By Jonathan Nda- Isaiah, AFFA ACHO, Abuja & Abdullahi Olesin, Ilorin, with additional reports from BBC
The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) will end today when Nigeria and hosts Ivory Coast meet in the final at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium, Abidjan.
The two teams overcame many challenges and surprises to reach the final, and will certainly fight hard to lift the trophy to make history.
The Super Eagles are aiming for a fourth continental crown in Abidjan while the Ivorians are looking to add to their triumphs in 1992 and 2015.
The teams will meet for the second time at this year’s finals, 24 days after the Ivorians suffered a first-ever home defeat by Nigeria when they won 1-0 in the group stage.
The Elephants are the first host nation to reach the final since Egypt in 2006, with five of the last six hosts to have contested the final having gone on to lift the trophy – the only exception being the Super Eagles themselves in 2000.
Unbeaten unlike their opponents, the Nigerians are the highest-ranked of the finalists – rated sixth in Africa (and 42nd in the world), as opposed to Ivory Coast’s African ranking of eighth (and 49th overall).
Seeking a first title since 2013, Nigeria cruised through the group stages with seven points before, amid a run of four straight clean sheets, defeating Cameroon, Angola and South Africa in the knockout stages.
After the Nigeria loss, Ivory Coast then suffered a record home – and Nations Cup – defeat by Equatorial Guinea (0-4), only squeezing through as a best third-placed side before coming to life with dramatic knock-out wins over Senegal and Mali before beating DR Congo in the last four.
After one of the best Nations Cups in living memory, the hope is that today’s final (20:00 GMT) in Abidjan’s 60,000-seater stadium will providing a fitting climax.
“The organisation has been brilliant, the pitches great, we’ve seen some unbelievable matches and now Ivory Coast is in the final with Nigeria – what a game,” former Elephant Kolo Toure told the BBC.
President Bola Tinubu deligated Vice President Kashim Shettima to lead a presidential team to the final.
The vice president had also represented the president at the semi-final when the Super Eagles defeated South Africa in a pulsating encounter.
According to a statement by the spokesman of the vice president, Stanley Nkwocha, the match will rekindle the memories of Nigeria’s 1-0 victory in the group stage secured through Captain William Troost-Ekong’s penalty.
“Recognising the unifying power of football and the immense role the Super Eagles play in fostering national pride and unity, the president believes that Vice President Shettima’s presence at the final alongside the delegation is a testament to the government’s unwavering support for the team and its dedication to their success.
“The federal government calls on all Nigerians, both at home and abroad, to unite in support of the Super Eagles, and to raise their voices in encouragement and create a wave of national pride that propels the team to glory,” the vice president’s spokesman added.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Cardiac Society has advised Nigerians to avoid getting overly excited during games and emotional events, and advised Nigerians to take breaks from such events if necessary.
The society gave the advice in a commiseration massage jointly signed by its president, Prof. Augustine Odili, secretary, Prof. Chizindu Alinkor and publicity secretary, Prof. Abiodun Akintunde .
It commiserated with the families of the deceased linked with the surge of emotions associated with the Nigeria- South Africa semi-final match.
It warned that sports and other emotional events can trigger arrhythmias, heart attacks and strokes in those with underlying heart conditions.
“The society notes with utmost concern the several reported cases of sudden deaths among Nigerians both at home and abroad directly or indirectly. We wish to commiserate with the immediate families of the deceased and the country at large and pray for the repose of the souls of the deceased.
“The reported deaths of at least four individuals occurring during the match leaves much to be desired on the cardiovascular health of Nigerians,” the association said.
It said while it cannot authoritatively confirm the exact cause of death in these situations without prejudice, it was a duty to call the attention of Nigerians to the very possibility that sudden death can often occur either in the presence/absence of risk factors.
It explained that many of these risk factors are highly prevalent among Nigerians and are also poorly controlled.
