The firm exhortation by Nigeria FA boss, Amaju Pinnick, to win the African Nations Championship trophy for President Muhammadu Buhari will be ringing in the ears of the Super Eagles as they file out against host nation Morocco in the Final on Sunday.
The CAF Executive Committee member and AFCON President Pinnick met with the players and commended them after the win over Sudan in Marrakech on Wednesday.
But the big message was that they could not afford to go this far only to go down to the host country.
He said: “On behalf of the NFF Executive Committee and the entire Nigerian Football family, I praise you for your tremendous efforts in getting this far in the face of numerous challenges. You are great ambassadors of our dear nation.
“However, the truth is that you have raised the expectations of the Government and people of Nigeria back home, and now you just have to do all that it will take to win the Cup. President Muhammadu Buhari (GCFR) has been following with keen interest your campaign here, and the only way to compensate him for his support and encouragement is to go back home with the CHAN trophy.”
Nigeria drew with Rwanda in their opening match in Tangier on January 15, but has since achieved victories over 2014 champions Libya, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Sudan to be eligible for the Championship Match inside the Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca on Sunday evening.
Yet, they would start as underdogs against the Atlas Lions, who apart from playing on the too-familiar turf of their main temple, have logged an impressive 12 goals so far and are egged by the whole of Morocco.
Nigeria’s Head Coach, Salisu Yusuf, reacts to that: “Every team is beatable. If we do the right things, we will beat Morocco.”
Yusuf has coped commendably with setbacks in this tournament, having to think up the right formula to come back from deficit levels against Equatorial Guinea and Angola, and to re-jig his squad after several first-team players were knocked out by injury before the semi final against Sudan.
Even therein, he had to strategize for resistance against Sudan after they had to play half an hour with 10 men against 11.
Going into Sunday’s final, former Nigeria international Yusuf is tested further with injury to goalkeeper and captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa in the semifinal ruling him out of the big clash and 45,000 home fans cheering on the Atlas Lions.
Yusuf said: “In football, you have to be prepared for anything. We have managed a few situations through the campaign and still have to manage some going into the final match. I believe we will cope well and overcome.”
In 19 previous encounters between both countries at senior level, Morocco edged the record with eight wins, with Nigeria winning seven times and four matches drawn.
Interestingly, their first confrontation (a two-leg Tokyo ’64 Olympics qualifying fixture) ended in a tie that had to be resolved by a play-off in a neutral ground (Dakar).
The Moroccans edged that 2-1.
Morocco beat Nigeria twice in five days in Ethiopia in 1976 to win their only Africa Cup of Nations title till date. Nigeria avenged when pipping the Atlas Lions 1-0 in the semi finals of the 1980 AFCON in Lagos before going ahead to defeat Algeria in the Final for their first title.
Nigeria eliminated Morocco in the race for 1970 FIFA World Cup and the 1976 Olympics, but the Lions stopped Nigeria from reaching the Los Angeles ’84 Olympics.
In their only previous CHAN encounter, Nigeria came from three goals down to defeat Morocco 4-3 after extra time in the quarter finals in Cape Town four years ago.
Incidentally, when Morocco hosted the Africa Cup of Nations 20 years ago, Nigeria got to the Final, eventually losing to Cameroon by a controversial second half penalty converted by Emmanuel Kunde at the same Stade Mohamed V on 27th March 1988.
On Sunday, while the Super Eagles must beware of ambitious Atlas Lions in the shape of eight-goal Ayoub El Kaabi, Walid El Karti, Zakaria Hadraf, Salaheddine Saidi, Ismail El Haddad and Abdeljalil Jbria that Coach Jamal Sellami will send out, the Lions themselves have to worry about in-form Nigerian striker Gabriel Okechukwu, as well as Anthony Okpotu, Dayo Ojo, Rabiu Ali, Osas Okoro and Augustine Oladapo.
Youth and Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, will lead the Nigerian support at the Stade Mohamed V on Sunday. Kick-off is 7pm Morocco (8pm Nigeria time).
Both teams have an extra motivation in form of a $1.25 million winner’s prize.
The runner-up will go home with $750,000.