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AFCON 2023 Eagles V Elephants: The Final Showdown

In the run-up to the 2003 guberna- torial poll in Edo State, the Esama of Benin, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, made a notable statement to the effect that if a student does not do well he is made to repeat. He was responding to criticisms of the performance or other- wise of his son, Lucky, who had been elected the first governor of the state at the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999. And this is exactly what will play out tomorrow night at the 60, 000-seat- er Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Ebimpe, on the outskirts of Abidjan, when Nigeria’s Super Eagles once again square up against the host nation’s Elephants in a repeat of their first meeting 24 days ago.

However, unlike the Group A encounter in which defeat need not prove fatal to a team’s trophy dream, as was the case with Elephants who lost the game 1-0, tomorrow’s encounter is a winner- takes-all one-off showdown. At stake is the greatest prize available to national teams on the continent – the African Cup of Nations. Triumph tomorrow will not only confer honour and prestige on the winner as the best team in Africa, but also comes along with a hefty $7 million cheque. This is what is at stake for the two teams who made the finals in dramatically different ways: While the Super Eagles have remained unbeaten since the tournament kicked off on January 13, the Elephants were even lucky to have squeezed out of the group stage as one of the third best finishers after winning only one game.

This prompted the Ivorien FA to dispense with the services of Jean-Louis Gasset, after the Elephants were humiliated 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea in the final group game. The Ivoriens were left holding their breadths hoping for a miracle, which eventually smiled their way courtesy of favourable results in other groups. But even then interim boss, Emerse Fae’s side, needed late goals against defending champions Senegal in the Round of 16, and Mali in the quarter-final to progress to the last four where they met DR Congo. And on Wednesday night, the Elephants’ Borussia Dortmund striker, Sebastien Haller, kept the miracle alive when his 65th minute volley bounced down into the ground and up over Leopards goalkeeper, Lionel Mpasi, to send Cote d’Ivoire into tomorrow’s final.

The Ivoriens have already made two previous finals where they triumphed in 1992 and 2015, and would love nothing more than to not only get their pound of flesh over the Eagles for their group stage defeat, but also become the first hosts since Egypt in 2006 to be crowned champions. But standing in the way of this remarkable journey is three-time champions Nigeria, whose last triumph was in South Africa in 2013, which was engineered by the late Stephen Keshi. Although the current occupant of the hot seat, José Vítor dos Santos Peseiro, more popularly known as José Peseiro, might not have the same aura as the former national team skipper, however, he has confounded many of his critics by guiding the Eagles to their eighth final.

The build-up to the 34th edition of Africa’s ‘World Cup’ was the tension between the coach and his employers, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) over a new contract. Matters were also not helped by the lacklustre performance of the Eagles in the World Cup 2026 qualifying in which they have two points from their opening two Group C games, after draws with Lesotho and Zimbabwe has left them in third spot behind surprise leaders, Rwanda, and South Africa. In the end, an agreement was eventually reached between the Federation and the Portuguese football manager who turns 64 on April 4, with the former striker agreeing to take a pay-cut.

However, in the wake of the Eagles impressive Nations Cup run, Peseiro’s hand has significantly been boosted and unconfirmed reports are already indicating that whatever is the outcome of tomorrow’s final he will be biding Nigeria bye, and is likely to take up a job with a top Egyptian club. Whatever the validity of these reports, one thing is, however, certain; that is, the former Saudi Arabia handler will love to have his name placed in the annals of Nigerian football by securing a fourth AFCON title for the Eagles just like Otto Gloria did in 1980, Clemens Westerhof (1994) and Keshi (2013). On Wednesday, Peseiro’s wards put the nation of over 200 million people through the full gauntlet of emotions in a tension-soaked encounter with South Africa at the Stade de la Paix, Bouake, which they won 4-2 on penalties after the game finished 1-1.

In a video posted by Osimhen soon after the win, the Napoli striker once again highlighted the unifying power of the ‘beautiful game’ on Nigerians when he stressed the united nature of the team. Speaking in a blend of Pigeon and English, he said: “Nobody go understand, but all of us wey d here we don suffer. We’re making a lot of sacrifices but I can tell you that we are all focused and unit- ed in trying to bring joy to Nigerians. We all know how much football means to Nigerians.” Then giving an insight in the stomach problem, which almost ruled him out of the Bouake game, Osimhen continued: “Day before yesterday I bin de sleep then I woke up around 6, my belle begin de pain me. Samuel na him dey close to me. I begin de hit him door several times to try to wake him.

But I know say him don sleep. “Eventually, I come go hospital. All those doctors dem try well well. Them give me everything to make sure say I dey ok. At the moment I get small relief, I bin tell de coach say I dey join the team. “I come go by road; I think na like four hours I come join them…A lot of sacrifices from all of us. But na one big family o. A lot of solidarity dey this team. I’m so proud of all of them I no go lie. Every day we motivate ourselves.” Even videos posted from the team’s bus shows the camaraderie that exists, with the players often signing Christian songs not minding that some of them are not even Christians. This will be the fourth time Nigeria will be facing a team they met at the group stage in the final. It happened in 1988 when they drew 1-1 with Cameroon in Group B at Ra- bat, and then faced the same team in the final.

They played Algeria in the group match in 1990 and again in the final. They did the same in 2013 when they faced Burkina Faso at the group stage and then in the final match. Tomorrow, millions will be hoping that unlike the outcome of the 2003 Edo guber poll or when the Eagles lost to Cameroon and Algeria in the 1988 and 1990 finals respectively, the 2013 triumph over Burkina Faso will be re- peated. At least, this will ensure some- thing good can be celebrated amid the doom and gloom of our present political predicament.

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