As any Nigerian fan would note, for the first time in recent years, the Super Eagles presented a united front to the rest of Africa, incidents of discord and internal wrangling which have often characterized Nigerian teams were practically non-existent. This might have to do with the exclusion of some more popular European players who often come into the team and form factions ,destabilizing the team in the process. With nineteen players in the Super Eagles 23-man squad making their AFCON debuts, there was a sense of equality in the squad and there was no way one individual could feel superior to another. It was as a result of this unity that the players were able to pull together after getting to the brink of elimination with unimpressive 1-1 draws against Zambia and Burkina Faso. While such an event would have brought arguments and rancour into other squads, the Eagles used it as a challenge to respond to and were thus able to get their campaign back on track. Throughout the tournament the spirit of oneness never departed from the sqaud. With the Confederations Cup in the offing and many matches still coming up, there is a feeling that if the Eagles can maintain this team spirit, they can rewind time back to the early 1990s when they were the truly dominant force on the African continent
Locally based talent
When Sunday Mba scored the winner against Ivory Coast on Sunday February 3rd to send the Nigerian team into the last four, the Rangers of Enugu midfielder became the first home based player to score for Nigeria in the AFCON in more than two decades. A week later it was the Sunday (pun intended) man who popped up again to seal the 3rd AFCON title for the Eagles in a one-nil win over Burkina Faso. His success story and that of his teammate, Sunshine Stars of Akure midfielder Godfrey Oboabona, have served to show that there is talent in the Nigerian league afterall. A league burdened by poor organization, management and allegations of corruption is hardly a place to look for talent, and it is therefore understandable that many past Eagles coaches have overlooked local talent in preference for foreign based professionals. But Mba, Oboabona and their four teammates who made the cut from the Nigerian Premier League will go a long way in changing that perception. Where the foreign based players would have put their egos ahead of the team, they showed they were hungry to win, where foreign players may have behaved like mercenaries, and go on to do their own thing, they showed themselves as Nigerians through and through. Their presence in the Nigerian team served to establish the equality within the squad. But their story is not just a celebration of Nigeria’s talent, it is also a wake up call to the people in charge on Nigerianfootball to become alive to their responsibilities. There is indeed talent in Nigeria if we know how to manage it right.
Rewind time to a certain day in the just concluded tournament, the Super Eagles are teetering on the precipice of elimination with only 2 points out of a maximum 6, a must win game against minnows Ethiopia was petering towards a bore draw, and Nigerian fans everwhere were practically hoarse from screaming at a Super Eagles team which seemed to have run out of ideas. Elimination from the group stages which had looked remote for the Eagles in recent years was now inevitable. But a certain Chelsea midfielder had other ideas. in less than ten minutes of brilliance Victor Moses won and scored two brilliant penalties and dragged a flailing Eagles team singlehanded into the quarter finals. That was the begining of such incidents from the former Crystal Palace and Wigan Athletic man who made his debut for Nigeria less than three months before. He was pivotal in the victories over the Ivory Coast and Mali and he was one of the few players to stand out in the final against Burkina Faso. Like his biblical namesake he was always there to lead his team out each and everytime they got stuck. However more than the goals he scored or the assists he made, he totally changed the look of the Super Eagles team, he was a nightmare for opposing defenders and with him in the team the team suddenly looked more dangerous at set-pieces (as shown in the opener versus Cote d’Ivoire). The Fairplay Player of the Tournament award he got was in recognition of his stellar performances. As a friend notes: “it is suprising that someone who did not put on a Nigerian shirt until three months ago has become a pillar of our national team. We could have lost him to England, and what a tragedy that would have been.”
A top class goalkeeper
A few months ago any Nigeria might have been forgiven for thinking that 2013 was the year Vincent Eyeama’s place as first choice goalkeeper would be finally challenged. A series of high profile errors in crucial games during the qualifiers left fans wondering how the former Lille OSC safe hands would fit into the team long term, after a frustrating time at the French club, He somehow managed to play his way back into contention in time to make the squad to South Africa. Even so sceptics were not convinced. It took three weeks for Enyeama to prove his doubters wrong. There was hardly a match throughout the tournament where he didn’t have to make a top class save, if Victor Moses was responsible for dragging the team all the way, then Vincent Enyeama was responsible was keeping them in the tournament with crucial saves. But his contribution was more than the saves he had to make, he also had to stand in as captain in place of Joseph Yobo for most of the tournament. but the most endearing quality was his humility, he was always ready to deflect any praise as captain to his Fenerbache teammate. He has undoubtedly emerged as one of the the heroes of a new look Super Eagles team, while some might call for caution in comparing the goal tender with the best keepers ever to stay between the sticks for the Super Eagles but his place in the proud history of Nigerian football has been sealed.