A month after sacking their former coach and losing key players, the Super Eagles are hoping to make a point about the depth of their game as they bid to win in the home of one of their biggest continental rivals.
A dagger was struck in the heart of every Nigerian when the national team lost the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in Lagos in the year 2000.
The optimism of the new millennium as the country emerged from military rule was quashed on the evening of February 13 when they lost on penalties against Cameroon.
“It was a very painful loss,” Mutiu Adepoju, a member of that Nigerian team, told DW. “We were hoping to win our third title, a second for me. We did our best. Even when they were leading us 2-0, we came back and drew 2-2 and took it to penalties.”
It was the Indomitable Lions who ultimately claimed continental glory, just like they had against Nigeria in the final in 1984 in Abidjan and then in 1988 in Rabat.
The Super Eagles have since won a third title themselves, but the memories of that defeat in Surulere remains strong. “As they came to beat us in the final in 2000, this should be our own way of revenge, by beating them in the final in their own country. It will mean a lot,” Adepoju said.
Cameroon celebrate their AFCON 2000 triumph in Lagos
Confidence despite turbulence
The lead up to the tournament had its ups and downs though. Less than a month before the AFCON got underway, Nigeria sacked long-term coach Gernot Rohr as former captain and coach Augustine Eguavoen took charge on an interim basis – his third stint in the role.
Further setbacks followed as the Super Eagles lost star striker Victor Osimhen when a COVID-19 infection prevented him from being able to prove that he’d fully recovered from face surgery. A major blow considering veteran striker Odion Ighalo was not released by Al Shabab FC and a public falling out with Watford resulted in Emmanuel Dennis not joining up with the squad.
Nigeria began their campaign with a confident win against seven-time champions Egypt as the topsy-turvy lead up to the tournament was forgotten when Kelechi Iheanacho scored the lone goal against Mohamed Salah and the Pharaohs. Eguavoen, an AFCON winner in 1994 and a member of the team that lost to Cameroon in the final in 1988 in Morocco, believes the pieces are in place for a good campaign.
Nigeria interim coach Austin Eguavoen (r.) wants to take things “game by game”
“We will take it game by game and try to win each game,” he told the media.
Adepoju remembers his former team mate fondly. “As a player he was a very tough, very hard working, strong defender. Off the pitch he is a gentleman. As a captain, he was a really good leader.”
As coach, Eguavoen previously led the Super Eagles to a third place finish at Egypt 2006. And if not for the sacking of Rohr, he was content working as the Technical Director of the Nigeria Football Federation, where he oversaw the development of football in the country.
It is this that Adepoju believes is a positive for the team.
“Nigerian coaches have an edge over foreign coaches because they know the terrain and the players. They only need the support of the Federation and the fans to succeed,” he said before voicing his disapproval at the NFF’s decision to announce Portugal’s Jose Peseiro as the long-term successor to Rohr before Eguavoen’s interim role had even started.
Taking their chances
For a new generation of Super Eagles players, it is an opportunity to be part of a team chasing glory in Cameroon and hoping to write themselves into football history. 14 of the 27-man squad are making their first appearances at the tournament. Among them is striker Taiwo Awoniyi, who this season became Union Berlin’s all-time highest Bundesliga goal scorer.
AFCON debutant Taiwo Awoniyi has scored 14 goals in 27 games in all competitions for Union Berlin this season
“It is a great privilege and honour to be part of the Super Eagles,” Awoniyi told DW. “My only target here, and for every country I believe, is the cup. I don’t think it is a tournament where anyone should be thinking of personal glory. The glory is to the country that has the trophy.”
And like many of his teammates, while he remembers the AFCON win in South Africa in 2013, the 23-year-old was too young to remember the hurt of the year 2000 in Lagos. The same can’t be said for the majority of Super Eagles’ fans who are hoping Awoniyi and Co. can exact revenge for that loss in Cameroon.