The society advised people to take steps to manage conditions like hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and avoid smoking, eat healthy, exercise and manage stress.
It called on those with heart disease to take medications as prescribed and follow their doctor’s advice and avoid getting overly excited during games and take breaks as needed.
What Super Eagles Line Might Look Like
Much has changed since the Super Eagles defeated the Elephants earlier in the tournament, with the hosts surmounting obstacles when hope seemed lost, and now appear to have the momentum heading into this encounter.
For most part of the competition, Super Eagles coach, Jose Peseiro, has named an unchanged first eleven to prosecute the matches. The line-up changed in the semi-final match against South Africa when Osayi-Samuel was brought in to replace Zaidu Sanusi who missed the encounter due to injury.
Heading into this all-important final, Peseiro may likely stick to his preferred first eleven, which has worked perfectly for him in this tournament.
Here’s LEADERSHIP Sunday’s predicted line-up for the Super Eagles:
Stanley Nwabali has been outstanding throughout the tournament, he gave Nigerians a scare when he limped off during the round of 16 against Cameroon. However, Nwabali has since recovered to play the full throttle in both the quarter-final and semi-final.
The Chippa United shot-stopper also demonstrated his prowess from 12 yards when he saved two penalties in the shoot-out win over South Africa last time out and is expected to start in the final against Ivory Coast.
Troost-Ekong has been one of the revelations of this year’s AFCON and is a potential candidate for the player of the tournament due to his brave performances at the back.
The Super Eagles captain has been playing through injury pain but doesn’t seem to be fazed and Peseiro will certainly be counting on him on today.
Semi Ajayi’s impressive performances seem to have gone under the radar due to the bigger statuses of those he’s playing beside. However, the centre-back has been delivering top performances in the tournament and there’s no reason why he should not get the nod against Ivory Coast in the final.
A player whose versatility has been frequently used as a weapon by Peseiro, Bassey is one of the undroppable ones in the Super Eagles.
The Fulham defender usually starts on the left side of a three-man defence but is often moved to left-back when Nigeria reverts to a back-four and wants to close up shop. He is in line to start once again.
Ola Aina can play on either side of the defence, he deputised at the left wing-back position against South Africa after Zaidu Sanusi was ruled out due to injury.
However, Zaidu’s return means Aina could move back to his preferred position on the right when Nigeria face Ivory Coast.
Zaidu Sanusi’s inconsistency has often frustrated fans, but Sanusi was missed a bit during the semi-final.
Aina struggled to deliver crosses from the left since he’s right-footed, and although attacking isn’t one of Sanusi’s strengths, he brings some balance to the team and is expected to make a return to the starting line-up after sitting out of the last game due to injury.
Frank Onyeka seems to have the defensive midfield position on lockdown. His contributions have been as important as any other player and not even Alhassan Yusuf’s return from injury has managed to displace him from the starting line-up.
Alex Iwobi looked a bit lackluster during the semi-final game against South Africa and was withdrawn after 63 minutes.
However, he’s too important to Peseiro’s set-up and should recover in time to start against Ivory Coast in the final.
Ademola Lookman had a quiet game against Bafana Bafana, as compared to his explosive performances in the round of 16 and quarter-final.
But he remains Nigeria’s best right-winger and Peseiro will be hoping to see him regain his form today against the hosts, as he’s certain to start the game.
Moses Simon’s direct competition in the team is Samuel Chukwueze but the AC Milan star has barely made an impact in the AFCON so far.
This means Simon is once again likely to get the nod in the final against Ivory Coast. The Nantes forward has had his moments and has played a key role for the Super Eagles thus far.
It’s unknown whether Osimhen is fully fit for today’s final, as he had to pass a late fitness test to feature in the semi-final against South Africa.
It was also evident that the Napoli striker was fatigued, which led to his substitution in extra time. However, he remains Nigeria’s best striker in the team and is sure to start in the final even if he’s half-fit.