How Super Eagles unite Nigerians, by Ehi Braimah

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As we await the outcome of the 2023 African Cup of Nations final game between Nigeria’s Super Eagles and the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan, Nigerians are expectant and the excitement across the country’s palpable. Having come this far in the tournament that kicked off with 24 participating countries in the group stages, I do not see what will stop the Super Eagles from lifting the trophy tonight, Sunday February 11, 2024.

All the players are in high spirits, and they are poised to win AFCON 2023 for Nigerians – both at home and in the diaspora – who are united behind them. What do eagles do? They fly very high, and they also show strength with concentration. Eagles also love the storm. We expect the Super Eagles to fly very high over the Elephants during the final showdown at the Alassane Quattara Olympic Stadium stadium in Abidjan.

Right from the first blast of the referee’s whistle, our players should spring into action. There’s no time to waste. Like true eagles with excellent vision, courage and the stamina to fly at high altitudes, the Super Eagles must be relentless, push forward and dominate the game. They must be hungry for early goals. The whole world would be watching. This is our moment; the Super Eagles must grab it and steal the thunder from the Ivorians.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced that Dahane Beida, aged 32, from Mauritania will be the centre referee for the crucial match. Assisting Beida will be Emiliano Dos Santos from Angola and Diana Chicotesha from Zambia. Morocco’s Bouchra Karboubi will serve as the fourth official. The die is cast.

Members of the supporters’ club and football fans in Cote d’Ivoire who have been singing and dancing for the players and Nigeria to win in our national colours are true heroes. You can be sure Nigerians all over the world will be rooting for the Super Eagles as they take on the Ivorian national team.

Every available space – whether in sitting rooms, hotel lobbies, viewing centres or pepper soup/beer parlours – will be will be taken up by football fans who will stay glued to their television sets to watch what promises to be an exciting encounter.

What football is teaching us is that Nigerians love their country. Winning with the Super Eagles and the passion that Nigerians have displayed in support of the national team is a lesson in patriotism.

Suddenly, no one remembers where we come from or how we worship. Tribe and tongue did not play any role in team selection because they are not important. This is not downplaying the value of diversity, equity and inclusion. However, what is important as we have discovered with the current squad, is that it is better to always put our best eleven players forward.

That is what the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) and the coaching crew led Jose Peseiro, the 63-year-old Portuguese, have done. Winning was what mattered. Kudos to them.

Football is a huge cultural phenomenon and intoxicating opium in many countries. When the national team is doing well, people tend to forget their differences and unite behind the team. Everyone shares in the success story. In the age of social media, national team success gives the people bragging rights over other countries.

Winning the African Cup of Nations at this time is a big deal for Nigerians. This tournament which began on January 13 has been a useful distraction. If we lift the trophy tonight, it will be the fourth time. Nigeria has taken part in the tournament 20 times, but we have won the cup only three times.

The first time was in 1980 in Lagos; the second time was in 1994 in Tunis, Tunisia while the third time was in 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The most decorated country is Egypt which has claimed seven AFCON titles – including a hat trick between 2006 and 2010.

When tournament favourites such as the defending champions, Senegal, Egypt and Morocco crashed out, it brightened the chances of the Super Eagles. But no one reckoned with the fact that the Ivorians would bounce back forcefully after their poor group stage performances.

They are now our opponents in the much anticipated final. Home support has been touted as an advantage for the Elephants, but that will not be a problem for the Super Eagles who understand how to rise up to big occasions.

Cote d’Ivoire had home support when they lost 1 – 0 to Nigeria and 4 – 0 to Equatorial Guinea in the group phase. Top players do not allow home support affect their performances.

The Super Eagles’ preparation was like most of the other teams in the tournament because of the Europe-based players. They didn’t have much time together before AFCON 2023 and had to deal with injuries.

Taiwo Awoniyi was ruled out before the squad was announced while Wilfred Ndidi, Victor Boniface, and Sadiq Umar needed to be replaced with Alhassan Yusuf, Terem Moffi and Paul Onuachu respectively.

In this tournament, the Super Eagles started slowly and it was not surprising. They always appeared tentative right from the qualifying rounds.

I watched the 2026 World Cup Qualifier that the Super Eagles played against Lesotho at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, on November 16, last year. The match ended in 1 – 1 draw after Lesotho had gone ahead earlier. The home fans were disappointed.

Although the Super Eagles played a 1 – 1 draw against Equatorial Guinea in their opening game in AFCON 2023 (a predictable pattern), they have won every match since then, with their progress built on a solid defence. Coach Peseiro went into a three-centre-backs system after the first draw and the team did not concede any goal in four matches.

The Super Eagles beat Cote d’Ivoire 1 – 0, Guinea Bissau 1 – 0, Cameroon 2 – 0 in the round of 16, and Angola 1 – 0 in the quarter-final until the semi-final where they played 1 – 1 with South Africa before winning 4 – 2 on penalties.

The national team can overcome the Ivorians if they stay with their match plan and the tactics that have worked for them in the tournament so far. How they organise themselves on the field during the match will make all the difference. In addition, the defence must retain its vibrancy and quick-footedness where split-second decisions are pivotal to routing the Elephants.

The Super Eagles must also not be goal shy; they should take advantage of every goal scoring opportunity, especially in the first half. It will also be a battle of wits, but our players in all departments should not back down from physical battles.

Our strikers have not scored too many goals, but they have worked hard for the team. Victor Osimhen has scored only once in six matches, but he has one assist and has won two important penalties. On his part, Ademola Lookman has scored three goals and Moses Simon has an assist and has earned man-of-the-match performances.

Stanley Nwabali, our goalie who plays for Chippa United in South Africa, has distinguished himself as one of the biggest revelations and safest pair of hands of the tournament. He has been part of the remarkable defence, also comprising William Troost-Ekong, Calvin Bassey, Semi Ajayi and Ola Aina,

As we count down to the big match which Segun Odegbami, former national team player and member of the 1980 Green Eagles that won AFCON, had predicted, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire have met 28 times with nine wins each and 10 draws.

What does that tell you?

We are in for a thrilling encounter tonight in Abidjan but the Super Eagles of Nigeria will lift the trophy. That is my prediction. Good luck to our players.

*Braimah is a global public relations and marketing strategist. He is also the publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://ntm.ng) and Lagos Post (https://lagospost.ng).

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