AFCON 2023 Special Report: Eagles – One small step, a giant leap to the Championship!

It was only one match, but it moved Nigeria several notches up the rung of victory at AFCON 2023.

The match against Cote D’Ivoire confirmed the often-held notion that a potential Champion can be identified when a team is able to win a crucial match even when it does not play brilliantly. Thats what happend on Thursday night. The Super Eagles played with the attitude of potential champions – winning a most difficult match against the host team by deploying a very disciplined style of play, and, with a bit of luck, curtailed an anxious and determined Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire.

The Super Eagles definitely earned their victory! What most people have refused to consider here is to credit Jose Paseiro for any part of that victory. The man has gone too far down the bad books of Nigerians that more of the credit seems to be going to a player – William Troost-Ekong. He was the ‘coach’ on the field of play that the team lacked outside it.

Troost – A new Leader of the Super Eagles?

A new leader of the Super Eagles may be finally emerging from the shadows. His individual performance on this night reminded Nigerians about ‘Gentle Giant’ Uche Okechukwu, ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu, and ‘Big Boss’ Stephen Keshi. The 3 were excellent Liberos, organisers of their defense from the centre-half position, clearing all loose balls that resulted from the close-marking and hard-tackling of their co-defenders, and taking on the responsibility of unofficially ‘coaching’ the team ON the field of play.

William Troost-Ekong may have joined that special class when he stepped forward and took responsibility to nail the Ivoriens by taking a very ‘dangerous’ penalty kick that was heavily laden with pressure and tension! It was a very thin line to cross for him – between becoming a hero and new leader in the team, or becoming a ‘villain’ for the rest of his career (should he miss the kick).

Troost-Ekong’s individual performance made a big difference in that match. He was a deserving ‘Man of the Match’. He played with his heart and head, stabilising the defense, in particular, and rest of the team, generally.

Uncharacteristically, the Nigerian defense line was cool, calm, confident, well-organised and impregnable. Thanks to Captain Ekong!

Are the Super Eagles back to their best?

No, not yet.
It is a team in process, coming up slowly but steadily.
Should the Eagles win the last match against Guinea Bissau very well, they will remain in Abidjan to play their round-of-16 match. That will be a huge advantage for them that they can use as launch pad to get to the top of the pyramid.

Against all the odds, the Super Eagles looked better and more organised in their defensive play. When Osimhen, somehow eventually finds his feet and his rhythm, the team will become better and stronger. Stopping them will now become a huge mountain to climb for any team at AFCON 2023.

The AFCON 2023 Roadshow -Report.

The AFCON Roadshow is on and continues in Abidjan.
Last Thursday evening, 30 minutes before the end of the Eagles/Elephant clash, my crew and I finally landed in Abidjan. It was too late to go watch my first LIVE match at the stadium.

I immediately converted the ‘disappointment’ into an opportunity to catch up with Ivoriens and watch them react to seeing their team is slowly and steadily asphyxiated by the Eagles.
We drove to Treichville, downtown Abidjan metropolis. The streets were quiet and traffic was light. Many shops had become temporary viewing centres. People massed around big and small TV sets, anxiety written on their faces as the minutes ticked on to record Nigeria’s first victory at AFCON 2023.

Anxious faces concocted into mournful looks, frustrated by the impregnable wall of defense put up by the Eagles.

According to commentators, as the match moved towards the closing moments, both the town and the stadium terraces went into silent mode, like a graveyard.

Into this moody and mournful environment drove in a very colourfully branded van, with the logos of some Nigerian products and services, into the Treichville neighbourhood, downtown Abidjan, attracting a lot of public attention.

Then, out stepped some Nigerians in their customary Green and White Tee shirts and face caps, branded ‘Peculiar Ultimate Concerns’, proud ambassadors of their country and of the beautiful game.
That neighbourhood immediately became the unofficial centre of celebration for some Nigerians in a few bars in that part of Abidjan that remained open for business after the pain of their country’s loss.

Some Ivoriens took the punch on the chin well, and remained in some good spirit. Some coolly accepted their fate and went on with their lives in painful submission and silence.

Travelling to Abidjan.
I shall surely produce a documentary of my experience travelling on the single existing road linking the countries along the coastline of West Africa. The dream of an East to West superhighway connecting the cities was birthed in the late 1950s, and construction work must have started shortly after on the Dakar to Lagos road. 70 years later, the dream remains largely unfulfilled.

All the way, from Seme to Abidjan, there is not a single dual-carriageway.

The distance that we covered through 4 countries to get to Abidjan are on single lane, face-me-I-face-you, roads.
There is potential danger every inch of the way. No room for any careless driving throughout that long route. It demands the utmost care and concentration by drivers.

In Nigeria and most of Ghana, the roads are bad (worse in Nigeria), littered with patches and small iritating potholes.
Speed breakers, bumps and security check points are endless on the roads in Ghana, and easily double travel time.

Although reassuring for safety purposes, the check points are at 2 or 4 kilometre intervals through most of our travel inside Ghana. We were stopped at every one of those check points because of our unique van and colourful branding. The security officers were mostly very friendly but still created delays. Night travel, which we did only once, going to Cape Coast in Ghana, was worse.

Generally, the roads through Togo are better, smoother, and with less check points.

In Cote D’Ivoire, we found a delightful surprise – the best roads, but single lanes until you get to 14 kilometers to Abidjan. To enter Abidjan is like entering a new world – the road opens into the most beautiful dual carriageway in this part of the world.

Gbenga, our driver from Lagos, for the first time on this journey tested the speed of our 8-cylinder Chevrolet Van. He put his foot down on the throttle for an experience that I have not had since I was 25, driving my new Mercedes 280E on the freshly completed but yet to be opened Ibadan/Lagos expressway. I covered the 120 or so kilometres to Lagos in 45 minutes.

By the way, on this trip, in the past 4 days, we have driven and covered a distance of 1100 kilometres, the single, longest but slowest journey I have ever undertaken. At the same time, it has been a unique and incredible experience.

Ghana and Egypt – Drama on the streets

After the Nigerian match, Ghanaians came out to the streets in droves, heading to viewing centres and bars that were still open, to watch their match with Egypt. It was a pulsating, exciting, entertaining and dramatic encounter, from start to finish.

Ghanaians, next door neighbours to Ivoriens, flooded Ivory Coast in cars and buses. We saw many of them at the Elubor border post.
Most hotel rooms downtown were taken up by them.

I am just wondering: what would happen should the Ghanaians exit the championship at this stage? The hotels will become full of empty rooms, I guess!

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