Nigeria's home-grown Hollywood stars come up trumps
If ever a man had the right to feel smug it was Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi after his heavily-criticised Super Eagles team’s stunning Africa Cup of Nations win over Ivory Coast.
Keshi’s mix of experienced stars and local-based players not only made it into the semi-finals after failing to qualify last year, but they did it the hard way by toppling the competition favourites.
And to top a memorable night in Rustenburg the show stealer was not a Premier League star like Chelsea duo Victor Moses or John Obi Mikel, but Sunday Mba, who plies his trade in the Nigerian league.
Mba’s dazzling run and 20-yard shot, with a little help from a deflection, settled the issue 2-1 in Nigeria’s favour after Ivorian Cheik Tiote had cancelled out Emmanuel Emenike’s opener.
He couldn’t have picked a better moment to open his international account and secure a semi-final showdown with Mali in Durban on Wednesday.
The unheralded 24-year old Enugu Rangers midfielder’s performance won him the man of the match award, with Keshi singing his and the other home-grown players’ praises at the post-match press conference.
“I want to kiss him!
“Every one of my boys is a hero, a Hollywood star, but it just happened that a home-based player, Sunday, scored a beautiful, beautiful goal.
“It’s good to see local players come through — if you give them the opportunity they can do it.
“It’s a pity that in the kind of country I come from they are impatient with local-based players, they prefer professionals,” said the man who captained the 1994 title-winning side.
Mba was not the only supposed lesser light in the Super Eagles squad to shine in Rustenburg — Godfrey Oboabona of Sunshine Stars put up a manful display in defence.
Oboabona was called up for injured veteran captain Joseph Yobo, and succeeded in blunting the danger presented by Didier Drogba and Arsenal striker Gervinho.
“It was great to stop a player like Drogba in a game of such magnitude. I am proud that we did not allow him to play and, at a time, he was frozen out of the game,” he told mtnfootball.com. “I had sleepless nights because it is great challenge for me, but I grew in courage when the game kicked off,” he added.
This win was the perfect riposte for Keshi to the sniping of the tens of millions of fans back in Lagos in the run-up to this quarter-final with many regarding defeat for Nigeria as a foregone conclusion.
“Somehow, the Nigeria fans don’t appreciate their players. But I know my team, I know their mentality. I know the boys I picked were right, I have confidence in them, I believe in them, I knew they could do something.”
One of his fiercest critics, former international Jonathan Akpoborie, said: “I doubted them, same with a lot of Nigerians. But for me, they have exceeded all my expectations already.
“They believe in themselves and that was the magic. The Ivorians underrated them and our boys made the most of this.”
Moses, who proved a constant threat to the Ivorian defence, took to Twitter to speak of his joy at the result, posting: “Amazing win so proud of the boys and the country the fans were amazing as always can’t wait for the semi-final now #Nigeria.”
Asked before this quarter-final if he had a message for the people back home, Keshi had replied tersely: “No”.
The message was to come loud and clear instead on the pitch in Rustenburg.