In the first, we have a confident, outspoken Nigerian manager who has criticised what he sees as an obsession with white coaches in Africa and was brave enough to leave a handful of establishment players out of his side for this competition.
In the second, we have the classic Cinderella narrative of Burkina Faso, who have never contested a major final and, according to the Cup of Nations’ official website, represent “perhaps the greatest” surprise in the history of the tournament.
It’s a descriptor John Obi Mikel doesn’t quite buy into.
In his post-match comments following Wednesday’s semifinal win over Mali, the Nigeria and Chelsea midfielder did his best to convince reporters it was the Super Eagles and not the Stallions who would be up against it in Sunday’s final.
“We’ll go in as underdogs,” he told South African outlet Kickoff. “No one gave us a chance when we came here and we like it that way. We’ll like to get into the final as underdogs and, hopefully, we’ll perform the same way [as Wednesday].”
Mikel is only half right. While it’s true his Nigeria side were not considered among the favourites to win this Cup of Nations, the Super Eagles are never underdogs at any level of African football. And if there was rather less fuss about them than usual when they arrived in South Africa is was no doubt because manager Stephen Keshi had opted to omit a handful of high-profile players in selecting his roster.
Overlooked were veteran forwards Obafemi Martins, John Utaka and Yakubu, midfielder Dickson Etuhu and defenders Taye Taiwo and Danny Shittu. In their place Keshi included five domestic-based players, two of which—defender Godfrey Oboabona and Sunday Mba—have played important roles throughout the tournament.
It was a gutsy approach from Keshi, as one of the trademarks of Nigerian sides in recent years was to be a squad of high-profile players thrown together with little thought for discipline and organisation. Incidentally, “discipline” and “organisation” are two of this team’s predominant characteristics, and the poster boy of the change in identity has been Mikel.
So often a lightning rod of controversy in the Premier League, Mikel has run the Nigeria midfield with poise and maturity at this Cup of Nations. At 25 he is the elder statesman of the unit (teammates Mba and Ogenyi Onazi had fewer than 15 caps between them when they arrived in South Africa) and has both shielded the defense and provided a platform from which the likes of Victor Moses and Ideye Brown have been able to transition midfield play into attack.
As for his insistence that Nigeria are underdogs, Ladbrokes has the Super Eagles 1/1 (evens) to lift the trophy on Sunday.
That said, if there’s one thing followers of this tournament have come to know in recent times it’s that the Cup of Nations will surprise you at every turn, that the term “favourite” means nothing whatsoever. After all, we’re only a year removed from Zambia’s unlikely run to the 2012 final, where they beat Ivory Coast on penalties.
As far as Sunday’s matchup is concerned, Nigeria and Burkina Faso don’t have much of a head-to-head history (Burkina Faso have never beaten their West African rivals in seven previous meetings), but they did face one another the first time out at this competition during the Group Stage. Nigeria’s Emmanuel Emenike opened the scoring after 23 minutes but Burkina Faso eventually got their much-deserved equaliser—in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time.
Alain Traoré was the goalscorer, and he bagged a brace in his side’s 4-0 demolition of Ethiopia as well. But he succumbed to a thigh injury in the first half against Zambia in Nelspruit, and after being ruled out of the remainder of the competition he returned to his club side Lorient for treatment.
In a classy move Lorient have allowed the 25-year-old to fly to Johannesburg for Sunday’s final, where he’ll join his teammates and coaching staff on the bench.
“I am part of the group even though I’m not on the ground,” Traoré told Agence-France Press. I’ve told myself that I’m 100 per cent part of the team. This is the price I’ve paid to get to the final.”
With Traoré sidelined it fell to striker Aristides Bancé and winger Jonathan Pitroipa to do the business in the attacking third for Burkina Faso, and both have excelled under the pressure in the knockout round. Pitroipa’s goal on the stroke of the drinks break of extra time against Togo put the Stallions into the semifinal, where Bancé’s goal cancelled out Wakaso Mubarak’s opener as the match headed to penalties.
Pitroipa was actually sent off against Ghana after picking up a pair of yellow cards, but after the second yellow—which was presented for a simulation that never occurred—was rescinded on Friday the 26-year-old Rennes attacker will be part of the starting lineup to face Nigeria.
Given Burkina Faso’s exceptional defensive showing at this Cup of Nations, a goal from Pitroipa or Bancé might just be enough to win the tournament. Bakary Koné and Paul Koulibaly have been near well unbreakable in the centre of defense, and midfielders Charles Kaboré and Florent Rouamba form a ball-winning combination that dominated at times against Ghana.
“I told the players they had the chance to write history for Burkina Faso, and they went out and wrote it,” exclaimed usually soft-spoken manager Paul Put after his side finished atop Group C.
Dramatic quarterfinal and semifinal wins later, that history continues to be written. And the pen hasn’t stopped yet.
If the Africa Cup of Nations has taught us anything in years past it’s that the storylines only get more intriguing as the schedule wears on. In fact, there could very well be something in store for Sunday that we haven’t even imagined yet. It’s all part of what makes this competition fascinating.