Nigeria favoured to win and end Burkina fairytale
Nigeria are strongly fancied to be crowned African football kings for a third time on Sunday by bringing the fairytale run of Burkina Faso to an end.
Man for man, the Super Eagles look stronger than the Stallions ahead of the title match at the 85,000-capacity Soccer Stadium in Soweto, a township on the south-west outskirts of Johannesburg.
The team in green and white can also expect to enjoy a massive advantage in support with thousands of Nigerians working in the South African financial hub set to roar on the footballers they adore.
Nigeria boast an amazingly consistent Cup of Nations record with 13 top-three finishes in 16 previous appearances while Burkina Faso arrived in South Africa last month desperate to end a 17-match run without a victory.
While the Super Eagles lifted the symbol of African national-team supremacy at home in 1980 and in Tunisia in 1994, the closest the Stallions have come is reaching the semi-finals as hosts of the 1998 tournament.
They ended the win-less streak in style by thrashing Ethiopia in Nelspruit near the famous Kruger National Park game reserve, and three of the goals came after being reduced to 10 men when goalkeeper Abdoulaye Soulama was red carded.
It is a final no one outside of the two countries could have imagined with perennial pre-competition favourites Ivory Coast, four-time champions Ghana, hosts South Africa and young, talented Algeria being strongly backed.
Nigeria and Burkina Faso have already met in this competition, drawing 1-1 in a Group C opener with Emmanuel Emenike giving the Eagles a first half advantage they held until now-injured Alain Traore levelled deep in stoppage time.
The Eagles also drew with defending champions Zambia before victories over Ethiopia, star-stacked title favourites Ivory Coast and Mali propelled them to a final they enter as 1-2 favourites with local bookmakers.
Burkina Faso followed the draw with Nigeria by whipping Ethiopia, holding title-holders Zambia and edging Togo through an extra-time goal and Ghana on penalties.
Nigeria handler Stephen Keshi, who hopes to emulate late Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary and win Cup of Nations gold medals as a player and a coach, is taking nothing for granted and reluctantly accepts the favourites tag.
“What we have achieved so far will not help us come Sunday — the final is where you have to prove that you are the best team in Africa and worthy of the gold medals,” he stressed.
“My team is still growing as I am in the building phase. There is a lot of talent at my disposal but you cannot compare this side with the great team of 1994 which I had the honour to captain.”
Key figures in the Nigerian class of 2013 include goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, centre-backs Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo, midfielders John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses and four-goal joint leading competition scorer Emenike.
Moses from English Premier League outfit Chelsea gave Mali defenders dizzy spells in the semi-final with his pace and footwork trickery and neutralising his threat must be a priority for Burkina Faso coach Paul Put.
The 56-year-old hoping to become the first Belgian coach of a Cup of Nations-winning team has worked miracles using 16 of the 23 players who lost all three group games at the 2012 tournament in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea.
“We have grown, and so have Nigeria, with each game and our initial aim of achieving a win to end that terrible record is now a distant memory. Now we must analyse our opponents and see what we can do,” said Put.
Stars like goalkeeper Daouda Diakite, defenders Bakary Kone and Paul Koulibaly, midfielders Charlos Kabore, Djakaridja Kone and Jonathan Pitroipa and striker Aristide Bance have found a new lease of life under the Belgian.
“Paul is the difference between this year and last year,” explained Bance from German club Augsburg, a star against Ghana and instantly recognisable with his mop of dyed spaghetti-style hair.
Apart from a $1.5 million (1,2 million euros) first prize, the African champions go to the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil during June to face Tahiti, Uruguay and Spain.