As usual, the CAF Africa Cup of Nations was an entertaining event that delivered more than its fair share of shocks, but in the end it was a familiar face that came out on top as Nigeria won their third continental crown – and with it the right to play in this June's FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil. It was just 12 months since the last finals, with the short turnaround caused by the switch over to odd years, but it was all change in South Africa. The Super Eagles did not even qualify a year ago, and the team they beat in the final, Burkina Faso, failed to earn a point.
Nigeria came into the Cup of Nations with the spotlight's glare mostly away from them, but once the Super Eagles hit top form, they never looked like buckling under the pressure. Led by wily 'Big Boss' Stephen Keshi, the Nigerians were organised, balanced and motivated, and in the end they were worthy winners. They began slowly in Group C with draws against Burkina Faso and Zambia, but the most populous nation in Africa won their final four matches, impressively brushing aside both the first and third-ranked teams on the continent - Côte d'Ivoire and Mali – in the knockout rounds. Losing finalists on four occasions, the last time in 2000 against Cameroon, an excellent goal in the final against the Stallions was enough to send the green and white on many victory laps around Soccer City.
Defending champions Zambia were eliminated in the group stage, albeit from a section that included both finalists, but it was the first time qualifying holders had gone out that early since Algeria in 1992. The team the Chipolopolo beat in last year's finals, Côte d'Ivoire, were again pre-event picks for the fifth successive tournament, but the Elephants couldn't get into a higher gear when faced with a dogged Nigerian side. It was a sluggish event for the Ivorians in what is expected to be Didier Drobga's continental swansong. The captain and icon was seldom at his best, but the same could be said for the majority of the side's stars. Similarly, Ghana did not live up to expectations once out of the group stage, although they managed to reach the semi-finals for a fourth consecutive time. The Black Stars were very flattered by a 2-0 victory over impressive minnows Cape Verde Islands in the last eight, and they were outplayed by Burkina Faso in the last four even before going out on penalties. For the second consecutive event, they then lost to Mali in the third-place match.
Certainly the Burkinabe were the big shocks, but they are no strangers to the finals having qualified for eight of the last 10 events. However, they had only ever once before escaped the group stage – when they hosted and reached the last four in 1998 – and inspirational coach Paul Put had them playing with bravery and flair. Otherwise, there was shock for an entire region as no north African team reached the knockout rounds for the first time since 1992 with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco faltering at the first hurdle. In contrast, it was a fabulous event for west Africa. Not only were all of the semi-finalists from the region for the first time ever, but debutants Cape Verde and Togo reached the last eight for the first time.
Nigeria's Emmanuel Emenike scored four goals from open play to win the Golden Boot award, while Sunday Mba was an unlikely hero, scoring the winner against Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso in the final, both of which showed marvellous skill, body control and vision. In the Nigerian defence, goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was again a stalwart in front of a promising young defensive group good enough to keep team captain Joseph Yobo out of the team. However, the real stars for Nigeria were the Chelsea pair of John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, who provided leadership, solidity and athletic prowess in spades.
For the losing finalists, Jonathan Pitroipa was an inspiration on the wings, deservedly winning the player of the tournament award. Forward Alain Traore scored three goals in the first two matches before suffering a leg injury that sent him home, but his replacement, Aristide Bance of the spiky blonde haircut, proved to be a powerful and bold replacement. Ghana's 22-year-old Mubarak Wakaso scored four goals, three from the penalty spot, while Tunisian youngster Youssef Msakni claimed the goal of the tournament for a fantastic winner from the edge of the area against Algeria. Mali's Seydou Keita was playing in his sixth Cup of Nations, and the former Barcelona man had perhaps his best, marshalling a talented midfield with aplomb.
Did you know?
Burkina Faso, who only won four points in their previous five AFCONs combined, are the lowest-ranked team to ever make the final of the tournament (92nd), and they only qualified because of a goal six minutes into second-half injury-time against Central African Republic.
Cup of Nations 'All Stars' Team
Vincent Enyeama (NGR); Efe Ambrose (NGR), Bakary Kone (BUR), Nando (CPV); Jonathan Pitroipa (BUR), Siaka Tiene (CIV), John Obi Mikel (NGR), Seydou Keita (MLI), Victor Moses (NGR); Asamoah Gyan (GHA), Emmanuel Emenike (NGR)
What they said
"The sky is the limit for this team,” said Keshi about his young champions.