Afcon Final: The Sleeping Giants Awaken as the Stallions Are Slain

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Afcon Final: The Sleeping Giants Awaken as the Stallions Are Slain
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Africa Cup of Nations history was made in Johannesburg as Nigeria’s young squad defeated Burkina Faso in the final of the continental centrepiece.

The magnitude was evident to all in attendance in Johannesburg as the two teams emerged onto the field. The atmosphere was, at times, overwhelming. While both sides demonstrated patriotic euphoria in singing the anthems, it was Nigeria who were much more successful at controlling their emotions once the game kicked off. The Stallions, on the other hand, perhaps struggled to find their feet in the early stages, at times looking overawed.

Nigeria capitalised on this uncertainty in the earlier stages, and their ability to adapt to the intensity of the surroundings afforded them the more promising opportunities. The Stallions’ unsettled defence struggled to settle, and looked uncomfortable with Moses’s pace, fluid movement, and inventive creativity.

The player has truly emerged as an international star during this tournament, and success today crowns a phenomenal maiden year of competition with the national side.

Naija also threatened aerially, with Burkina Faso’s keeper Daouda Diakité fumbling and bumbling his way through the early stages of the contest. Both Ideye Brown and Efe Ambrose had chances to open the scoring, but the pair struggled to find a direction for their headers and the openings came and went.

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In frustration at being denied the ball, and his side struggling to find composure and fluidity behind him, Aristide Bancé, the ‘Chip-Headed’ semifinal hero, began shooting on site, perhaps realising the need to prompt an improvement on his side. Twice he shot from distance, but on both occasions the ball flew tamely wide.

Eventually, Nigerian pressure told, and finding the Burkina Faso defence in disarray, Moses broke forward. His slaloming run saw the play run out of his control, his shot blocked and the ball looped away from the goal, and into the inviting pathway of Sunday Mba.

The Enugu Rangers midfielder, the unlikely slayer of Cote d’Ivoire in the quarterfinals once again demonstrated his class. A series of delicate touches saw him ghost through the returning Burkinabé defenders, before a composed, if opportunistic, finish saw him force the ball past Diakité. First blood Nigeria, and in this case, it looked like the first cut would be the deepest.

Mba’s winning goal truly vindicated Stephen Keshi’s decision to demonstrate such faith in the nation’s domestic-based players.

Inexperienced figures such as Godfrey Oboabona and Mba himself were included at the expense of much more-established stars, however the youthful exuberance of the side has won out in the end. Victory for Nigeria means Keshi becomes only the second figure in history to win the Afcon as both a player and a coach—a feat not to be sneered at.

The dynamic between the two sides in the second half was much as the first half had been, with Burkina gently realising that the game was running away from them, and Nigeria slowly beginning to batten down the hatches and preserve their lead.

On three occasions, Nigeria could have ended the tie as a contest, but each opportunity brought wayward or hesitant finishing, serving as a portent to a potential, and strikingly familiar, Burkinabé comeback.

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Unfortunately for the Stallions, it was not to be. A late chance by the substitute Sanou prompted a terrific save—a tournament-winning save if you will—from Vincent Enyeama, but as the keeper tipped the ball around the post, it was as though he had all but extinguished Burkina Faso’s hopes.

A number of Nigerian stars demonstrated their terrific ability during the contest: Efe Ambrose delivered perhaps his most impressive performance in the Green of the Super Eagles, John Obi Mikel was a composed and dominant figure in the centre of the park, while Moses once again excelled; consistently confident in his abilities, and bold with the ball at his feet.

In the immediate aftermath of the final whistle, the Burkinabé players appeared, quite naturally, to be wracked with disappointment and sadness—an opportunity lost, one unlikely to ever be known again. However, in the cold light of day, as people consider this tournament in the future, the true story for them will be of their unlikely triumphs and obdurate determination, rather than their final defeat.

Still, images of the crocked Alain Traoré on the sub’s bench only served to torment the Stallions’ fans, and they begged the question ‘What might have been had their talisman not suffered injury so early on in the Cup?’

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Nerves were replaced by euphoria on the final whistle, as Nigeria ended a wait of nearly two decades to seal the continental prize once more. Few countries in Africa demand success quite like they do in Nigeria, and a third African honour, as well as a return to the top of the pile, will be received with elation and celebration across the nation.

This crop of players still has a long way to go to emulate the Nigerian dream teams of generations past, but with youth on their side, and such a major championship victory already secured, few would bet against another period of domination for one of the continent’s powerhouses.

A nation rejoices, as a continent recognises the revival of a sleeping giant.

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