Echiejile: Eagles can win back respect
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A third CAF Africa Cup of Nations triumph for Nigeria next year in South Africa would restore public confidence in the Super Eagles says stalwart defender Elderson Echiejile. The last time the side mounted the continental victory rostrum was in Tunisia in 1994, when Elderson was barely starting school in his native Benin City.

“The fans lost faith in the team after we failed to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup,” said the left back, who has been playing in the UEFA Champions league this season for Sporting Braga. “But to clinch the trophy would get the entire country back behind us, so our target is to win in South Africa. We are very positive and ready to give our best.”

Coming together as one
Probably the biggest criticism against Nigeria over time has been that their many individual stars scattered around the world have struggled to play as a team. For the 2013 tournament, the Eagles will have at least two uninterrupted weeks to prepare for their opening group game on 21 January against Burkina Faso. The team will open residential camp in Nigeria with players from the domestic league on 17 December before a stint in Portugal, after which the main squad will assemble in South Africa from 4 January.

“We often have just three, four days before a big game. That is difficult for players from many different clubs to come together and play as one. But we believe in two weeks we would have achieved some level of understanding among us,” assured Elderson, who will turn 25 the day before the Burkina Faso clash.

Elderson was on the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ squad, but a year after the momentous event in South Africa, the Eagles sensationally failed to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Last November, coach Samson Siasia was replaced by former international skipper Stephen Keshi, and a year later, he has guided the Eagles to their 17th Nations Cup finals appearance. In a country of over 160 million passionate fans, expectations are again running very high that the Eagles could fly all the way to the top prize on 10 February in Johannesburg.

Zambia clash looms
Nigeria are drawn in the first round against defending champions Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia in Group C based in the north-eastern South African city of Nelspruit. All eyes are on the 25 January clash with Zambia, who won last year's event but were knocked out by Nigeria in the quarter-finals of the tournament two years ago. “Obviously, our main group rivals would be Zambia,” Elderson admitted. “They keep the ball very well and their confidence is now sky high after what they achieved at the last competition. We know we will have to work for everything we will get in this match, but we have the quality to beat any African team on the day.”

However, the defender warned against taking Burkina Faso and Ethiopia lightly. “Zambia remain the biggest threat, but the other teams cannot just be wished away. They earned the right to be in the competition and we just have to beat them to go past the group stage,” he insisted.

Besides the Eagles, Elderson would pick star-studded Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana as the other favourites in South Africa. “For the past four tournaments, Côte d’Ivoire have reached at least the semi-finals. They have some great individuals like Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure. Many will again fancy them to win it, while Ghana have also been very consistent since 2008,” said the player who has also represented Nigeria at U-17 and U-20 levels.

Incidentally, perennial arch-rivals Ghana had denied Nigeria a place in the final of the 2010 tournament in Angola. “It was very painful to lose to Ghana in Angola. They got a chance and they made the most of it, while we had several chances to draw level and even win the game, but we didn’t take them,” recounted Elderson.

However, besides the disappointment of a semi-final exit to the Black Stars, he always has a big smile when he talks about Angola 2010. It was his first Nations Cup finals and he was taken in by older players like skipper Nwankwo Kanu. “The highlights for me would be our big 3-0 win over Mozambique after we had struggled against them in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.

"It was also satisfying to defy the critics and beat Zambia in the quarter-finals. And I cannot forget how the older players in the squad encouraged me both on and off the pitch. I was a better player and person after the tournament.”