The story of the Super Eagles’ incredible show of character and strength against an Ivorian team rated as the best in the continent and among the best in the world shall be fully told one day. For now, we can only tell a part of it.
Did the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire walk into a sucker punch? Before Sunday’s Cup of Nations quarter final match at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, the Eagles were a lowly 52nd on the Fifa ranking while the Elephants were high up there in 14th.
The Ivorian team is fully matured and seasoned, with thoroughbred gladiators and warriors who take no hostages. They were the only team at the championship that guaranteed quarter finals ticket for itself after collecting maximum points in their first two matches.
In contrast, Nigeria is re-building, and following 1-1 draws against Burkina Faso and Zambia, and 78 minutes of a drab, scoreless tie with Ethiopia, looked to be on the way out of the tournament. Victor Moss rescued that situation by winning and converting two penalty kicks within the last 10 minutes and the Eagles limped into the last eight behind Burkina Faso.
On Sunday afternoon, NFF President Aminu Maigari and Chairman of Technical Committee Chris Green met players and officials of the Super Eagles at lunch in their Hunters’ Rest nest. Maigari told the players that they could do it, that the match was the final before final and that President Goodluck Jonathan, insisted that he wanted to come for the Final match, on the condition that the Super Eagles get there.
Skipper Joseph Yobo responded by saying that the boys were battle-ready. “We are ready for this match. We all realize it’s a massive game and test of character and we will go in there to do Nigeria proud.”
At the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, the majority of the 25,000 crowd rooted for the Ivorians. To some, it was a mis-match. But when the game started and the Eagles took the match to their more fancied opponents, the voices of Nigerian supporters became louder.
A titanic match it was, comparable to some of the best matches that the Cup of Nations has seen in its 56 years. There was no time during the game that anyone could say for sure which team would win. Emmanuel Emenike’s thunderbolt from a short free-kick in the closing stages of the first half was almost cancelled out immediately from another free-kick at the restart. Before those, Emenike had blown over a good pass on the edge of the box by Ideye, and Didier Drogba came close after controlling a pull-out in the box.
Victor Moses stung goalkeeper Boubacar Barry’s hands with a rasping shot and Yaya Toure, in the second half, got into his no-miss position only to see Enyeama parry the ball away.
And who could have guessed that the winner would come from home-boy Sunday Mba, who ran the length of the Ivorian half of the field before cracking a shot that Souleman Bamba deflected high above Barry into the net?
NFF President, Alhaji Aminu Maigari, said: “I am very happy because the analysts gave the match to the Ivorians even before a ball was kicked. But I knew that we could do it and I told the boys that 170 million Nigerians were banking on them to make them happy.
“Now, we have to try very hard to put this behind us and concentrate on the semi-final with Mali in Durban on Wednesday. We don’t have too many hours to celebrate and linger over this win before that game.”
NFF Executive Committee member Shehu Adamu added: “Certainly, the Eagles have delivered. Everyone knows that we’re re-building, but for them to have shown this much character and triumph over this fantastic bunch of Elephants shows that we now have a team that will always make us proud.”
Victory over the Elephants means that Nigeria has lost only ONE of NINE Cup of Nations quarter final matches since the quarter final round came with the installment of 12-team finals in 1992.
The Eagles defeated Zaire (now DR Congo) at that stage in 1992 and 1994, edged Senegal in 2000, pipped Ghana in 2002, overpowered Cameroon in 2004, eliminated Tunisia on penalties in 2006, skipped past Zambia in a similar manner in 2010 and on Sunday, edged Cote d’Ivoire. The only loss at that stage was to host Ghana in 2008.