AFCON 2013: Nigeria’s run brings back memories of 1990s team

By IndepthAfrica
In Nigeria
Feb 7th, 2013
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Nigeria fans cheer after their team defeated Mali in their African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match against Mali, at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. Nigeria beat Mali 4-1 to advance to the tournament final. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell

Nigeria fans cheer after their team defeated Mali in their African Cup of Nations semifinal soccer match against Mali, at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. Nigeria beat Mali 4-1 to advance to the tournament final. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell

(AP) — Nigeria is in position to win the African Cup of Nations again thanks to impressive performances that have brought back memories of the 1990s team which dominated African football.

Nigeria will play Burkina Faso at Soccer City on Sunday trying to win its first title since 1994, when it ruled the continent with players such as Finidi George, Jay-Jay Okocha and Emmanuel Amuneke.

It was the team to beat in Africa back then, dreaded even by the traditional European teams when they had to cross paths from time to time.

Today’s Nigeria, coached by the captain of that 1994 team, Stephen Keshi, is hoping another victory at the African Cup after nearly two decades will help steer the team back to its glory days.

Keshi said there’s a lot of work to do before this year’s team can be compared to the 1994 squad, but he thinks the potential to make it happen is there.

“The 1994 squad took us five years to build, this team is just five weeks old,” Keshi said. “I don’t want you to get it wrong. We are just growing. Don’t think we are there and that’s it, that we can’t lose a game. No, sometimes it goes up and down.”

That team captained by Keshi helped Nigeria reach the World Cup for the first time, in 1994 in the United States, and it also made it to the 1998 tournament in France. Both times it was eliminated in the quarterfinals, losing to Italy in extra time in 1994 and to Denmark in regulation in 1998.

Some of the players at the time were already stars at European clubs. Okocha was with Eintracht Frankfurt and later joined Paris Saint-Germain, while George was with Ajax and Amuneke played for Portugal’s Sporting before joining Barcelona later on. The team also had Everton striker Daniel Amokachi.

Nigeria also won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, beating Brazil in the semifinals and Argentina in the final. In the 1994 African Cup, Nigeria eliminated Ivory Coast in the semifinals and then beat Zambia to lift the trophy for the second time. It hadn’t won the competition since 1980.

“That 1994 squad is a wonderful squad,” Keshi said. “The spirit in that team was unbelievable, we were just like friends, we were brothers.”

The 51-year-old Keshi said that until he can “get that same atmosphere” in the current team he won’t know whether it will be able to someday achieve the same level of success.

“We are still working on it,” he said. “There is talent, but you need strong mentality, you need character. It’s coming gradually.”

The squad is led by Chelsea duo John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, as well as by team captain and Fernerbahce defender Joseph Yobo and Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike, who is one of the tournament’s leading scorers with four goals.

The Super Eagles had a disappointing start in South Africa, drawing with Burkina Faso and Zambia and just barely advancing past the group stage with a late win against Ethiopia. The team picked up the pace in the knockout round, though, eliminating tournament favorite Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals and cruising to victory against Mali in the semis.

Keshi, who took over the team in 2011, was criticized back home for bringing too many inexperienced local players to the squad, but he said he needed to revamp the team to get the players on board with his philosophy.

“You want team players who are mentally strong, players who can work well for the team,” Keshi said. “There is a lot of talent and potential, but it’s going to take time.”

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