Sunday, February 10, 2013
Jonathan Wilson at FNB Stadium
Nigeria celebrate beating Burkina Faso in the Africa Cup of Nations final in Johannesburg. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA
It says much for the baffling politics of Nigerian football that a week before the Cup of Nations began there were moves afoot in the sports ministry to have Stephen Keshi replaced as coach. And it says much for the 52-year-old's strength of character, his combination of thick skin, single-mindedness and good humour that he was able to ignore all the distractions so that he stood on the touchline in Johannesburg on Sunday night beaming as only the second man – after the Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary – to win the Cup of Nations as both player and coach.
He should have come here 17 years ago in this tournament as the captain and centre-back of a team whose younger incarnation went on to win Olympic gold later that year. Nigeria would have been favourites but, when Nelson Mandela criticised the execution by Nigeria's military regime of the dissident novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the president, Sani Abacha, withdrew the side. Although he shrugged off questions of destiny, Keshi perhaps felt he had unfinished business.
After all the near misses, the penalty shootout defeat on home soil in 2000 and the five semi-final defeats since, Nigeria's great quest finally came to an end, serenaded in by the massed green and white hordes, at least two of whom were clutching chickens painted in national colours, while another wore a loaf on his head with the message: "Eat them like bread".
When Sunday Mba scored Nigeria's winner in the quarter-final against Ivory Coast, he became the first player from the domestic Nigerian league to score at the Cup of Nations since Emmanuel Okocha in 1990 and as such provided emblematic vindication of Keshi's much criticised decision to select six players from the domestic league. A week later and the Sunday service was resumed as Mba put Nigeria ahead five minutes before half-time.
The Super Eagles had begun more purposefully, bossing possession in the early stages, but aside from one Efe Ambrose header from a Victor Moses free-kick, they created few clear-cut chances. This is Burkina Faso's way, sitting deep, luring the opponent on and striking through the pace and strength of Aristide Bancé and the more subtle skills of Jonathan Pitroipa and Charles Kaboré behind him. Only a well-judged interception from Godfrey Oboabona – another of the domestic players – prevented Pitroipa playing in Bancé but, just as it seemed Burkina Faso had stalled the Nigerian charge, Mba struck, controlling an awkwardly dropping ball after Moses's initial shot had been blocked, running on and jabbing a neat finish inside the right-hand post.
When they went behind against Ghana in the semi-final, Burkina Faso responded, showing a previously unsuspected attacking side to their game. Bancé was sensational that day but on Sunday he was superbly marshalled by Oboabona. Pitroipa, meanwhile, seemed to have a hamstring problem and was effectively snuffed out by Ambrose while Mikel had the better of his battle with Kaboré.
Only after Elderson Echiéjilé, the attacking Nigerian left-back, had been carried off did Burkina Faso begin to pose a threat. As if sensing a weakness, Kaboré drifted right and he and the substitute Wilfried Sanou tormented Echiéjilé's replacement, Juwon Oshaniwa. When Prejuce Nakoulma played in Sanou after 77 minutes it took a brilliant stretching fingertip save from Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria's experienced goalkeeper, to turn the ball wide.
That, though, was as close as they came and, although Nigeria contrived to squandered three counters by a combination of falling over and miskicks in the final minutes, the truth is they were comfortable enough. There was even the opportunity for a cameo appearance from Joseph Yobo, one great centre-back's gift to another.
Man of the match Sunday Mba