After a month of intense competition, a new champion will be crowned later today (Sunday) as the curtains are drawn on the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations when host Ivory Coast rekindles their rivalry with Nigeria in the final of the tournament at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan.
The final, which kicks off at 9 pm Nigerian time, will be a rematch of both teams’ Group A encounter earlier in the tournament where the Super Eagles emerged victorious by a lone goal on matchday two, but today’s game offers both teams the chance to lift the trophy.
Following their 1-0 win in the group stages over Ivory Coast, Nigeria will be looking to beat the same opponents twice in an AFCON tournament for the first time since 2006, when they beat Senegal in the group stage and third-place play-off.
The Eagles are seeking their fourth AFCON title, while the Ivoirians aim to win Africa’s biggest continental football showpiece for a third time on home soil, having last won the continental title nine years earlier.
For the Eagles, they made their way to the final on the back of solid defending, conceding only two goals and keeping four clean sheets in their victories over the Ivoirians (1-0), Guinea-Bissau (1-0), Cameroon (2-0) and Angola (1-0).
In the semi-finals, their 4-2 win over the Bafana Bafana of South Africa via penalties came down to the outstanding defending before the shootout with on-field captain William Troost-Ekong and goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali emerging as the heroes for the team, coming to the fore during multiple moments of pressure.
The duo alongside Calvin Bassey, Semi Ajayi, Ola Aina and Zaidu Sanusi, who is a doubt, will have to hold their nerves one more time in the final against an Ivorian side seeking redemption in front of their home fans.
According to Ivory Coast coach, Fae, both teams are on the same level and Sunday’s final offers the Elephants an opportunity to prove their class once again despite their group-stage loss to Nigeria.
“The fact that Nigeria had beaten us is a good thing because we know whom we are up against,” he said in Saturday’s pre-match conference monitored by our correspondent.
He added, “How we prepare for the match with our players is critical. I think that the Eagles and ourselves are at the same level.
“We have a great opportunity tomorrow (Sunday) and we are 90 minutes away from adding a third star to the Ivorian jersey. The teams are on equal footing, psychologically.”
He also added that the game would be won from a tactical perspective.
He added, “As the competition has progressed, the Nigerian team has gained strength. We had a very difficult journey at the beginning, but we gained momentum from the round of 16 against Senegal.
“Like any high-level match, like any final, it will come down to the details. We will be patient. We will not rush. We will focus on starting the match well and be patient to unsettle them.”
Nigeria coach, Jose Peseiro, also speaking ahead of the much-anticipated final, hopes to win the AFCON title in his first attempt.
“Playing a final is always important,” he said.
He said, “This is my first AFCON. Some were saying it’s been special, and I can attest to that. The emotions in Africa are very special. All of this, in my opinion, is a great way to learn and I would love to win it with the Nigerian team tomorrow (Sunday).
“It is crucial to find a balance. We have a great squad of players that want to win this for Nigeria. Some are newcomers to the squad but have played in other competitions. Football brings a lot of emotion, more than any sport, and this is important for Nigeria.”
Peseiro also added that the team would be aiming to win the final for the Eagles captain, Ahmed Musa, who is aiming for a second AFCON title.
Musa, who has not featured at the tournament in Ivory Coast, has been an important player for the squad, according to Peseiro.
The manager said, “Musa is much more than a player.
“He helps us a lot. He advises and informs me about many things. Up to now, he has done so many things. He has won the AFCON. He is the captain and I want to win the AFCON tomorrow so that I can see Musa lift this trophy.”
Should Peseiro go on to win the AFCON for Nigeria on Sunday, the Portuguese will become the third foreigner to win the continental title for Nigeria after Otto Gloria in 1980 and Clemens Westerhof in 1994.
Ekong, who by his admission almost didn’t make the squad for the tournament and was close to quitting international football after being overlooked for a year, expects the final to be a classic.
He also added that lifting the AFCON trophy would be an “amazing” moment for him and the country, noting that it would be time to deliver on Sunday.
Ekong said, “It will not be a tea party, and we won’t be going out there with a teacup. We will work hard and fight hard for the trophy.
“You dream about moments like that. I’ve seen it so many times. And I’ve closed my eyes. To be there on Sunday and have the chance to do that will be amazing.”
