For many Nigerians, their appearance in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations finals may be just as surprising as that of opponents Burkina Faso.
Such was the pessimism around the squad coming into the tournament, negativity only enhanced by some limp showings in the group matches, that only the most ardent Super Eagles fans would have seen the side getting this far.
But the team has improved as the tournament has gone on, they showed great character to get past Cote d’Ivoire in the quarterfinals and were emphatic in their performance against Mali in what was tipped to be a difficult semifinal.
The 4-1 victory was well deserved and vindication for coach Stephen Keshi, who has faced a barrage of criticism for every move he makes, from his squad selection to first team, to tactics and everything else.
But he says the plan has remained the same from the beginning and having captained Nigeria to their last Nations Cup title in 1994, knows what it takes to win this competition.
“Most Nigerians didn’t understand, it’s not only skilful players that can do the job for you in a tournament. You want the mentality to be strong, you want team players, people that can really work for the team,” Keshi said, before adding that his side will get even better.
“Beyond that I know there’s a lot of potential for this team but it’s going to take a while to build and for them to understand the style I want them to play.
“When we started it was a little bit difficult because we were just coming together for the first time. I knew coming into the tournament, the first two, three games might be difficult because of fatigue.”
He has also waved off comparisons off the current crop of players and those involved in 1994.
“That squad took five years, this one is only five weeks old. We’re just growing, I don’t think we’re there and we can’t lose a game. Sometimes things go up and down, we’re still adding and subtracting.”
For Mali it was a surprisingly poor end. Many had tipped them for the title after their quarterfinal win over South Africa, but they were undone by the pace of the Nigerians, just as Bafana Bafana had troubled them the match before.
This Mali side has size and skill, but is ‘slow’ around the park and Nigeria exposed that perfectly.
They were the sentimental favourites given the domestic troubles the country is facing, and although their exit will be met with sadness, they can be proud of their efforts at this tournament and do still have a bronze medal to play for on Saturday against Ghana.
It is a repeat of the third-place match from 12 months ago in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon that Mali won.
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