x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

African Cup of Nations: Keshi leads Nigeria to title

Coach Stephen Keisha brought together the most tightly-knit Nigeria team in over a decade and the chemistry paid off in the African Cup of Nations final.

Artists perform around giant Nigerian and Burkina Faso flags during a ceremony held ahead of the African Cup of Nations final on Sunday. Alexander Joe / AFP
Artists perform around giant Nigerian and Burkina Faso flags during a ceremony held ahead of the African Cup of Nations final on Sunday. Alexander Joe / AFP

At last, after 19 years, the wait is over for Nigeria.

Since reaching the final on home soil in 2000, Nigeria reached the semi-final in five out of six tournaments before failing to qualify last time, but this is the first time in 13 years that they have looked like genuine champions, that they could become once again the force they were in the nineties.

The reason why is obvious: the coach Stephen Keshi. He gives the impression of being laid-back, is always ready to laugh, and yet he is tough as they come, thick-skinned, and single-minded enough to, as he put it "close my eyes and close my ears and do what I think is right."

Dissenters have been culled – even John Obi Mikel, outstanding in this tournament, was briefly dropped last year amid doubts about his commitment – and the result is the most tightly-knit Nigeria side in well over a decade.

"The difference with this is that there’s a lot of unity and a lot of potential at the same time," the Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo said. "Other squads I’ve been with, the unity has not being that strong – we’ve always had problems because we have different cultures and we’re from different places."

The flip side was the inclusion of six players from the domestic league, a controversial selection emphatically vindicated by the solidity of Godfrey Oboabona at centreback and by the performances of Sunday Mba, who scored the winner against Ivory Coast as well as the opener on Saturday night.

This was Keshi’s victory.

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