Ekong, a top contender for the Most Valuable Player of the tournament, has scored four of his five shots on target at the AFCON overall for Nigeria, converting two penalties at this tourney.
According to Opta, he’s one of only four Nigerians to score two penalties at a single AFCON, along with Samuel Ojebode (1976), Austin Okocha (2004), and Victor Moses (2013).
Making his third appearance at the AFCON tournament in Ivory Coast, having featured at the 2019 edition in Egypt and the 2022 tournament in Cameroon, Ekong will be aiming to join the elite list of Nigerian defenders like Christian Chukwu, Keshi and Joseph Yobo to have lifted the AFCON trophy for the country.
Ex-stars back Eagles
Meanwhile, former players of the Eagles have urged the team to make history for themselves by winning the AFCON final.
According to former Eagles striker, Brown Ideye, the Eagles have proved all their doubters wrong with their displays.
Ranked 42nd in the world and sixth in Africa, not much was expected from Peseiro’s team after some underwhelming results before the tournament.
“I never believed in this team,” Ideye, an AFCON winner in 2013 told BBC.
“Their form before the tournament and injuries to key players gave no one any hope but they’ve proved many of us wrong by reaching the final. I’m proud of them and I’m backing them to beat Ivory Coast again,” he added.
Former Eagles forward, Osaze Odemwinge, who starred at four AFCON tournaments in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, also believes that the Eagles have an advantage over their host in terms of talent.
“Hopefully, history repeats itself and we beat them again,” Osaze told Channels TV in an interview monitored by our correspondent.
He stated, “We have the edge emotionally and mentally because we know we have already had a good performance against them with the support of the crowd.
“We have the talents and we have a team better than them. If we match them physically, they cannot match us for skill, and that would be my hope that all these skills you know come out in the game because we want to unlock their defence.
He also hoped the Eagles would exploit the weaknesses in the Ivorian team.
“They conceded four goals against Equatorial Guinea, so there are places to exploit and I am sure they will show them the images of where those goals came from, and hopefully, our boys will do the same thing and use those key weak areas in their team because scoring will be important and if we can score first, obviously it will keep home support quiet.”
Fans dream victory
Elsewhere, some Nigerian football fans on X expect the Eagles to lift their fourth African title at the expense of their hosts.
Ayodeji Adegbenro wrote, via his handle @Mike_ThePundit, “My birthday is on Sunday (today), the same day the Eagles eye another AFCON trophy. Let’s bring this home, Nigeria. Win the trophy for this boy on his AFCON debut.”
Nigerian music artist, Phillip Kayode Moses, popularly known as Pheelz, also shares optimism over the chances of the Eagles winning the AFCON trophy.
He urged Stanley Nwabali to keep another clean sheet.
He wrote, “I’m confident of the Eagles winning the AFCON. Nwabali stay strong in goal so we don’t concede. The likes of Victor Osimhen, William Troost-Ekong and Samuel Chukweze have impressed me.”
Another music star, Stanley Omah Didia, fondly known as Omah Lay, expressed enthusiasm and hope for another Eagles win, believing the triumph would be a significant moment in Nigerian football.
He made this known during a conversation with West Ham United defender Kurt Zouma.
In a video shared by the West London club on X, Omah Lay said, “It’s amazing; you can see how crazy the people are going. You can see how everybody is jumping around. I’m hopeful that this is going to be the year Nigeria wins the AFCON. The world is going to shake.”
Another X user, @oladan07, wrote that Nigeria’s rival Ghana won’t be spared should the Eagles go on to win the title. She wrote, “That ending was superb. We will cook Ghana after winning the AFCON on Sunday. Bring it home boys.”
@Sundayvibe also tweeted, “I don’t expect anything less than another win. The Eagles have everything to beat Ivory Coast so #bring it home Eagles.”
Shettima leads delegation
At the behest of President Bola Tinubu, Vice President Kashim Shettima will be in attendance at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan to lead a presidential delegation to the final and cheer the Eagles to victory.
Shettima, who was in the Ivorian capital to represent Tinubu at the semi-final between the Super Eagles and South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, departed Abuja on Saturday for the Ivorian capital once again, a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Communications, Stanley Nkwocha, confirmed.
The statement is titled. ‘VP Shettima leads FG’s delegation to Super Eagles’ AFCON finals’.
