As the Cup of Nations came to its euphoric conclusion, it was the Super Eagles of Nigeria who stood tall—winning their first continental cup since 1994.
A number of Naija's young side will look back on this tournament as the one where they made their names and underlined the burgeoning revival of one of the continent's genuine heavyweights.
In this slideshow, Bleacher Report's African Expert Ed Dove runs down his team of the tournament, identifying his top performers and outlining why each player has impressed.
Agree or Disagree? Post your own dream teams down below, and let me know where I've gone wrong.
Before the tournament, uncertainty surrounded the Nigerian goalkeeping position; Enyeama had been the No. 1 choice for years, but after some unsteady performances, the calls for his understudy, Austin Ejide, to be given the initiative, were growing in volume.
Having been given the nod in some of the side’s warm-up games, Ejide impressed, but unfortunately for the Hapoel Be’er Sheva stopper, an injury sustained threatened to derail his participation.
While Ejide did eventually make the squad, it was Enyeama who travelled as the first choice—any plans to displace him seem ludicrous now. Solid throughout the tournament, organising his young defence and providing some crucial interceptions, Enyeama was at his very best in the final.
With his side missing a few glorious chances up front, Burkina Faso threatened a revival, however, they were thwarted by Enyeama’s terrific agility and reactions, as he dived down to his right to block a powerful effort from Wilfried Sanou.
It could quite possibly have been the most important save in Nigeria’s history!
History will show that Joseph Yobo received his (record) 95th cap during the Cup of Nations, what it may not recall, however, was how the Super Eagles skipper was reduced to the periphery of the title-winning squad by the precocious emerging talent of Godfrey Oboabona.
A central figure in Stephen Keshi’s revolution, Oboabona is one of the six domestic-based players drafted into the squad by the Big Boss.
Oboabona has arguably been the most impressive as well, demonstrating calmness and composure beyond his years to exceed all pre-tournament expectations. Few could have seen the young Sunshine Stars centre-back going toe-to-toe with Didier Drogba and emerging not only with his dignity intact, but also with a place in the semi final at the expense of the Chelsea icon.
At 32, Yobo could well be faded out of the national set-up in the near future, but rest assured that Oboabona will be a fixture for years to come.
The skipper inspires
The heroics of Burkina Faso, and their unlikely run to the final, have taken the attention away from Cape Verde’s terrific Afcon achievement, although few in the island nation could ever forget their side’s glorious efforts in South Africa.
While beating Cameroon to qualify for their maiden Cup of Nations was a terrific achievement, the fact that the side not only picked up points, but actually qualified from a tricky group ought to rank among the finest ever performances by an African nation.
The side did demonstrate some attacking flair and vivacious creativity during their unlikely run to the quarter final, but their chief quality was their defensive resiliency.
Key to this organisation was skipper and centre back Nando—not only did he lead by example, blocking attacks a-plenty in his brave and committed style, he was also a vocal leader on the pitch, rallying his inexperienced teammates with words of encouragement and endeavour.
South Africa’s Afcon campaign threatened to be an absolute catastrophe. Whilst the opening draw against Cape Verde could have been forgiven, the turgid, uninspired display was always unlikely to be condoned by the demanding South African public.
Whilst coach Gordon Igesund oversaw a swathe of changes for the team’s second game against Angola, centre-back Sangweni retained his place. It was a shrewd decision by Igesund, as the defender fired his side in front, before Lehlohonolo Majoro sealed the victory on the hour mark. The Orlando Pirates man also contributed to a clean sheet, as Bafana Bafana began to believe.
The crunch game against Morocco was not as convincing, and twice the North Africans took the lead, threatening to break South African hearts.
Sangweni clearly wasn’t settling for a defeat, and, charging forward, once more found himself with the goal inviting. A second delicious finish secured a point for South Africa, and guaranteed the host’s progression. It was one of the moments of the tournament, and as finishes go, not half bad either!
Not a key player in the squad before the tournament, Sunday Mba can now claim to be responsible for two of the most iconic moments in Nigeria’s footballing history.
The first was the winner against Cote d’Ivoire in the nation’s quarter final—after the Elephants pulled a goal back just after half time, the mood threatened to change, with the Ivorians growing in stature.
Nigeria held firm, however, and their endurance paid off on 78 minutes, as, bursting forward from midfield, and with space emerging before him, Mba opted to shoot, and fired a ball towards goal.
The deflection may have been huge, and the defending of "Maestro" Didier Zokora and Sol Bamba well below-par, but no Nigerian who witnessed that moment could ever forget it.
He was once again the hero in Sunday’s final; receiving the ball at feet after a deflected Victor Moses shot, he glided past a clutch of defenders with a handful of delicate, delectable touches, before firing the ball past Diakité.
Few nations present at the Cup of Nations were as dominated by one individual as Mali, although, when there is an ex-Barcelona superstar influencing the heart of your midfield, it’s perhaps to be expected.
