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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Musa, Omeruo making history an added motivation for Nigeria


Teams in a major tournament final are not short of reasons to want to win, but Nigeria have extra internal motivation to try to capture the Africa Cup of Nations Final on Sunday against hosts Côte d’Ivoire.

To start, only Egypt, with 10 and Ghana with nine, have made more Afcon final appearances than the Nigerians. Up until the current tournament, the Super Eagles were tied with Cameroon on seven, but will now go one better than the Indomitable Lions on Sunday.

Yet, all of those countries have more tournament wins than Nigeria. Egypt have seven, Cameroon have five (three of those against Nigeria), and Ghana have four, while the Eagles have a so far paltry three, embarrassing for a country that is seen as one of African football’s powerhouses.

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Although the last of Ghana’s four was won over 40 years ago in 1982, it is still a major point of banter among the two rivals, with Black Stars fans using that lone edge to beat Super Eagles fans over the head with.

Tying with Ghana and coming one behind Cameroon would salve some of that hurt.

As an addendum to that, while Egypt, Cameroon and Ghana have players who have won multiple Afcon titles, because of the spacing of Nigeria’s triumphs — 14 years between the first and second, and 19 years between the second and third — no Eagles player has two winners’ medals.

The closest the country has come to that is the late Stephen Keshi, who won it as a player in 1994 and then as a coach in 2013.

Now, the Super Eagles have a rare opportunity to have players join that exclusive club. Captain Ahmed Musa and defender Kenneth Omeruo were both members of the 2013 squad who won the title in South Africa just over 10 years ago and are now poised to become the first Nigerians ever to do a double.

It would be a remarkable accomplishment for both, playing their fourth Afcon. Musa, who scored in a 4-1 win for Nigeria against Mali in the semifinals in South Africa a decade ago, and is Nigeria’s record goalscorer at the FIFA World Cup with four goals, admits it would be a special feeling

“If we win the trophy, it would be a big day in my life because in Nigeria only Kenneth and I would be the two players to have won the Afcon two times and our late coach Stephen Keshi, who won it as a player and a coach,” he said.

“It is a feeling you can’t always properly describe. Winning the Afcon and touching the trophy is an unforgettable experience. Omeruo and myself experienced that when we won in South Africa. But I want another one and he also wants another one. The good feeling and experience must be double double.”

“It would be a special feeling,” he added to ESPN. “It shows how difficult it is to win the Nations Cup that if we win it, we will be the first Nigerians.”

Omeruo, who was a starting defender in that 2013 squad before getting injured for most of the tournament, also said he was looking forward to hoisting the trophy again.

“We want that special feeling again — the feeling of being a champion of Africa,” he said. “We have not gone this far to throw it away now. We have thrown everything into the six matches we have played here. We will give more than 100% against the Ivorians on Sunday.”

But Musa was also quick to point out that that was a secondary objective for the team.

“We are not going there thinking of getting a double for me and Omeruo,” he said. “When we came here, our goal was to win the competition for our country and for each other. That is what we our focus is.”

A win would also hand Jose Peseiro his first taste of major silverware in his 32-year career as a coach. As a head coach, he came close with Sporting Lisbon, losing 1-3 to CSKA Moscow in the final of the 2005 UEFA Cup, despite playing at his home stadium and holding a 1-0 half-time lead.

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What to expect in the AFCON final between Ivory Coast and Nigeria

Colin Udoh gives an early preview of the AFCON final between Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

Incidentally, he did win one domestic trophy as a coach, and in an uncanny coincidence, it happened in 2013, the same year Nigeria last won the Afcon. Peseiro led Sporting Braga to win the Taça da Liga, defeating defending champions Benfica in the semifinal on penalty kicks before going on to beat Porto 1-0 in the final.

How poetic would it be for both coach and team to do a repeat in the same year. Peseiro has said from the get go that his ambition was to win the tournament, even before he was hired, and he insists that has not changed.

“My team has done very well until now,” he said. “But we have not won it yet, and I say we want to win the Afcon.”

Nigeria have one injury concern. Left back Zaidu Sanusi, who missed the semifinal, remains doubtful. Peseiro says he will be assessed and a decision made ahead of the game.

Off the field, Nigeria have taken action to avoid distraction for the players. At previous tournaments and even qualifying games, government officials and corporate individuals have made it a point to make promises to the team in an attempt to fire them to victory. Those have rarely worked.

Segun Odegbami, 1980 Afcon winner and top goal-scorer, said: “It is never over until it is over. The NFF should not allow any kind of distractions around the team before the match. Let us allow the boys to concentrate and focus hard on the task at hand. No frivolous visits to the team camp should be allowed.

“We must all endeavour to help the team. Let them be themselves and remain themselves. This is of utmost national importance and all for the glory of our homeland. Nothing must be allowed to distract the players from this crucial national assignment.”

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