“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 finals alongside the delegation is a testament to the government’s unwavering support for the team and its dedication to their success,” Nkwocha said.
He also noted that the match would rekindle the memories of Nigeria’s 1-0 victory in the group stage secured through Troost-Ekong’s penalty kick.
The Federal Government called on all Nigerians at home and abroad to unite in support of the Super Eagles and create a wave of national pride that would propel the team to glory
The Lagos State Ministry of Health has issued a health advisory to all residents ahead of the AFCON final.
No fewer than five Nigerians have reportedly died while watching the penalty shoot-out between the Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana of South Africa in the semi-final match in Bouaké on Wednesday.
A statement released by the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof Akin Abayomi, on Saturday, gave some tips to help citizens prioritise their health and well-being while enjoying football matches or other intense activities.
The statement, which was posted on the Lagos State Government’s X handle, X| followlasg, outlined the tips as follows:
- Know your limits: Understand your physical limitations and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any underlying health conditions before engaging in activities that could potentially exacerbate them.
- Stay hydrated and nourished: Crowded, poorly ventilated and hot environments should be avoided with attention to good hydration. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption, and ensure you drink plenty of water and eat nutritious foods to keep your body fuelled and hydrated, especially during prolonged periods of sitting and watching the game.
- Take regular breaks: Stand up, stretch, and move around periodically to prevent stiffness and promote blood circulation. This can also help maintain alertness and prevent fatigue.
- Maintain good posture: Sit in a comfortable chair with proper back support and avoid slouching to reduce strain on your muscles and spine.
- Stay calm and relaxed: Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness to manage stress and emotions during intense moments in the game.
- Be prepared for emergencies: Familiarise yourself with the location of medical facilities and emergency exits at the venue, and know how to access help quickly if needed. Contact the Lagos Emergency Medical Team, LASAMBUS, at 767 or 112 toll-free line in case of a medical emergency.
The commissioner also urged viewing centres to ensure that venues, where football matches would be watched, had adequate medical facilities and trained personnel on hand to respond swiftly in cases of emergencies.
He also advised residents to seek prompt medical attention if they experienced any unusual symptoms or discomfort.
Similarly, the Nigerian Cardiac Society, on Saturday, cautioned Nigerians to avoid getting overly excited during the AFCON final and other sporting and emotional events.
The society in a statement in Ilorin, Kwara State, which was jointly signed by the National President, Prof Augustine Odili, Secretary-General and Publicity Secretary, Prof Chizindu Alinkor and Prof Abiodun Akintunde, commiserated with the families of those whose death was linked to the AFCON semi-final match played on Wednesday.
The society, however, warned that sports and other emotional events could trigger arrhythmias, heart attacks, and strokes in those with underlying heart conditions.
The statement read in part, “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 (five) individuals occurring during the match leaves much to be desired on the cardiovascular health of Nigerians.”
The society added that it could not authoritatively confirm the exact causes of death in the situations without prejudice.
They explained that it was their duty to call the attention of Nigerians to the very possibility that sudden death often occurs either in the presence/absence of risk factors.
The experts explained that many of the risk factors were highly prevalent among Nigerians and were also poorly controlled.
They described sudden death as a natural, unexpected fatal event occurring within one hour from the onset of symptoms in an apparently healthy subject, or in one whose disease was not so severe to predict such an abrupt outcome.
The statement added, “Sudden cardiac death can be defined as death resulting from abrupt loss of cardiac function with or without previous heart disease unexpected within one hour of onset of symptoms.
“About 50 per cent of all deaths from heart diseases are sudden regardless of the aetiology.
“It has also been shown that 89 per cent of all sudden cardiac deaths occur outside the hospital and less that 40 per cent are witnessed.”
The surgeons stated that the causes of sudden death were as varied as its presentation, including complications of hypertension, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, cardiomyopathies, valvular disorders, and pulmonary thromboembolism, among others.
They explained further that the risk factors for heart disease were many, including lack of physical exercise, smoking tobacco, consuming alcohol, eating unhealthy diets rich in salt and saturated fats, and low in fresh fruits and vegetables.
The experts added, “Other risk factors include high blood pressure (hypertension), high blood lipids/cholesterol (dyslipidaemia), overweight and obesity, and diabetes mellitus.
“Hypertension is the most common risk factor for heart disease and stroke in Nigeria.”