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Eagles Victory a Triumph for Keshi

11 Feb 2013

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Super Eagles celebrating their AFCON victory

Nigeria's third Africa Cup of Nations title, clinched Sunday against Burkina Faso, was a huge personal triumph for coach Stephen Keshi –although the man himself would be loathe to admit it.


Big Boss, as the captain of the 1994 title-winning side is affectionately known, was hitting the continental jackpot as a coach at the third time of asking, after first-round knockouts with Togo in 2006 and Mali in 2010.

Part of the key to the Super Eagles' 2013 success has been the 51-year-old's bold yet heavily criticised gamble in calling up local-based players.

And, fittingly, it was one of this number Sunday Mba, drawn from Nigerian Premier League outfit Enugu Rangers, who got the decisive goal in the 1-0 victory to follow up his winner in the quarterfinal over Cote d’Ivoire.

Keshi had described his players as 'his Hollywood Stars' after sending Didier Drogba and company packing – but he, too, deserves an Oscar for defying the tens of millions of ultra-critical wannabe national managers back home in Lagos.

At times charismatic, belligerent, terse and witty, but never dull, the former bull of a centre-back gained entry to an exclusive club of those to be crowned kings of Africa as both player and coach.

The only other man to accomplish that feat was the late Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, who helped his country defeat Sudan 2-1 in the 1959 final and guided the Pharaohs to a 2-0 victory over South Africa 39 years later.

As a player, Keshi triumphed with a golden generation of Super Eagles in a 2-1 victory against a Zambia team rebuilt one year after the plane crash off Gabon that wiped out the national squad.

Reflecting on the differences between then and now, Keshi, who spent most of his playing career in Belgium, said: "The 1994 squad was unbelievable.

"We were brothers, there was a great spirit in the team, now there is the talent, but we need a strong mentality and character."

His band of brothers demonstrated plenty of that on Sunday night.

This win also laid to rest the bitter memories of the 1996 Nations Cup, when Keshi and his fellow Eagles were denied a shot at defending their title on South African soil when a political spat between the South African and Nigerian caused General Sani Abacha to stop the Eagles from going to Johannesburg to defend the title they won two years earlier in Tunisia.

Fast forward 17 years and the imposing figure of Keshi could be seen pacing the Soccer City touchline like a lion hunting its prey up at Kruger National Park – barking instructions, arms flailing, his shaven head glistening under the floodlights.

On 40 minutes he had his arms in the air celebrating Mba's opener.

Mba it was who had scored the winner in the 2-1 quarterfinal win over Cote d’Ivoire – after which Keshi, showing his caring gentler side, said "I want to kiss him!"

He has shown plenty of dignity, too, in South Africa.
On Saturday, at the eve-of-final press conference when he turned up looking like a Lagos street rapper, his baseball cap back to front, he warmly backed the decision to rescind the red card meted out to Burkina's Jonathan Pitroipa.

When the final whistle sounded Sunday, barely audible over the deafening din of 80, 000 vuvuzelas, Keshi punched the air again, this time in a victory salute – before getting lost in a sea of embraces from his players and coaching staff.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday congratulated the Super Eagles for winning the Africa Cup of Nations title with a 1-0 final victory over Burkina Faso.

"President Jonathan thanks coach Stephen Keshi and all members of the team who have worked very hard...to make Nigeria the proud champions of Africa once again after 19 years of setbacks in the competition," his office said in a statement.

"The President also believes that having conquered Africa, the new Super Eagles can go on to achieve even greater glory at the World Cup in Brazil next year," it said.

Jonathan expressed appreciation to the South African government and the Confederation of African Football for a well-organised tournament and promised to hold a reception for the victorious Super Eagles in Abuja on Tuesday.

Nigeria ended a 19-year title drought with the victory over Burkina Faso at Soccer City in Soweto thanks to a late first-half goal from local-based player Sunday Mba.

It was a result that also took coach Keshi into the record books as he equalled the feat of late Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary by winning gold medals as a player and a coach.

Tags: Sports, Nigeria, Featured, AFCON 2013, EAGLES, KESHI

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