After victories in 1980, 1994 and 2013, the Super Eagles of Nigeria will today begin their quest for a fourth Africa Cup of Nations title as they host Burundi in the opening Group B game at the Alexandria Stadium
Since winning the 2013 edition of the AFCON, the Super Eagles have failed to qualify for the last two editions of the biennial competition, therefore Nigerian fans are expecting a good outing from the team especially after booking a place to the competition with a game to spare.
However, the team was not impressive in its last two warm up matches prior to their AFCON opening game today. The Super Eagles struggled against Zimbabwe at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba and a 0-1 defeat to one of the tournament’s favourite in Alexandria leave much to be desired about the team’s character.
Interestingly, Gernot Rohr’s men have made winning a fourth African title their priority in Egypt, and the team’s captain, Mikel Obi will be crucial if they are to do so. According to Obi’s former teammate, Efe Ambrose, the 32-year old has vast experience and would make the difference for Nigeria at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations,
Mikel helped the Super Eagles win the competition in South Africa 2013, and will be aiming to lead the team to victory in Egypt.
Ambrose is backing Mikel to help the three-time champions go far once again. “Mikel is the captain and also a leader in the team, he has also seen it all so his experience will be very crucial for the Super Eagles. There are so many players in the squad who are playing the competition for the first time, so Mikel’s presence will help propel them to give their best.”
Ambrose also knocked off the ‘inexperienced’ tag placed on the team, insisting that the Eagles had the desire to challenge any country when the competition gets underway.
“In 2013, no one gave us a chance because people felt we were inexperienced. I believe this squad has got the belief, zeal, passion and hunger and will be hoping to repeat our feat in South Africa. Also, these boys want to make a name for themselves and I am sure that the Super Eagles will not let Nigerians down in Egypt,”Efe said.
Indeed, Obi has said the three time African champions will do everything humanly possible to do their teeming fans proud in in Egypt. The former Chelsea star also promised that the Eagles will be highly professional on and off the pitch in the land of the Pharaohs.
Responding to the appeal by the president of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick for the team to stay focused on winning the top prize at Africa’s flagship tournament when he visited the players’ camp.
Mikel said “Mr. President, we thank you for all that you have done for this team over the years, as the head of Nigerian Football. We appreciate your honest approach to all issues that concern our welfare. We all are aware of what is at stake. This tournament will not be child’s play or a stroll in the park, but we are ready. It will be tough but when it gets tough, we will get tougher.”
Pinnick had challenged the Super Eagles not to take any team for granted in Egypt.
“Do not take any team for granted. Easy groups exist only on paper; things are different on the pitch. The NFF will ensure you get all that is due to you. This is a very important tournament and Nigerians are fully behind you. You should do your very best not to disappoint them.
“The NFF is happy about the situation in camp; the commitment, discipline and dedication of each and every one of you. You have all the quality of a champion team and everything about you is positive.”
Speaking in the same vein, former Nigeria midfielder, Mutiu Adepoju believes that Nigeria are among the favourites to win the 2019 AFCON based on their squad depth and quality players.
While acknowledging that the Super Eagles would head into the finals in the North African country as contenders for the trophy, he feels pressurising the team to emerge as champions could serve as an obstacle for the three-time African winners.
“Nigeria are always favourites because they are a team to beat and that’s why it’s not surprising when you see teams who play against them come out in full force. Those who tip the Super Eagles as favourites are not wrong because of the quality of players they parade,” Adepoju said.
Meanwhile, Rohr has urged his players to humble themselves and remain in the right frame of mind for the AFCON, just as he played down his team’s chances, even though the Super Eagles are seen as one of the Cup favourites.
“Our aim at this moment is to stay humble and not get too excited. To say we have to win the AFCON is not my philosophy because we are a very young team Already the president said we must win it, but this is not the ideology. We are only making a return after a period of absence so we have to play with happiness and enthusiasm in Egypt,” the Nigeria coach told BBC Sport
The 65-year-old German further cautioned that his squad are a young group, yet a semi-finals progress is possible.
“Our young team will do the best. We have a chance to reach the last four, which for me is already a good result. They did very well in Russia and won hearts, I can tell from the reactions of the fans at home and everywhere I go.”
Meanwhile, Super Eagles defender, Leon Balogun says he feels relaxed and ready ahead of Nigeria’s kick off on this evening.
“You always have your thoughts around the tournament – you train everyday with the team, but because you’re in a different country you don’t always get to do the things you’d normally do in your spare time,” Balogun told Brighton’s official website.
“It’s always a relaxed feeling with the Nigerian team though, it means it isn’t hard to switch off. I always have a few books with me, I’ve brought my iPad away, so I can watch Netflix and I talk to a lot of my friends too, so I always have ways to occupy my mind.”
“After the last game of the season with Brighton, I went on a little sightseeing tour for a few days to New York, since then it’s just been training,”
“I went back to Berlin and had some personal training, and then met up with the national squad. Ever since that it’s been about getting ready – we had a match a few weeks ago against Zimbabwe which was very important for me because I hadn’t played at all since March with the national team.”
In his reaction, Arsenal of England midfielder. Alex Iwobi disclosed that the tournament would not be an easy ride for any team. “Everyone is saying on paper that we should go through and qualify [from Group B but we know it is not going to be easy,” Iwobi told NFF media.
“Every team is there to try and do their best, to try and win. It is going to be almost like a war, it is going to be a serious battle and fight, every game will be competitive.
“I’m sure Madagascar and Burundi, even though it is their first, they will come to prove to everyone why they had the chance to get to the AFCON.
“We know it will not be easy because it’s been a while we played at the Africa Cup of Nations but we are going with confidence and our heads held up high.
“And not only that, we are still young and the future is very bright with young talent in the team. There is a lot of hope and a bright future ahead of us.”
Nigeria begin their 18th appearance with a clash against debutants Burundi today in Alexandria.
Burundi, a small landlocked country in the African great lakes region in the Central Eastern Africa are participating at the AFCON for the very first time.
The Swallows under the tutelage of coach, Olivier Niyungeko is led by former England youth international Sadio Berahino who decided to change nationality last year after representing England from U-16 o U-21 winning 47 caps. The Stoke City forward inspired the team to qualify behind Mali ahead of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon. Berahino will team up with Captain Selemani Ndikumana to give a good showing at the tournament.