After 19 years of waiting for another continental title and thirteen years since appearing in the final, the Super Eagles of Nigeria are on the threshold of history as they face the Stallions of Burkina Faso in the final of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in Johannesburg today. And Nigerians are highly expectant.
For Coach Stephen Keshi, the day represents a turning point in his romance with the round leather game. In 1994, he won the trophy as captain of the Nigerian team, the last time Nigeria lifted the cup. If he leads the Super Eagles to win the trophy today, he then becomes only the second man to have won the tournament as player and coach after Egyptian legend, late Mahmoud El Gohary.
The stage for this epochal occasion is the magnificent National Stadium, formerly Soccer City, famed for staging the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The high and mighty, including host President, Jacob Zuma, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, CAF boss, Issa Hayatou and the over 10 million television viewers around the globe will witness the final of Africa's soccer showpiece.
From a sluggish start in the group stage, the Stephen Keshi tutored Super Eagles have, within three weeks, transformed into an all-conquering side which Malian keeper, Mommodu Samassa has described as "Brazil" after suffering a 4-1 humiliating defeat in the semi final.
Ironically, it was the same Burkina Faso the Super Eagles met in the opening group game which ended 1-1. The Nigerians ended the match with ten men after Efe Ambrose received the referee's marching order. Today's battle could therefore be a battle for superiority, particularly, as the Stallions finished tops ahead of Eagles in the group.
All that has changed as the Nigerians look destined for greatness if they can maintain their quarter final and semi final form. With the duo of Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses declared fit for this all-important clash, the attack which will also parade power-playing Brown Ideye may not slag. Midfield maestro Mikel Obi's partnership with Lazio kid star, Ogenyi Onazi seems to have rolled back the glory years of the Eagles mobile midfield, noted for its fluidity and seamless linkage between the defence and the attack. With the roving role of home boy, Sunday Mba they have provided good transition between the rear and the attack. Should they keep their nerves, the Burkinabes will find the Super Eagles even tougher than they expect.
Coach Stephen Keshi should leave his match-winning, time tested defensive fortress intact. Vincent Enyeama, Efe Ambrose, Godfrey Oboabona, Elderson Echejile and Kenneth Omeruo have proved too reliable to be tampered with. The technical crew should not fall into the temptation of bringing in Yobo early in the match. This a very crucial moment that should not be gambled with. Yobo can continue playing the ceremonial figure head he has been saddled with and be prepared to receive the trophy at the end of the match.
But the Eagles have an up-hill task in the resilient Burkinabes. Looking at the final match, former Nigerian international, Peter Rufai said, "it is not going to be an easy match because Burkina Faso do not play take-it-easy kind of game. They are tactically sound and they take the fight to their opponents without ceasing- they fight to the end. That's why our defenders must not relax till the final whistle."
Rufai advised the Nigerian players to approach the game with discipline and sound mental strength. "I foresee an explosive game," the former Nigeria captain said.
With the loss of Alain Traore to injury, Burkina Faso's potency could be slightly reduced. However, with the return of earlier suspended Jonathan Pitriopa and dreaded Seidu Bancey still raring to go and the depth in coach Paul Put's armoury, we may not have seen the last yet to what Burkina Faso have off their sleeves.
It is against this background that Keshi has pleaded with his players to give Nigeria this day.
"We have done enough to win this cup. We have worked hard and we expect to win. I pray that the boys live up to expectation and give us this day. Yes, they can".