Nigeria's Super Eagles have a chance to win their third CAF Africa Cup of Nations title on Sunday as they take on underdogs Burkina Faso in the championship match in Johannesburg. The game also offers Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi the opportunity to follow in some very big footsteps, and the man known as “Big Boss” tells FIFA.com how he hopes to achieve that.
Mahmoud El Gohary is an African football legend. As a player, he was top scorer at the 1959 edition of the Cup of Nations finals and was chosen as the player of the tournament as Egypt (then still known as the United Arab Republic) won the competition. After ending his time on the pitch, he began an illustrious coaching career that saw him twice lead his country, including in a victorious 1998 AFCON campaign. As a player, Keshi has already achieved what El Gohary managed to do - he won a continental crown with the Super Eagles in 1994 - and a victory on Sunday against the Burkinabe would allow Keshi to become only the second coach to win the showpiece of African football both as coach and player.
Keshi, who also sensationally took Togo to the FIFA World Cup™ in 2006, says that the key to his success has been to instil a mix of focus and enjoyment. "We need discipline on and off the field. And we also have to have fun. Any job you do, if don't have fun doing it, you won't give a hundred per cent. That was the way I played when I was a player, that is what I want to see as a coach. Fun and also discipline, that's the key."
That combination has worked for the Super Eagles in South Africa as they secured second place in Group C ahead of defending champions Zambia, but behind the team they will meet in the finals. They then faced overwhelming favourites Côte d'Ivoire in the quarter-finals and won 2-1. Having already knocked out the top-ranked African country in the quarters, they eliminated the third-ranked team Mali in the semi-finals, winning convincingly 4-1.
Comparisons have naturally been drawn between the 1994 team, the last Nigerian side to win the AFCON, and the current squad, but Keshi will have none of it. "The 1994 squad took us five years to build, but this team is just five weeks old. I don't want people to get it wrong: we are just growing. Don't think we are there and that's it, that we can't lose a game. No, sometimes it goes up and down," he said.
Keshi is also eager to focus any praise coming his way onto the players. "It's not me on the field, but my players. They have worked so hard, and I'm glad they've succeeded. I gave them some information, but they did the job. About the final? We will see!”
Likewise, Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has dismissed talk that the Super Eagles are the favourites for the final. "Any team progressing to the final is a great team. Burkina Faso has been amazing all tournament. We do not want to be considered as favourites. We drew with Burkina Faso during group-stage [1-1 on the first matchday of Group C], and they haven’t lost during the tournament.”
Stallions look to keep pace
Burkina Faso coach Paul Put has also downplayed Nigeria's role as favourites for the final in the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, the same Soweto venue that also hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final. "I know that Nigeria are a big side, but we are also a big team and we certainly do not need to hide. We will have our chances in the game. Also, surprises are always there. Maybe this time is our time."
His job will not have been made any easier by the fact that he is likely to be without midfielder Jonathan Pitroipa, who was sent off in Burkina Faso's penalty shoot-out victory against Ghana in the semi-final after receiving a second booking. The Stallions have appealed to CAF, but until such time as the second yellow card is officially rescinded, Put will have to plan without the Rennes player. "Being without Pitroipa will be a blow because he is very important to the team," said Put, who definitely will be without striker Alain Traore, who had to pull out of the tournament after scoring thrice in the first two game.
For his part, Pitroipa said that he was very disappointed to be missing out on what could be the Stallions' finest moment in their history. "I started this competition well and I hoped to end it in grand style, especially in the final, and help my team-mates to win the trophy. And now, it is a shame that I will not play the final, but I will support them all the same. We have a good group, and we shall remain concentrated and shall fight till the end,” he said.
And with the winner of the final qualifying for the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil later this year, there is plenty to fight for.