LAGOS: Nigeria’s sensational run to the final of the African Cup of Nations has united the often divided country in football pride and given a nation that has grown weary with bad news a reason to celebrate.
With Africa’s largest population and massive oil wealth, many see Nigeria as a natural powerhouse held back by corruption and division, but some football fans say that reputation could be improved with a win on Sunday.
After shocking star-laden Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) quarter-finals and thrashing Mali in the semi-finals, Nigeria will face Burkina Faso for a chance to win its first continental title since 1994.
“We are going to show what kind of country we are on Sunday... you’ll see,” said Kola Obe, standing on the sidewalk at a busy intersection in the Lagos Island area of Nigeria’s economic capital.
“Nigeria is a nation to watch and we are coming up and we are going to get there,” insisted the 45-year-old father of two.
A win against Burkina Faso, he added, “is going to improve our image.”
Obe and others on Lagos Island, one of the oldest areas of the city, conceded that outsiders often view Nigeria as a case of unfulfilled promise, including when it comes to sport.
The country boasts a population of roughly 160 million people and the continent’s second biggest economy, not to mention hordes of passionate football fans: so the 19-year AFCON title gap has been frustrating for many.
Nigeria failed to even qualify for last year’s AFCON, and the team’s performance in the 2010 World Cup was so dismal that President Goodluck Jonathan sought to ban the team — a move he later rescinded.
The start of this year’s Nation’s Cup initially brought back some of the old cynicism, as Nigeria did not look to be playing as champions in the group stages. Nigerians are not known for holding their tongues, and coach Stephen Keshi took exception to the criticism. Ahead of the quarterfinal he said that “it’s a great shame that a nation doesn’t have confidence in its sons, the players.”
The country has since rallied behind Keshi, who captained the team that last won Nigeria the Nations Cup in 1994, along with his mix of experienced stars and local-based players.
Positive sign: Hayatou
The presence of outsiders Burkina Faso in Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final is a positive sign for football on the continent, CAF president Issa Hayatou says.
The Burkinabe have made it to Soccer City at the expense of traditional African powers like Ghana and Ivory Coast.
“The fact that Burkina made the final is a positive sign for the development of football in Africa,” Hayatou told reporters here on Friday.
“There aren’t small or big teams, everyone is on a level footing.” Hayatou said he was satisfied with attendances at the 2013 Nations Cup despite many games mustering barely a couple of thousand fans.
“South Africa has stadiums with big capacities. When there are 45,000 seats you have the feeling it’s empty. South Africa were knocked out, but people still went to matches.”
The competition has been marked by some controversial refereeing decisions, not least the officiating of Burkina Faso’s semi-final win over Ghana.
But Hayatou said: “Overall we are satisfied with the African refereeing.
“There’ve been two or three badly managed matches, but overall the refereeing is in the process of improving.”
The pitch at Nelspruit, which played host to Burkina’s penalty shoot-out win over Ghana on Wednesday, has come in for heavy criticism after a fungal infection killed swathes of grass before the tournament began.
Hayatou commented: “The pitch wasn’t awful, it was the colour of the grass which wasn’t good.”