Almost everything augurs well for Super Eagles’ victory

Nigeria’s Super Eagles are on the cusp of another cup history. This evening inside the 60,000-capacity Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire will play the final match to determine winner of the 34th edition of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations. The Super Eagles are unbeaten at this championship and will start today’s match as favourites against an Ivorian side that rode their luck to get this far. The Ivorians were as good as gone from the tournament at the group stage. They won just one match out of three in Group A. They were handed a lifeline after Morocco defeated Zambia to pave their way for the knockout phase. They seized the chance and came out of the ashes of the group stage near-debacle to reach the final, despite sacking their coach, Jean-Louis Gasset, after losing scandalously 4-0 in their final group stage match against Equatorial Guinea. Their quarter-final match against Mali provided another entertainment with their last-minute winning goal despite playing with 10 men.

The biennial tournament which brings together the brightest talents of African football has witnessed twists and turns since it began on 13 January 2024. Football fans have been left on the edge with some of the so-called underdogs like Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, Mauritania, Angola registering their presence, while traditional power houses like Ghana, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia humbled with early exits from the competition. Remarkably, none of Africa’s five representatives at the last FIFA World Cup at Qatar 2022 advance into the quarter finals. Not even Morocco’s Atlas Lions who finished as semifinalists or Senegal’s Teranga Lions, who won the last edition of this competition in Cameroon.

However, today’s match will be different. It bears the hallmark of a classic, apart from it being an all-West African showdown. It is also the first time that both Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire will be meeting in an Africa Cup of Nations final since the maiden edition in 1957. The Super Eagles defeated the Elephants in the Group A fixture on January 18 to hold the bragging rights going into today’s match. The Ivorians have since put aside their poor form with first round losses to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea by brushing aside Senegal, Mali, and Congo Democratic Republic in the knock-out matches all the way to the final.

We expect a very difficult and intriguing contest today as the two sides will be motivated by pride and patriotism. The Super Eagles are aiming to become the first side to achieve the unprecedented feat of beating the host nation twice in the same edition of the tournament. But most importantly, Nigeria is aspiring to win its fourth title to tie Ghana as the third most successful country in Africa Cup of Nations history. Nigeria’s three previous victories were achieved in 1980, 1994 and 2013. On the other hand, the Ivorians are hoping to be at par with Nigeria by improving on their victories of 1992 (in Senegal) and 2015 (in Equatorial Guinea).

While Nigeria won all its three previous titles within regulation period, Côte d’Ivoire secured their two wins via penalty shootouts. We hope the Super Eagles are mindful of those facts of history. William Troost-Ekong and his teammates should realise they carry with them the hopes of millions of Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora. Yes, they are playing the host nation. But nothing says a host nation cannot be beaten in front of their vociferous fans. It happened against Tunisia in 1965. Ghana did it against Libya in 1982. In 2000 as co-hosts, Nigeria lost the trophy to Cameroon at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos after penalty shootouts.

Football is a unifying glue as we have observed in all matches involving the national team during this AFCON. Nigerians have managed to use the Super Eagles success on the field of play to bury their differences and put aside displeasure arising from the prevailing economic hardships. It is the same in Ivory Coast. “All the country is passionate about this Nations Cup,” Kolo Toure, a retired English Premier League player who was in the national team that won AFCON for Ivory Coast in 2015, told the BBC yesterday. “Some of the people don’t have food or a clean place to sleep but when the football comes, they forget their daily struggles.”

 As the two West African countries contend for the trophy today in Abidjan, we urge the Super Eagles to soar like they did in Johannesburg 11 years ago. We are rooting for them!       

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