Nigeria’s run brings back memories of 1990s team

Nigeria is in position to win the African Cup of Nations again

thanks to impressive performances that have brought back memories

of the 1990s team which dominated African football.

Nigeria will play Burkina Faso at Soccer City on Sunday trying

to win its first title since 1994, when it ruled the continent with

players such as Finidi George, Jay-Jay Okocha and Emmanuel

Amuneke.

It was the team to beat in Africa back then, dreaded even by the

traditional European teams when they had to cross paths from time

to time.

Today’s Nigeria, coached by the captain of that 1994 team,

Stephen Keshi, is hoping another victory at the African Cup after

nearly two decades will help steer the team back to its glory

days.

Keshi said there’s a lot of work to do before this year’s team

can be compared to the 1994 squad, but he thinks the potential to

make it happen is there.

”The 1994 squad took us five years to build, this team is just

five weeks old,” Keshi said. ”I don’t want you to get it wrong.

We are just growing. Don’t think we are there and that’s it, that

we can’t lose a game. No, sometimes it goes up and down.”

That team captained by Keshi helped Nigeria reach the World Cup

for the first time, in 1994 in the United States, and it also made

it to the 1998 tournament in France. Both times it was eliminated

in the quarterfinals, losing to Italy in extra time in 1994 and to

Denmark in regulation in 1998.

Some of the players at the time were already stars at European

clubs. Okocha was with Eintracht Frankfurt and later joined Paris

Saint-Germain, while George was with Ajax and Amuneke played for

Portugal’s Sporting before joining Barcelona later on. The team

also had Everton striker Daniel Amokachi.

Nigeria also won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta,

beating Brazil in the semifinals and Argentina in the final. In the

1994 African Cup, Nigeria eliminated Ivory Coast in the semifinals

and then beat Zambia to lift the trophy for the second time. It

hadn’t won the competition since 1980.

”That 1994 squad is a wonderful squad,” Keshi said. ”The

spirit in that team was unbelievable, we were just like friends, we

were brothers.”

The 51-year-old Keshi said that until he can ”get that same

atmosphere” in the current team he won’t know whether it will be

able to someday achieve the same level of success.

”We are still working on it,” he said. ”There is talent, but

you need strong mentality, you need character. It’s coming

gradually.”

The squad is led by Chelsea duo John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses,

as well as by team captain and Fernerbahce defender Joseph Yobo and

Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike, who is one of the

tournament’s leading scorers with four goals.

The Super Eagles had a disappointing start in South Africa,

drawing with Burkina Faso and Zambia and just barely advancing past

the group stage with a late win against Ethiopia. The team picked

up the pace in the knockout round, though, eliminating tournament

favorite Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals and cruising to victory

against Mali in the semis.

Keshi, who took over the team in 2011, was criticized back home

for bringing too many inexperienced local players to the squad, but

he said he needed to revamp the team to get the players on board

with his philosophy.

”You want team players who are mentally strong, players who can

work well for the team,” Keshi said. ”There is a lot of talent

and potential, but it’s going to take time.”

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