JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 10: John Obi Mikel celebrates holding the trophy during the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations Final match between Nigeria and Burkina Faso from the National Stadium on February 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Nigeria won their third Cup of Nations title Sunday in Johannesburg with a gritty, thrilling 1-0 win over Burkina Faso. Sunday Mba was the hero, scoring the game’s only goal to lead the Super Eagles to glory. We wrap up what turned out to be a memorable 29th African Nations Championship.
Best player – John Obi Mikel
Mikel made his debut for Nigeria at the Cup of Nations in 2006 and was an immediate sensation. But since that debut, he has tended to cut a sullen figure in a Nigeria shirt, never entirely giving the impression he really wants to be there. Stephen Keshi, the Nigeria coach, briefly left him out of the squad last summer for his supposed lack of commitment and returned a much improved figure since. In this tournament he has been exceptional, winning balls, filling holes and distributing wisely form the back of midfield, wholly overshadowing Yaya Toure in the quarter-final victory over Cote d’Ivoire.
Saddest exit – Cote d’Ivoire
Didier Drogba, ever the captain in an orange shirt, walked slowly round the pitch after the end of the quarter-final, picking team-mates from the floor, hugging those who were in tears. Yet he must himself have felt the hurt, and he must doubt whether he will be back for the 2015 tournament in Morocco. For the golden generation, favorites for each of the four tournaments since losing on penalties on the final in Egypt in 2006, this feels like the end. This was billed as the last chance for one of the greatest squads ever assembled -- and yet they blew it. The thought lingers that Drogba will only be 36 in two years, Didier Zokora 34 and Yaya Toure 31; perhaps there is one final opportunity.
Best goal – Alain Traore’s 2nd, Burkina Faso v Ethiopia
For most of the eight matches played there, the pitch at the Mbombela seemed almost unplayable, its slow, bobbly nature making passing soccer all but impossible. But for the final 20 minutes of their game against Ethiopia, despite having their goalkeeper Abdoulaye Soulama sent off for handling outside his box, Burkina Faso found a rhythm and pummeled three goals past Ethiopia to win 4-0. It was the second, swiped in by Alain Traore with the outside of his left foot from 30 yards after a neat one-two with Jonathan Pitroipa that will live in the memory.
Best accessory – Nigerian fans
The Ethiopians may have taken the overall award, but in terms of adornments, nobody beat the Nigerians. At least two turned up at the final clutching live chickens painted green and white; numerous cardboard coffins bearing the legend “Burkina Faso RIP” were paraded up and down; there were the usual green-and-white painted torsos -- and then there was the fan with the loaf on his head and the message: “Eat them like bread.”
Best game – Burkina Faso 1 Ghana 1
A terrible pitch with an even worse referee. Yet the semi-final between Ghana and Burkina Faso was a game of great incident with chances at both ends. Refereeing controversies overshadowed it but this was a game of chances at both ends: quite apart from the goals, Asamoah Gyan hit a post, Nakoulma Prejuce had a goal harshly ruled out and Aristide Bance, who had a superb game, had a header cleared miraculously off the line by Harrison Afful. It was magnificently dramatic and, in the face of what could have been a dreadful injustice, the team that deserved to win on penalties did so.
Best fans – Ethiopia
The sea of yellow from South Africa’s support at the Moses Mabhida for the quarter-final against Mali, and the moving rendition of the national anthem, ran them close, but Ethiopian fans take the prize. They turned out in their thousands – many of them immigrants living in South Africa – made a consistent racket and when they let themselves down by hurling vuvuzelas and water bottles onto the pitch after their goalkeeper, Jemal Tassew, had been sent off against Zambia, they made up for it by unveiling a huge banner apologizing at the game against Nigeria.
Best insect invasion – Moths, Nelspruit
It was the sandy pitch – an unfortunate necessity after a fungal infection brought on by unusually heavy rain killed most of the grass -- that attracted most of the attention at the Mbombela, but the stadium in the knockout phase was also infested with moths. They were annoying enough at the quarter-final but by the semi-final, they were everywhere, crawling over laptops, sitting on pale shirts, flitting in strange golden eddies around the players. In many still shots, it appears that the game was played in a gentle snowstorm.
Best coach – Stephen Keshi
Seventeen years ago, Keshi should have come to South Africa as captain of the reigning champions. Instead, his side was withdrawn from the tournament by Nigeria’s military dictator Sani Abacha in protest over Nelson Mandela’s criticism of his government’s execution of the dissident novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Keshi diplomatically avoided questions about a sense of unfinished business, as he did about the pressures he was under from the Nigerian media and politicians. He was single-minded, clear-sighted and thick-skinned and he did the job his way, his decision to cull dissenters and let domestically based players take their place vindicated by the performances of the center-back Godfrey Oboabona and the winners scored in the quarter-final and final by Sunday Mba, the first player from the Nigerian league to score in the Cup of Nations since Emmanuel Okocha twenty-three years ago.