Nigeria’s 2013 AFCON campaign was fairytale and destined to end with some of the most captivating side notes in African football.
Stephen Keshi, the former Nigerian CB who had captained and lifted the title in 13 years earlier, was Coach of the Super Eagles and had selected 17 rookies for the tournament.
Nigeria missed out on securing a place at the previous edition of the AFCON and had to luxury of facing defending champions Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia in the group stage.
It was a fair draw, according to first choice goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama as he recounts the high points of the campaign 8 years later.
‘It was a team that was unified. there’s a culture in the Eagles at the time, we fasted and did night prayers. This was the first team I played for that every teammate turns up when you asked them to come for prayers,’ Enyeama told Brila.net.
‘Even though many didn’t give us a chance; really we were lucky our group wasn’t so difficult and it helped our journey through to the quarter-finals.’
The Super Eagles struggled though, first drawing against Burkina Faso then Zambia – both from winning positions.
Before the final group game against Ethiopia, there was a slim chance the team would progress to the quarter-final and only a win could guarantee it.
It was a three way battle to book the two qualification spots in the group and Burkina Faso looked to be ahead in that race with Zambia and Nigeria neck and neck.
Voodoo in African football has been an age long conversation and often spirals into a debate. Enyeama was to experience in the national team and perhaps for the first time.
‘Someone very prominent came to me, he said Vincent you’re the captain of the team, “I wan give you something make you put for cloth enter this Ethiopia match. [sic]” ‘
‘I told him I won’t and if I didn’t believe we could win fair; if I didn’t believe we could win against Ethiopia, I would have gone back and go home.’
Two late Victor Moses penalties secured passage to the next round but as runners up and Nigeria would meet Ivory Coast in the last 8.
Back home, there were rumors the team had been ordered to pack their bags as return tickets had been booked. Nobody expected underwhelming Eagles to soar against Ivory Coast.
The Ivorians had picked seven points en route the quarters, inspired by Yaya Toure, Gervinho and captain Didier Drogba.
Enyeama defiant recalls, ‘I didn’t pack my bag, I don’t know about others. Maigari (Aminu – then NFF President) had told me what if we already start preparing the flight back home? I told him with due respect we’ll win. He said you struggled against Ethiopia, how do you hope to do it against Ivory Coast?’
‘Truth be told we were not favorites, you couldn’t compare us to Ivory Coast that had those top guys playing in the biggest teams across Europe.
‘We knew we needed to contain Drogba, we knew we needed to contain Yaya Toure, who was in the form of his life, the rest weren’t going to be much of a problem.’
Enyeama was the stand in Captain and the most senior player on the pitch along with Mikel Obi.
The Eagles defence had Kenneth Omeruo, Godfrey Oboabona, Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile – only Echiejile had played at this stage of the competition.
Emmanuel Emenike in his debut tournament was enjoying a good run and had scored twice in three games. He was in the running for the top scorer of the tournament.
He showed his class and stunned Ivory Coast with the opener late in the first half. But five minutes after the restart, Cheick Tioté scored to bring the 2021 finalists level.
As the game wore on with nerves on the edge, the unlikeliest thing happened. Another debutant, Sunday Mba, scored what would prove the decider to send Nigeria through to the semi-final.
‘Every time Sunday Mba hit a shot it was a goal, how does such things happen? It had to be God. People say God doesn’t play football, but he knows what’s in our hearts and we were united, that meant a lot,’ Enyeama said.
‘We knew the Cup was ours from that point. We couldn’t lose to Mali, with due respect to them, We couldn’t lose to Burkina Faso with due respect. After the win against Ivory Coast, the confidence was high.’
An emphatic 4-1 victory over Mali in the semi-final was followed by a slim 1-0 win decided by Mba to hand Nigeria a third AFCON title.
It also meant Stephen Keshi would enter the history books as the first Nigerian to win the AFCON as both a player and Coach. He was also the third African to do so.
Enyeama described the late Keshi as a strong factor in the 2013 AFCON triumph.
‘He was as a father, a brother and a friend; three in one. Whatever you wanted him to be, he was. It’s sad how he died and coming to soon. We accept death as an inevitable, but this was a very difficult and sad one. Keshi’s death is a great loss to Nigeria.’