Nigeria go into their semi-final against Mali as slight favourites following their famous win over Ivory Coast, still, back home, they remain underestimated. Indeed, were it not for Sunday Mba’s moment of brilliance, reports suggest coach Stephen Keshi would be out of a job.
It is a result of the Nigerian public’s fascination with the 1998 World Cup ‘Dream Team’, perhaps Africa’s finest ever performers – in a purely footballing sense – on the world stage.
Although Nigeria didn’t progress past the Last 16 in 1998, it was the zenith of a spectacular era, encompassing a 1994 Nations Cup title, ‘94 World Cup second round and 1996 Olympic gold, and would culminate in a luck-less loss to Cameroon in the 2000 Nations Cup Final.
It’s this era that has transfixed Nigeria, burdened its teams, and hung over the plethora of coaches that have followed – 11 to be exact since 2001.
Times have changed, though. Subsequent European scouting trends have, for the most part, seen to this.
Twenty years ago Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George were the silky, technical Nigerian gems scouted and polished. The focus since the turn of the millennium has shifted somewhat and today you find Nigeria’s most cerebral player, their number 10, John Obi Mikel, is a defensive midfielder at his club.
Keshi, in contrast to the majority of his countrymen and predecessors, has recognised this. There’s no middle ground in his Super Eagles team. It’s all speed, power and athleticism.
Plodding midfielders such as Dickson Etuhu and Seyi Olofinjana have been replaced with the athleticism of Ogenyi Onazi and Nosa Igiebor. Up-front the team is packed with the throwback Nigerian forward – big, fast and relentless.
It is a scary mix which, when it clicks, could define a new age for African football, certainly west Africa.
There has been an uneasy compromise in the region lately with coaches unable to mesh their European stars together with a national team identity. This compromise has stifled cohesion. An example is Ivory Coast, which consists of players who do jobs at their clubs, but lack the spontaneity to succeed on the international stage.
Keshi has done away with seeking any compromise, for there are no longer any Okockas or Sunday Olisehs. Keshi has instead shunned established stars for players that fit his system and vision. Dynamism is the order of the day.
So said Keshi after their quarterfinal victory: “Ivory Coast are the top team on the continent with lots of quality, so we tried to speed up and try to catch out players like Drogba and Yaya Toure.”
It has given this Nigeria team an identity, one akin to the successful Super Eagles teams Keshi featured in as a player which contained, amongst others, the uncontainable Rashidi Yekini and current assistant coach Daniel Amokachi.
Keshi’s vision probably won’t come together yet – Nations Cup victory or not – but future assignments such as the 2014 World Cup look tasty if coach and squad are kept together.
At this tournament Nigeria’s development of their game-plan hasn’t been helped by the scandalous Mbombela pitch. Although they aren’t a passing team, such a blitzkrieg game-plan needs precision. Twenty passes are minimised into five incisive probes. The Mbombela field, where the Super Eagles played their first two matches, never allowed this.
The team’s decision making has also held them back; too often the final ball has been rushed. This can be put down to inexperience though; 30 year-old keeper Vincent Enyeama aside, the average of Nigeria’s starting team against Ivory Coast was 23.
Nigeria’s opponents Mali have proved themselves to be a genuine African force; two successive Afcon semi-finals is no mean feat.
Mali offer a contrast in style to Nigeria. Their approach is more pragmatic, less prone to mistakes, slow in build-up and built for the counterattack. They have also shown over these past two Nations Cups that they can absorb enormous amounts of pressure and eventually turn the screw.
This calm-headedness is embodied by their captain Seydou Keita, a majestic footballer who is imperious with his feet and even more inspiring with his head.
It remains to be seen though, if Mali can force the issue which is invariably what you need to do when you reach this stage of a tournament. Last year against the Ivory Coast they were thoroughly outplayed. Nigeria don’t quite have the tools to out-play Mali in the same way, but they have the weapons to destroy. This Keshi team is built for the kill.
Ghana, newly-installed favourites by many, will have it tough in the other semi. Burkina Faso coach Paul Put has already said his side feel ‘at home’ at Mbombela. And so they should. This will be the Stallions’ fifth game on the disastrous pitch, more than any other team.
Burkina Faso are spoilers, ready to feed on errors. Mbombela suits this mind-set fits perfectly. The pitch is an equaliser, something Burkina Faso, robbed of their superstar Alain Traore by injury, will be even more grateful for.
That’s not to say Ghana are the most technical team; they were outplayed for large periods by Cape Verde and if wasn’t for the heroics of their keeper Fatau Dauda – and the naivety of their opponents – they would be watching from home.
Even so, the Black Stars are a team that wants to be on the front foot, creating chances through skilled players such as Kwadwo Asamoah, Christian Atsu and Solomon Asante. It will be a struggle for Ghana.
Upsets have been par for the course at this Nations Cup, and for Burkina Faso, Mbombela is the perfect stage to produce yet another one.
By Teboho Molapo