish outfit Villarreal and Emmanuel Emenike of Spartak Moscow are the probable attacking options available for Keshi to get the job done.
If Keshi’s wards get past their perennial third place game this time, perhaps, a new era would have started for Nigerian football.
THE 23-MAN SQUAD
Surname First Name Shirt Name Club Country Position
01 Enyeama Vincent Enyeama Maccabi Tel Aviv Israel GK
02 Yobo Joseph Michael Yobo Fenerbahce Turkey DF
03 Echiejile Elderson Echiejile Braga Portugal DF
04 Nwankwo Obiora Obiora Calcio Padova Italy MF
05 Ambrose Efe Eric Ambrose Celtic Scotland Df
06 Egwuekwe Azubuike Emmanuel Egwuekwe Warri Wolves Nigeria DF
07 Musa Ahmed Musa Cska Moscow Russia FW
08 Ideye Brown Aide Ideye Dynamo Kyiv Ukraine FW
09 Emenike Emmanuel Chinenye Emenike Spartak Moscow Russia FW
10 Mikel John Obi Mikel Chelsea England MF
11 Moses Victor Moses Chelsea England FW
12 Gabriel Ruben Shalu Gabriel Kano Pillars Nigeria MF
13 Ogude Fegor Ogude Valerenga Norway MF
14 Oboabona Godfrey Itama Oboabona Sunshine Stars Nigeria DF
15 Uche Ikechukwu Uche Villarreal Spain FW
16 Ejide Austine Amamchukwu Ejide Hapoel Be’er Sheva Israel Gk
17 Onazi Ogenyi Eddy Onazi Ss Lazio Italy MF
18 Uzoenyi Christantus Ejike Uzoenyi Enugu Rangers Nigeria FW
19 Mba Sunday Mba Enugu Rangers Nigeria FW
20 Igiebor Nosakhare Emmanuel Nosa Real Betis Spain MF
21 Oshaniwa Juwon Ayo Oshaniwa Ashdod Israel DF
22 Omeruo Kenneth Josiah Omeruo Haagsche Netherlands DF
23 Agbim Chigozie Agbim Enugu Rangers Nigeria GK
Eagles’ Group Games
Jan 21: Nigeria v Burkina Faso
Jan 25: Nigeria v Zambia
Jan 29: Nigeria v Ethiopia