x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

African Cup of Nations: Nigeria's chance to set the record straight

After nearly two decades of hurt, Nigeria have the chance to secure the trophy they were denied the chance of defending in 1996, writes Ian Hawkey in South Africa.

Nigeria fans cheer after their team defeated Mali in their African Cup of Nations.
Nigeria fans cheer after their team defeated Mali in their African Cup of Nations.

When the Super Eagles and their boisterous fans, many of them from the large Nigerian community resident in greater Johannesburg, descend on Soweto's Soccer City on Sunday, it will be with the swagger of African champions-elect.

The confident manner with which they disposed of Mali, 4-1 in the semi-final of the African Cup of Nations, cannot help but make the two-times continental champions look favourites against Burkina Faso.

Many of those supporters still refer to Nigeria as the champions who were never properly dethroned.

Seventeen years of unfinished business hangs over the denouement of what has become a captivating Nations Cup.

The backstory here is the controversial withdrawal of perhaps the greatest Nigerian squad in the country's history from the previous Afcon hosted in South Africa.

It was early 1996, and Nigeria's military government was becoming a global pariah.

The prominent Nigerian human rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa had been executed and among the most powerful voices condemning the regime of the military dictator General Sani Abacha was that of Nelson Mandela, the then president of South Africa.

The political relationship between Africa's most populous nation and its wealthiest had become alarmingly tense.

Suddenly, the continent's major sporting event became its battleground.

In the week before Nigeria were scheduled to begin the defence of a Nations Cup title they had won impressively in Tunisia in 1994, doubt was cast over their participation.

On the day the tournament started, confirmation arrived that 15, not 16 teams would be contesting the tournament.

Nigeria, Abacha's office announced, would not be sending their players to a country where "their safety could not be guaranteed".

Mandela's new nation had been snubbed. Their response? South Africa went on to win the competition.

Nigeria, for withdrawing, were banned from the next Nations Cup, in 1998, and for the players of that era, a soreness lingered.

"We had a military government," said Sunday Oliseh, a Nigeria captain from the late 1990s.

"So that meant there were certain things you couldn't really talk about.

"But what I can say is that the team we had at the time ticked all the right boxes.

"We had speed, strength and craftiness. We were African champions in 1994, and went to the World Cups in 1994 and 1998 and went through to the knockout stages."

Furthermore, as Oliseh pointed out, six months after missing out on the 1996 Afcon, Nigeria won the Olympic gold medal, a first for Africa.

Would they have romped through the Afcon had they been there?

With a team featuring Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George, who had just won the European Champions League with Ajax, a midfield featuring Oliseh and Jay-Jay Okocha, they would certainly have had the best squad, on paper, of those taking part.

After the lost years of Afcons, there were the heartbreak ones. By 2000, with Abacha dead, and a civilian government in place, Nigeria was not politically shunned but embraced by the continent, and awarded hosting rights for the Nations Cup, jointly with Ghana.

Kanu, Oliseh, Okocha and their teammates reached the final, in Lagos. After sharing four goals with Cameroon, it went to penalties.

Joseph Yobo, the current captain, too young to have made that squad but soon to embark on his 90-cap career, recalls watching that final on television as, in an eerily quiet Surulere Stadium, Cameroon won the shoot-out.

"It was in Nigeria, we all thought we were going to win it,"Yobo said. "We were devastated when we didn't."

Yobo, a stalwart for the last 12 years, soon learnt to develop an immunity to these heartbreaks.

"It has felt like so long, from that final to this one. There have been so many semi-finals and on Wednesday I was just praying that wouldn't happen again. I feel blessed that we have crossed that barrier at last."

Yobo acknowledges he has probably featured in stronger, and certainly more star-studded squads than this. But he feels the hand of destiny guiding the Super Eagles in South Africa.

"Considering the talent we have had, it has been too long since the last Nigeria final, he said.

"And we have so many talents. You can probably say we have had some better players in the past but we happened not to come together to win it. This is an opportunity to put things right."

And in Soweto, the very site where the defending champions never had the chance to cling jealously to their prize.