NIGERIA, catapulted into the spotlight at Orange Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) after their victory against favourites Ivory Coast, seek their first final appearance in 13 years when they meet Mali in this evening's soccer semifinal in Durban.
Coach Stephen Keshi's new-look Nigeria arrived in Durban all characteristic bristle and swagger on Monday evening and the Super Eagles, following their 2-1 quarterfinal win against the Ivorians in Rustenburg on Sunday, certainly have the look of a team that could go all the way to the finals. Nigeria have not won the continental title since beating Zambia in the 1994 final in Tunis. That golden generation of the 1990s was always going to be hard for their successors to live up to.
Still, the west Africans have remained an Afcon powerhouse, finishing third four times this century – in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
Keshi, the 1990s captain and central defensive great, took criticism for selecting a squad that had many unknown quantities in it, such as Sunday Mba of Warri Wolves, scorer of the superb effort from long range for Nigeria's second against Ivory Coast.
The Super Eagles were unconvincing in the knockout stages, drawing against Burkina Faso and Zambia before a 2-0 win against Ethiopia. But in the west African derby against the star-studded Elephants, the young Nigerians showed their hunger and Keshi turned out to have a winning hand.
Now the Super Eagles will aim to go one better than all their semifinal appearances of the previous decade, and reach their first final since they lost on penalties against Cameroon as co-hosts in Lagos in 2000. But they will have to do it against a Mali side led by young French coach Patrice Carteron and hugely experienced captain Seydou Keita, who have impressed with their midfield abilities.
Keshi knows plenty about the quality Mali possess, having coached them from 2008 to 2010.
"We need to realise one thing here – Mali is a footballing nation," the Nigeria coach said yesterday. "Mali have great talent in that country. I have a lot of respect for the players. This game might be tougher than against Ivory Coast."
Keshi believes the conflict in their home country between Islamist separatists and government and French forces has given the Malians motivation.
"I think it's a shame what's going on in Mali. I know their players are thinking about that and I think that's where they're getting their power from – to give something to people back home."
Keshi has central midfielder Fegor Ogunde back from injury but has a tough choice to drop Lazio's Ogenyi Onazi, who came in and performed well against Ivory Coast in defensive midfield, which also freed up Chelsea's Jon Obi Mikel for a more attacking playmaking role.
Nigeria's dangerous front three of Emanuel Emenike (three goals in the competition), Victor Moses (two goals) and Brown Ideye, will have taken note of how Bafana Bafana's running game unsettled Mali in the quarterfinals.