The 29th Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in less than six weeks and Nigerians would be rooting for the Stephen Keshi-tutored Super Eagles to return the soccer-mad nation to the pinnacle of African football after years of near misses and disappointment.
The pain of losing out of this year’s edition of the competition has been somewhat assuaged by the fact that another Nations Cup takes place just one year after. It is also special that the fiesta will take place in South Africa, successful hosts of the last World Cup in 2010.
The Eagles should have a point to prove since they were absent at the previous Nations Cup held in South Africa: the Nigerian team, defending champions at the time were unable to defend their title at the 1996 edition due to political reasons.
Many Nigerians are still of the opinion that South Africa – who won as hosts at the first attempt – wouldn’t have been victorious if Nigeria, at the zenith of her powers, had participated.
If the Nigerian team is to conquer all in South Africa, then Nelspruit - which would serve as base – will play an important role.
The 46,000 capacity Mbombela Stadium hosted four World Cup matches in 2010 and will be venue for all three of Nigeria’s matches in the group stage.
Incidentally, defending champions Zambia, who were seeded top of the group, would vacate Nelspruit for Rustenburg to play their final group match against Burkina Faso. The match would be played concurrently with the Eagles’ final group game against Ethiopia.
Nelspruit is also a venue for a quarter final and a semi final match. If the Super Eagles manage to top their group and go further in the competition, they get to play all their matches there. The Nations Cup final would be held at the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg.
The Nelspruit stadium, one of those specially built for the World Cup, reflects its inter-relation with the nearby Kruger National Park. Kruger National Park is one of the most celebrated game parks in the world and is home to some of the finest wildlife.
It is the largest game reserve in South Africa and boasts of being home to the Big Five animals on the African continent: The lion, the African elephant, the Cape buffalo, the leopard and the rhinoceros.
The signature features of the stadium are the 18 roof supports that resemble giraffes and the seats patterned with zebra stripes. If the Eagles are to fly, they would have to get to grips with Nelspruit and make it their home.