The Super Eagles have put aside harsh playing conditions in the Nigerian league as they battle hosts Morocco in search of a historic first CHAN title, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA
Though a giant in continental football, not many gave Nigeria a chance at the 2018 African Nations Championship in Morocco, a CAF championship meant exclusively for footballers playing in their home leagues on the continent.
But how the Super Eagles fought the odds to set up a final clash against hosts Morocco at the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca is perhaps the Cinderella story of the 2018 CHAN.
Yes, the Super Eagles have three Africa Cup of Nations titles to their name, but this set of Eagles in Morocco is not among the admired group that make up the national team. Some call the team, made up of players plying their trade in the Nigerian Professional Football League, the Super Eagles Team B, while others refer to them as CHAN Eagles.
Harsh working conditions in the domestic league, like unpaid salaries and allowances, poor pitches, insecurity at match venues, alleged poor officiating amongst others, had justified critics’ submission to write off the Eagles even before the tournament began.
But their performances on the road to the final have shown that despite all the pessimism and lack of resources in the domestic leagues, there is reasonable quality.
Call them underdogs, surprise package or no-hopers, whatever the assessment of the Eagles over the past two weeks is, their impact on the 2018 CHAN cannot be underestimated.
By the time the dust settles after the final encounter today, the post-mortem for most participants in the second-tier CAF nations’ competition would have been complete with the Nigerian team a reference point.
Sheer grit and the willpower to survive helped them defeat hard-fighting Sudan 1-0 on Wednesday to reach a first-ever final of the competition.
Gabriel Okechukwu scored the only goal of the game at the Grande Stade, Marrakech, to set up a final showdown with hosts Morocco, who saw off 2014 champions Libya 3-1 in the other semi-final on Wednesday to advance.
But the Nigerians have substitute goalkeeper Dele Ajiboye, who came on for injured captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa, to thank for his heroics, as the Plateau United shot stopper produced a series of fine stops to keep the marauding North Africans in check.
Top of his daring saves was an acrobatic display in the 84th minute, when his two-hand save parried a scorcher off the bar, before another double save in added time to break the Sudanese hearts, as the Eagles laughed their way to the final.
Playing at a packed Mohammed V stadium in Casablanca, the Atlas Lions needed extra time to beat their fellow North Africans.
CHAN record top scorer Ayoub El Kaabi (eight goals) grabbed the opener, his seventh of the tournament, in the 73rd minute but the lead was cancelled 13 minutes later with Libya’s Abdulrahm Khalleefah hitting an equaliser that sent the game into extra-time.
El Kaabi then extended his scoring record with a goal in the first half of extra time, and the hosts sealed a dominant performance when Walid El Karti converted a penalty to put the result beyond the Libyans.
Ten members of coach Salisu Yusuf’s squad were in the sub-regional WAFU Cup tournament in Ghana, where they reached the final last September, but there’s a widely held belief that the team actually prepared for CHAN during the tournament proper.
The Eagles also competed and won an invitational NPFL Super Six tourney in Kano last month before their trip to Morocco. But it’s obvious that Salisu’s team have gradually improved at the tournament after their opening 0-0 draw against Rwanda.
They held on after taking the lead against Libya (1-0) and Sudan, and also displayed strong character coming from behind to churn out wins against Equatorial Guinea (3-1), and Angola (2-1) in extra-time.
At senior level, Nigeria and Morocco have had 19 previous encounters, with the Atlas Lions having the upper hand winning eight times, while the Eagles have seven wins, with four matches drawn.
Their first encounter, a two-leg Tokyo ’64 Olympics qualifying fixture in Dakar, Senegal, ended 2-1 in favour of the North Africans.
Morocco beat Nigeria twice in five days in Ethiopia in 1976 to win their only Africa Cup of Nations title till date. Nigeria avenged when the Eagles beat the Atlas Lions 1-0 in the semi finals of the 1980 AFCON in Lagos before going ahead to defeat Algeria in the final for their first title.
In their only previous CHAN encounter, Nigeria came from three goals down to defeat Morocco 4-3 after extra time in the quarter-finals in Cape Town four years ago.
Incidentally, when Morocco hosted the Africa Cup of Nations 20 years ago, Nigeria got to the final, but lost 1-0 to Cameroon courtesy of a controversial penalty.
Going into the final, head coach Salisu is optimistic the Eagles can pip their hosts at the 45,000-capacity Stade Mohamed V stadium, even with the home fans’ support.
“Every team is beatable. If we do the right things, we will beat Morocco,” he said.
But he would have to cope with injuries to key players like he’s done virtually all through the tournament.
