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Lightning may strike twice in Cote d’ Ivoire

Often times, it is said lightning does not strike twice in the same place but indications are strong that such belief will be relegated to…

Often times, it is said lightning does not strike twice in the same place but indications are strong that such belief will be relegated to the background tonight when the Super Eagles of Nigeria battle the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in the final of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations at the Alassane Quattra Stadium in Abidjan. It will be recalled that when both teams clashed in the group stage, it was a feisty affair but William Troost-Ekong’s goal from the spot was the difference as the Super Eagles triumphed 1-0.

Therefore, tonight’s final will no doubt rekindle the memories of the 1-0 victory against the host nation. The match is also an opportunity for the Elephants to avenge that loss that set the tone for their humiliating defeat in the hands of Equatorial Guinea. That scandalous defeat would have sent the hosts packing from the tournament but Morocco came to their rescue with the 1-0 win against Zambia. The loss by the Chipolopolo paved the way for the host nation to qualify for the Round of 16 as one of the best losers. However, the Elephants quickly recovered from the shock and are in the final against the most improved team.

It promises to be a thriller because the two powerhouses in African football are blessed with immensely talented and experienced players who are plying their trade in some of the best leagues in the world. Even as the Ivorians suffered that unexpected defeat, it didn’t reduce their quality. Moreover, the Elephants have since proven that they were only caught napping. Their recovery is evident in the high-profile victories they achieved on their way to the final. The defending champions Senegal, Mali and DR Congo all bowed to the Elephants firepower. No mediocre team will stand a chance against any of the trio that submitted to Cote d’ Ivoire. It is against this background that the Ivorians are now dreaming of a third AFCON title.

Unfortunately, they will be up against a team that has suddenly picked form and is looking unstoppable at the moment. Although the Super Eagles started on a shaky note with the 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea, they were able to bounce back with an important win against Cote d’Ivoire which no doubt boosted their confidence.  There was a little relapse as they only managed to win their last group match with Guinea-Bissau but the Super Eagles showed again that they are in Cote d’ Ivoire for business with the emphatic 2-0 battering of the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. The victory pumped up the Eagles who went ahead to eliminate Angola before the nervy semi-final contest with Bafana Bafana of South Africa which they won on penalties to reach their eighth AFCON final.

Going by history, the Super Eagles are destined to win their fourth AFCON title in Cote ‘Ivoire. What has happened so far is similar to what occurred 11 years ago in South Africa before Nigeria won her third title. After disappointing results, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) decided to try its luck with an indigenous coach, Stephen Keshi, a former captain of the team. When he selected his players for the tournament in South Africa, many condemned the list and cast away the team. There was nothing to suggest that the Super Eagles would achieve anything tangible. However, luck shone brightly on the team and Nigeria recorded her third AFCON title. Almost the same scenario played out before the kickoff of the 2023 AFCON as most Nigerians were not comfortable with the choice of Jose Peseiro as Coach of the Super Eagles. This was made worse by the poor results of the team in friendly matches leading up to the tournament. The Portuguese was also questioned for including some unpopular players in his 23-man list. However, Peseiro is becoming popular just as players hitherto considered to be dead have returned to life with unimaginable performances.

Therefore, it is looking like lightning will strike twice when the familiar foes battle in Abidjan. The Super Eagles are fired up so what most Nigerians are fearing may not affect the team tonight. There is this apprehension that the enormous support for the host nation, especially the crowd that will turn out for the final match may overwhelm the Eagles. This is true but there are usually pros and cons in almost all situations. Yes, the support for the Elephants will definitely be massive but how they will utilise it is another thing. They are highly experienced players but pressure sometimes is no respecter of one’s years of experience. Pressure is one of the reasons some of the best players in the world avoid penalty kicks. They lack the nerve to deal with the pressure that comes with the responsibility. Therefore, what is seen by many as advantage to the Elephants may work in favour of the Super Eagles who are facing less pressure.

Moreover, the history of the AFCON has shown that some host nations reached the final but watched helplessly as the trophy eluded them. A few examples will suffice here. In 1965, host Tunisia hosted but lost 2-3 after extra-time to defending champions Ghana. The Black Stars beat host Libya in 1982 and Nigeria co-hosted with Ghana in 2000 but lost to Cameroon on penalties after a 2-2 draw in Lagos. The above information should serve as motivation for the Super Eagles to confidently approach their opponents because there is nothing sacrilegious about the host losing in the final of the AFCON.

However, the Super Eagles must also know that it is not forbidden for the host nation to win the final match. Egypt hosted and won in 1959, Ethiopia in 1962,  Ghana 1963, Sudan 1970, Ghana in 1978, Nigeria in 1980, Egypt in 1986, Algeria in 1990 at the expense of Nigeria, South Africa in 1996, Tunisia in 2004 and Egypt in 2006. This is just to remind them that host nations’ chances of winning are usually high.

Well, it will be a ding-dong affair but having dealt their opponents the first psychological blow, the Super Eagles are going into tonight’s final as favourites. If they are not distracted by the multitude of Nigerian politicians who have poured into Cote d’Ivoire, the Super Eagles can at least repeat the performance that saw them devour the Elephants on January 18. However, if they fail to manage their personal ambitions and the huge expectations from their fans, the host will stroll to a third AFCON title.

More importantly, even if the Super Eagles are not keen on winning the trophy, they should compensate those Nigerians who died watching their semi-final clash against South Africa. They must reward the fallen heroes. And to save some of their teeming fans from more cardiac arrests which will ultimately lead to sudden death, they should try and finish the business in regulation time. Anything extra-time will raise their fans’ blood pressure and another penalty shootout may lead to more deaths. This is what the Super Eagles must do everything humanly possible to avoid.

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