The recent CAF Africa Cup of Nations saw Nigeria, under Stephen Keshi, began the year with a bang, going all the way through to claim their third continental title and thus seal a place at this June's FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. The feat plunged the entire nation into raptures, and former captain Yakubu Ayegbeni was quick to pay tribute to the Super Eagles despite not featuring during the African finals.
"It was an exciting campaign for Nigeria," the 30-year-old Guangzhou R&F striker told FIFA.com. "We had a young team but they put in brilliant performances. The coach has done a good job in moulding the team into a strong unit. It is an achievement which has made all the Nigerian people happy."
The success, according to the former Middlesbrough and Blackburn marksman, provides Keshi's charges with not only a morale-booster but also challenges heading into the eight-nation global showpiece, where they are grouped alongside Spain, Tahiti and Uruguay.
"The team are expected to continue their good form in Brazil in June," continued Ayegbeni, who is Nigeria's third highest international goal-scorer with 21 goals from 57 caps. "But after our triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations, we will become a target for rivals, who will be motivated to defeat us. And these are the continental champions of the world so the pressure is greater, but it is good for our youngsters to gain international experience."
It proved to be, though, a campaign harder than expected for Nigeria. Keshi's hopefuls opened with two 1-1 draws against firstly Burkina Faso, and then Zambia, before a pair of late penalties from Victor Moses against Ethiopia sent them to the quarter-finals. They proceeded to edge Côte d'Ivoire 2-1, before routing Mali 4-1 to set up a final re-match with an impressive Burkina Faso, where they prevailed 1-0.
"African football has made consistent progress over these years, so there were no easy games throughout the campaign. Every rival we played against are strong and our team defied all the odds to win the African title," Ayegbeni reflected.
With the entire Nigeria team excelling, it was a pair of striking wunderkinds that stood out as the Super Eagles secured African supremacy. Spartak Moscow forward Emmanuel Emenike finished the tournament's joint top-scorer with four goals, while 22-year-old Chelsea star Moses was twice on target.
"Emenike is a very good striker," said Ayegbeni of the 25-year-old, "He performed very well. Although I have never played alongside him, I think he is a very talented player. Moses is equally impressive, and the striking partnership formed by these two players should be one of the best during the tournament (Brazil 2014)."
Midfielder Sunday Mba, too, caught the eye with a series of brilliant showings. The 24-year-old Warri Wolves man has developed a reputation of scoring crucial goals, having sealed victory against Côte d'Ivoire, as well as hitting the tournament winning-goal against Burkina Faso.
"Mba has the potential to play in Europe," Ayegbeni said. "By playing with a top European side, a player can have better chances of playing top level matches like in the African Cup of Nations."
Busy year for Super Eagles
The coming year is, indeed, action-packed for Nigeria, with the FIFA Confederations Cup sandwiched by two crucial back-to-back meetings with Kenya in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying. Nigeria are topping the section also featuring Namibia and Malawi with four points, and wins against Kenya will stand them in good stead as they seek to progress to the last ten in the final qualifying round. Ayegbeni, however, warned the team against complacency.
He said: "The January's Cup of Nations has shown that in Africa no team can be underestimated. Kenya will be keen to win the games and we should prepare carefully. An opening victory against Kenya will be a timely boost for us ahead of the Confederations Cup."
When asked if Nigeria can improve on their last-four finish at Saudi Arabia 1995, Ayegbeni gave the thumps-up.
"The team travel to Brazil on the back of the Cup of Nations success so they are inspired to put in good showings on the world stage,” he said. “I am confident our side can live up to the expectations. And above all, we will qualify for the next World Cup."