Sunday Mba, Nigeria's unlikely hero at this year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations, tells FIFA.com that he also hopes to shine on the bigger stages that the FIFA World Cup™ and the FIFA Confederations Cup will provide. Whether the Nigeria-based player makes a splash as big as he did at the AFCON earlier this year, Mba's place in Nigerian football history is assured, and in fact his exploits in many ways made the continental success even more meaningful for the Super Eagles.
For the 2008 and 2010 Nations Cups, the star-studded Nigeria did not feature a single player from the local league. However, coach Stephen Keshi broke the pattern in a major way when Mba and five other players were picked from the Nigeria domestic league for the 2013 tournament. In the final in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mba was preferred to Real Betis ace Nosa Igiebor and went on to score the all-important only goal that sunk giant-killers Burkina Faso for Nigeria's third AFCON title. It was a determined effort and the moment needed the bravery of a player hungry for glory to put his body on the line in the 40th minute and give Nigeria their first continental trophy in 19 years. Earlier in the event he also caused a sensation by firing the winner in the quarter-final against tournament favourites Côte d'Ivoire.
Such was the impact of Mba’s championship-defining exploits that the country’s basketball federation have now made it mandatory for the national team to line up players from their domestic championship with the president of the Nigeria Basketball Federation declaring: "We have seen what Sunday Mba did for the Super Eagles in the Nations Cup and it is a clear signal that if given the opportunity our talents at home would do very well also.”
We have set a standard and Nigerians do not expect anything less.
The spotlight also fell on the 24-year-old attacking midfielder on his return home when he opted to rejoin former club Enugu Rangers despite the resistance of his club of two seasons Warri Wolves. At the height of the protracted transfer saga Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi even threatened to axe Mba from his team if his club future was not sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) was forced to intervene before Mba was finally able to make a goal-scoring debut for Rangers in a CAF Champions League clash at Recreativo de Libolo of Angola in May.
Despite the recent move, the former schoolboy international is expected to find a new club Europe at some point as he has attracted suitors from Norway to Turkey. “It’s great to see the interest that I have generated since the Nations Cup. But I believe I can do more especially with the national team,” said an upbeat Mba when asked about this summer's program. “We have the World Cup qualifiers now and then soon after the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil. These are very important engagements and we want to do very well - particularly as we are now the African champions.”
Big tasks, bigger opportunities
The Super Eagles lead Africa's 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying Group F on five points from three matches with Malawi now the closest rivals also on five points. Namibia are on three points, while Kenya are bottom of the standings on two points. However, the African champions face a tricky trip to Nairobi on 5 June for a return leg match against the Harambee Stars, who were just minutes away from a famous victory in Nigeria in March before a last-gasp equaliser by Nnamdi Oduamadi.
When both teams last clashed in Nairobi in November 2009, the Eagles ran out dramatic 3-2 winners to book their passage to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. Nigeria though will be without several of their top stars from the recent Nations Cup triumph like Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike, Chelsea winger Victor Moses and skipper Joseph Yobo. "Yes, we will be without some of our top stars for the qualifiers as well as the Confederations Cup. We would have loved to have them with us, but we hope that we still get the results we need even without them,” assured the industrious midfielder.
“Last week, we showed character against Mexico in the 2-2 draw in Houston, Texas, and we believe we will also fly the flag high in Kenya, Namibia and also at the Confederations Cup. We have set a standard and Nigerians do not expect anything less,” he said.
Nigeria will compete at their second FIFA Confederations Cup after they first appeared in the inter-continental tournament in 1995 and finished fourth. They open their campaign on 17 June in Belo Horizonte against islanders Tahiti and also face meetings with world and European champions Spain, as well as Uruguay.