Out injured is captain Ezenwa, who was voted Man-of-the-Match in the explosive encounter against Angola. The Enyimba keeper has been ruled out for three weeks, after he came off his line to make a timely save to deny Sudan’s Mohamed Idris, but copped a knee injury instead, after colliding with his opponent.
Injury has already ruled out winger Sunday Faleye for the rest of the tournament, while midfielder Ifeanyi Ifeanyi will be suspended for today’s showdown after he was sent off against Sudan.
But Salisu has coped well with his players’ injuries, and had to re-jig his squad after several first team players were knocked out by injuries before the Sudan clash. He had to strategise for resistance against the Sudanese after they had to play half an hour with 10 men.
The former international hopes to also weave the magic against the Moroccans today.
“In football, you have to be prepared for anything. We have managed a few situations through the campaign and still have to manage some going into the final match. I believe we will cope well and overcome,” he stated.
The Eagles would have to beware of the dangerous Ayoub El Kaabi, whose eight goals have made him record scorer in a single CHAN tourney.
Tricky forwards, Walid El Karti and Ismail El Haddad, provide supply for El Kaabi and could wreak havoc on their day but the Eagles defence, marshalled by impressive right-back Osas Okoro; big central defender Stephen Eze, Timohty Danladi and Abdullahi Musa, has done a great job at the tournament letting in just two goals in five encounters.
Midfielders Salaheddine Saidi and Zakaria Hadraf and defender Abdeljalil Jbria provide cushion for the hosts.
Morocco had never before reached the semi-final of the biennial CHAN but after booking their place in the final, coach Jamal Sellami made clear their desire to become the first side to win the competition on home soil.
“Of course, we want to go all the way. It would be a wonderful achievement to win the tournament as we are playing at home. But for us to reach that objective, we have to play with desire, and we call on the fans to support the team in this journey,” Sellami said.
Sellami would have had sleepless nights trying to map out how to curtail in-form Eagles striker Gabriel Okechukwu, the powerful Anthony Okpotu, whose extra-time strike helped Nigeria restore parity against Angola, Dayo Ojo, Rabiu Ali, Osas Okoro and Augustine Oladapo.
Striker Anthony Okpotu is looking forward to a good game on Sunday. “Yes, it’s going to be a good game because both teams are good, we are in good frame of mind and team spirit is high. If we take our scoring chances, we’ll beat the Moroccans,” Okpotu told SUNDAY PUNCH.
Injured Ezenwa said they were aware of the task ahead adding that the players had resolved to give their best today.
He said, “We had a closed-door meeting and we talked to each other that we should give full support to anybody who is called upon by the coach to represent our country in the final on Sunday against Morocco.
“We are aware that if we win this tournament, so many things will change in our lives because the President has followed each game that we played and I believe he will watch the final as well.
“I have discussed with my colleagues and I believe we can do it,” Ezenwa said.
Meanwhile, the Eagles will receive 30 per cent or $475,000 of the $1.25m prize money if they emerge victorious today.
Should they finish as runners-up, they will receive 30 per cent of the $750,000 prize money, which is $225,000.
NFF 1st vice-president Seyi Akinwunmi told SCORENigeria, “When they win, the team will get 30 per cent of the prize money just as we’ve done with the Super Eagles for the World Cup.”
The Lagos FA boss also praised the team’s quality.
“They have been getting better with every match they have played and those who have come on as replacement for the injured have also done well, which shows that there is depth in the squad. There is quality in our league as well,” he added.
Meanwhile, each player will earn a total of $20,000, if they win the tournament. Each player got $2000 for a win in the group stage and $3,000 each after their quarter-final win.
The NFF paid each player $4,000 for their victory in the semi-final, while the players will receive $5,000 each if they win the tournament. They’ve also been paid $100 daily as camp allowance.
On the whole, there have been mixed blessings for teams at the 2018 CHAN.
Major flops at the tourney were the Elephants of Ivory Coast, who got dumped out in the group phase without scoring a goal. Their woes began with the defeat to the Brave Warriors of Namibia in their first game in Morocco.
Namibia’s fairytale run to the quarter-finals of the competition is also a major talking point of the tournament.
Their solid organisation at the rear and opportunism helped them to unlikely 1-0 victories over Uganda and the Ivoirians— their first wins in a CAF competition for men— and guaranteed them a historic last-eight finish.
Born on September 27, 1980, Eagles playmaker Rabiu Ali is the oldest outfield player among the 368 players registered for the competition.
Ali, who is making his second appearance at the tournament after his 2014 debut, is only the second oldest player in the tournament after Congolese goalkeeper Barel Mouko, 38.
The Eagles also have in their ranks the tournament’s youngest player in Nur Mohammed.
Mohammed, 15, is yet to play professionally with his club El-Kanemi Warriors. The teenager is highly rated and went into the competition having shown a lot of promises during the team’s preparation.