AFCON 2019 Daily Diary – Day 23

In a few hours, the battle between the Desert Foxes and the Super Eagles will kick-off in one of the most beautiful stages in Africa, the Cairo International Stadium, venue of many major epic matches in African football through history.  Tonight would mark the 21st confrontation between the two African countries since January 10, 1973, when they first met in a competitive match at the All-African games in Nigeria.  Since then, they have had many memorable confrontations.  On the head to head basis, Nigeria has a slight edge of 8 wins to Algeria’s 7.  The rest were drawn games.   In the earlier days, with the advantage of proximity to European football, better facilities and organisation, North African countries, particularly Algeria, at the national level, were obviously superior to West African national teams.   Algeria was above Nigeria until the ultimate humiliation in 1990 when in two matches during AFCON (Algeria 1990) the Eagles conceded 6 goals to Algeria. They lost in the final match to Algeria.  That was a turning point for the Eagles.

For 27 years after that, Nigeria has mastered how to deal with them and how to halt the general North African domination.  Nigeria has not lost in regulation time to Algeria since then, their sole ‘loss’ in 2017 was for technical reasons.  Nigeria fielded an ineligible player and their 1-0 victory was upturned and awarded to Algeria by FIFA.

Of their last 7 meetings, Nigeria won 5!  It is very easy, therefore, to take it, almost for granted, that Nigeria is favourites to win tonight’s encounter, but that is not the feeling in the Nigerian camp.  At the official press conference held yesterday, Gernot Rohr and Kenneth Omeruo, who represented the country, were categorical in rejecting the ‘favourite’ toga, preferring to look at Algeria on the basis of their remarkable almost faultless current performances.  Omeruo, in particular, one of the three players that were a part of Nigeria’s AFCON success in 2013 (the others are Mikel Obi and Ahmed Musa) insisted that they had the greatest respect for Algeria and are not thinking beyond tonight’s match. They are marching to the trophy, one match after the other.  So, it can be assumed that the spirit in the Super Eagles camp is captured in Omeruo’s wise words.  The team has been completely focused on the match, keeping everything close to their chest.  During the 15 minutes’ window given the media to cover their only training session yesterday, where tactics and the pattern the team will play were planned and rehearsed, the team gave nothing away, harmlessly going through their warm-up routines and allowing cameras to capture them.  Gernot thinks tonight’s encounter will be the Eagles’ best but most difficult match, with his team winning in the end. That confidence is oozing through the entire team. It was visible throughout yesterday every time the ‘Fly on the Wall’ managed to glimpse any of the players in their hotel ‘prison’.  Nothing happened again yesterday.  The players trained, ate, slept, and healed – the same established monotonous routine here in Egypt.   They also had their usual prayer session – a supplication to their Creator seeking favour, protection and divine support.  Yesterday was also memorable in a way for the team.  Their phones were filled with postings of extracts of a film documentary that I produced in 1998, titled ‘The Road to Glory’, a 52-minutes summary of the successful Nigerian team to AFCON 1980.   The posting yesterday (it has gone viral) is a 4-minute summary of the final match in Lagos against Algeria.  Nigeria won by 3 goals to nil.  I scored twice and Muda Lawal scored the third.  The pictures were an inspiring reminder that even when football was dominated by North Africa, their Nigerian seniors dealt with Algeria. It was a great motivation for the players in camp.

The general feeling about this evening’s match is that Nigerians are not apprehensive.  They are confident that the Eagles will prevail tonight and sustain their recent dominance.  This morning, the team has woken up to their normal routine, a limbering up, breakfast, and retirement to their rooms to start the final preparations for the penultimate battle.  The attached picture is a classic case of a good picture saying more than a thousand words. The Eagles yesterday at their training. What is written across their faces?  Confidence!  That speaks volumes.  There is only a single warning for the Eagles – take very good care of a left-footed player playing on the right side of the Algerian attack.  His name is Riyad Mahrez.

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