The weight of expectation, or the pressure of being the spearhead for a nation as beleaguered and besieged as Mali, would have affected lesser men, but Keita flourished in his nation’s rise to the semis, and rolled back the years to do his countrymen proud.
Keita’s late winner against Niger kicked Mali’s tournament into life, while his equaliser against South Africa in the quarter final kept the Eagles afloat, while breaking the hosts’ hearts.
It’s inaccurate to limit Keita’s influence to merely goalscoring however, he was imperious throughout the competition, protecting the defence, driving the team forward, and inspiring those around him with his composed and often visionary play.
Perhaps, years from now, we’ll be revering John Obi Mikel in the same molten tones as we have talked about Seydou Keita during this tournament. Perhaps the Chelsea man has the potential to exceed the achievements of his West African rival, and become a true great, adored within the pantheon of African icons.
Whilst he has too often disappointed in recent seasons, this tournament may have been a coming-of-age for the midfielder, indeed, it was Mikel who dominated Keita in the crucial West African derby between their two nations.
Before the tournament, debate abounded as to the midfielder’s best position, with various quarters suggesting how he could best be used to serve the Super Eagles.
Few are uttering the same queries now, as Mikel has lived up to his billing as Naija’s star attraction. Tackling creatively, creating ambitiously, it was perhaps against the Ivory Coast that the young man finally appeared to take a game by the scruff of the neck and drag his side through to victory.
Mikel’s influence on the young midfielders around him, particularly Ogenyi Onazi, has been noted, and the Jos-born man looks likely to be the central component to this young Nigerian side in the years ahead.
Traore & Pitroipa combine
While his name may have been lost amidst the emotional euphoria of the latter stages for Burkina Faso, Alain Traore has been as central as anyone to the nation’s glorious cup run.
As the Stallions lined up to take on Nigeria, few will have recalled Traore’s 94th minute strike against the Central African Republic in qualifying—the goal that secured Burkina’s berth at the Afcon.
After that goal, he arrived at the tournament as the team’s talisman, despite lingering fears that, he had stagnated in Western Europe.
The suggestions appeared well wide of the mark once the tournament got underway, another 94th minute goal, this time against Nigeria, gave Burkina a foothold within a tough group, before an inspired performance against Ethiopia—which yielded a further two goals—put his nation on the brink of progression.
Sadly, a thigh injury was to curtail Traore’s tournament, and he could only look on as an unhappy portent as his countrymen took to the field against Nigeria in Johannesburg.
In Traore’s absence, however, the Stallions, as a collective, truly upped their game, and the likes of Aristide Bance and Djakaridja Kone appeared to be men on a mission, relentless in their pursuit of history.
It was one man above all others who stood out, and Jonathan Pitroipa became a symbol of the best and the worst of the Cup of Nations.
He stepped into Traore’s shoes to become the team’s creator-in-chief, pushing and prompting with his darting runs and oft-ingenious passing to forge openings for the Burkinabe.
Against Togo in the quarter final, it was his extra time header that sealed progression, while he was at his creative, inventive best in the rout against Ethiopia.
Against Ghana, however, Pitroipa became associated with the competition’s dark side, as his wrongful dismissal—for supposed simulation—was the finest illustration of the poor quality officiating too often on display during the tournament.
Fortunately the decision was over-turned, and Pitroipa proceeded to play in Burkina Faso’s first ever continental final, however he appeared keener to grace the final with his diving and his flailing, rather than his footballing ability.
Still, one of the tournament’s most impressive players, he has written his name into Burkinabe folklore.
The prize for top scorer, which Emenike received moments after Nigeria had won the continental crown, was partial compensation for the agony of missing out on the match through injury. However, few Nigerians wouldn’t foresee a return to that stage for Emenike and the current crop of Super Eagles.
The Spartak Moscow striker has been one of the players of the tournament, and despite not being a total unknown before the games began, has embellished his status over the last three weeks.
Impressing overall with his explosive, physical forward play, the goals he has scored have been his major contribution; his opener against Burkina Faso (after some sterling work from Ideye Brown) appeared to have all but set Naija up for victory, while he demonstrated poacher’s instincts with sharp finishes against Zambia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali.
Capable of having a big impact for years to come with the Super Eagles.
Few players have lit up the Afcon quite like Chelsea’s young forward. I have consistently argued that this would be the tournament where Moses finally announced himself on the international stage, and despite a subdued performance in the final, Moses has more than justified my ambitious predictions.
It was the final group game against Ethiopia when Moses’s qualities truly came to the fore. Twice he ran ferociously at the Black Lions defence, and twice inexperienced defenders were forced to bring him to the ground. Moses converted the resulting penalties with the calmness and composure of a man ten years his senior.
Against Cote d’Ivoire and Mali he was also outstanding, and his delicious assist for Elderson’s opening goal in the semi final was perhaps my moment of the cup.
Expect Vic to return to Chelsea imbued with confidence and primed to play a key role in the club’s run-in.