NIGERIA are the soccer champions of Africa, and worthily so after a tense and tactical 1-0 final win against brave Burkina Faso at National Stadium in Johannesburg last night.
The young and hungry Super Eagles added to the Africa Cup of Nations titles won by the generations of 1980 and 1994.
Two worthy finalists produced an intriguing final. Nigeria dominated the first half and took a deserved lead through Sunday Mba five minutes before the break.
Burkina Faso’s achievement in reaching the final at the expense of Zambia, Togo and Ghana was remarkable enough.
But the Stallions were not content to rest on those laurels and pushed strongly for an equaliser against a more cautious Super Eagles in the second 45 minutes.
Stephen Keshi’s men responded by dealing calmly with most situations that did arise at the back.
And Nigeria always looked capable of producing a second goal on the counter-attack.
Thirteen of Nigeria’s squad are under the age of 24. Bolstered by whatever talent is still to emerge from their 170-million-population country, this team certainly appears to have the potential to fill the void left by Egypt, Cameroon and Ivory Coast and to dominate African football.
The overturned suspension for winger Jonathan Pitroipia meant Burkina Faso coach Paul Put was able to keep the same line-up from the one that should have won in normal time in their semi-final against Ghana.
Nigeria counterpart Keshi was forced to make one change, and a big one – tournament joint-top scorer Emmanuel Emenike was unable to recover from a thigh injury.
Uche Ikechukwu came into the centre of Nigeria’s forward line, with Brown Ideye moving to the right and Victor Moses, who did overcome an ankle concern, remaining on the left.
If all 87000 ticket-holders and hospitality guests had arrived it would have been arguably a record attendance for an Afcon final.
The previous highest was at the same venue in 1996, which was officially 80000, though that crowd was believed to be closer to 90000 strong in actual size.
The packed National Stadium, venue of the World Cup final 2½ years ago, provided the best possible backdrop for the final of Africa’s showpiece football tournament.
The pace and guile of Nigeria’s front three, which yielded six goals in their previous two matches, always seemed likely to trouble even a Burkina Faso defence that had yielded just two goals in the competition.
From the seventh minute, when Moses’s free kick was powerfully headed over the bar by Ideye, the Super Eagles unsettled the Stallions at the back.
Ideye should have opened the scoring in the 10th minute when, from Moses’s corner, goalkeeper Daouda Diakite came and missed, and the Nigeria striker volleyed over an open goal.
In the 20th minute, Moses forced a save from Diakite after beating right-back Mohamed Koffi for pace.
A solitary free kick that streaked past keeper Vincent Enyeama’s upright was against the tide for Burkina Faso.
In the 40th minute, Nigeria had the lead from Sunday Mba, scorer of a spectacular winner against Ivory Coast in the semis. The midfielder collected the ball outside the area after a shot from Moses was blocked, took two touches on the bounce into the box and stabbed a volley past Diakite.
Three times in this Afcon Nigeria had taken a 1-0 lead, then conceded.
Keshi brought on the pacy Musa Ahmed soon after the break to try to ram home his side’s advantage.
Ideye’s shot from a tight angle was touched out by Diakite, then Bance launched a header from a free kick that was straight at Enyeama.
Burkina Faso had not reached their very first final to roll over, and Nigeria found themselves absorbing pressure.
Mba tripped over himself when a clinching goal seemed on the cards and Nigeria almost paid for it, as substitute Wilfried Sanou’s shot skidded across goal from the counter-attack.
But, as a champion team should, for the last half-hour Nigeria did shut Burkina Faso out.