It came after 450 minutes of match action, but Niger were thrilled to bag the first-ever point in CAF Africa Cup of Nations history after managing a scoreless draw with Congo DR in Port Elizabeth last Thursday.
The Mena pulled off a superb showing to snatch a point off the Leopards in the Group B meeting, their second game of this year’s edition and fifth overall at the continental championships, a competition in which they are making a second successive appearance. “We are very happy to win our first point at the Africa Cup of Nations. We had never earned a point and today marks a historic moment for Niger football,” the talismanic striker and captain Moussa Maazou told FIFA.com.
At 24, the Etoile du Sahel marksman is the star of the Niger team thirsting to dine with the big guns of African football. Regarded as the most famous player in the team from the largest nation in west Africa, Maazou and this generation of up-and-comers want to go a step further after achieving their greatest feat so far, a year to the day after their first-ever AFCON match: a 0-2 loss to last year’s co-hosts Gabon. “We dedicate the result to all Nigeriens. They will be very happy and revelling in this feat, and this generation of players are also very happy with our achievement so far.”
Leaving history aside, the point is crucial in the moment and keeps the youthful team’s chances of advancing alive, although a place in the last eight is still a lot of work away seeing as how the Mena face four-time champions, Ghana, in the destiny defining clash in the final group match on Monday in Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Niger can only expect to be in the shadows of the Black Stars, perennial favourites and making their 19th appearance at the biggest stage of African football. The huge gap separating the two teams is however of little concern to Maazou.
“Ghana wants a win badly, and we are also eyeing to win. It will be a difficult game, but we are motivated for the task ahead. We will give them a good run for their money. It is privilege for me to lead my country. We have our first point and now we have to look for a win. Victory this time will take us to the quarter-final and we will work for it against Ghana.”
Learning from past experience
Last year in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Niger were one of three debutants at the flagship African football tournament, along with other co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Botswana. On the road to the finals, they weathered the threats of reigning champions Egypt, South Africa and Sierra Leone in the qualifiers. In the same group with former winners’ Morocco and Tunisia, as well as Gabon, the Mena bowed out of the competition pointless and also picked the ball five times from the back of the net. “We were in a very tough group, and none of the games were easy, and they got tougher match after match. Being our first time, it was difficult for us and the experience just was not there,” said Maazou.
But the much-travelled forward and his colleagues have come to South Africa with one objective – improve on their maiden output. “Our objective is simple; to do better than last year. We are not obsessed with victory. The most important element is making an impact, and not necessarily the results. We are well motivated and hoping to do better.”
As the key-man for his team, Maazou has yet to put his name on the score sheet, but he says he is not under pressure to break that jinx and is rather concentrating on the collective play of the team. “I would like to score, but if I can’t, I have to help my colleagues do that. It is for the interest of the team and not me as an individual. We work together and in the end, Niger should be the winner.”