AFCON 2024: Super Eagles are on the brink of glory

You'd have to cross thousands of miles to move from the capital of Nigeria to that of South Africa, but when the two teams met at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2024) on Wednesday, there was precious little to pick between them.

It took rare defensive errors on either side to produce the game's only goals, with William Troost-Ekong and Teboho Mokoena converting from the spot.

A series of penalties, ultimately, determined the identity of the eventual winner: Nigeria.

Nwabali's heroics made all the difference in Super Eagles' AFCON 2024 semi-final

We knew beforehand, with a fair degree of certainty, that this highly-anticipated encounter wasn't exactly going to be a goal-fest.

Neither team had conceded since their respective opening games at this tournament, largely because of how stingy their defences were en route to the last four.

However, both sets of fans and neutrals alike would surely have been thrilled by the cagey encounter served by these great rivals in Bouake.

The dramatic finale was doubtlessly fitting for such a cagey contest — even if it didn't quite follow the script most people were reading from.

South Africa, given the heroics of goalkeeper and captain Ronwen Williams in the shootout that saw them past Cape Verde in the quarter-finals, would have backed themselves as this game appeared to be headed in the same direction, despite being a man down.

And while it was a South Africa-based goalkeeper that made all the difference in the end, Williams wasn't his surname.

The Mamelodi Sundowns shot-stopper was outdone by his opposite number, Super Eagles' Stanley Nwabali — also on the books of a PSL side, the significantly less illustrious Chippa United — who stood tall and came up with two saves to Williams’ zero.

Nwabali has been impressive from open play since the start of the tournament, but his heroics against Bafana Bafana have given his teammates and Super Eagles fans even greater confidence in the 27-year-old's abilities going forward.

Super Eagles are one game away from glory

Nigeria are far more accustomed to losing the semi-final of an AFCON (no team has lost more) than the final, but it would be recalled that the last time the Ivory Coast hosted the tournament, four decades ago, it was at the ultimate hurdle that the Super Eagles fell, beaten by neighbours Cameroon.

Those rivals have already been eliminated — by Nigeria no less, in the Round of 16 — but Jose Peseiro's team still has a formidable foe to contend with in the final.

The Super Eagles will have to overcome Ivory Coast if they are to secure the prize they made the short trip across the sub-region in pursuit of.

Nigeria are, at least according to Opta's supercomputer, tipped to win, even if they'd have to battle a relentless deluge of opposition certain to pour down on them from nearly every corner of the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in the final to do so.

By this point, the Super Eagles are probably used to the pressure that comes with being the tournament's top-ranked team, a distinction that has been theirs from the quarter-finals onwards.

The burden of expectation would weigh a bit heavier in the final, against the crowd favourite, but belief isn't an attribute you'd often find a Nigerian team running short on, regardless of the odds — and the recent history of Peseiro's charges against Ivory Coast would only be a source of extra inspiration.

Super Eagles on the brink of glory AFCON 2024
Photo by Icon Sport

Nigeria's first win at this AFCON came at the expense of the Elephants in the first round, and even if the margins would be narrower and the stakes higher than they were on that occasion, the Super Eagles would be confident about emerging victorious this time.

Peseiro has already gone a long way in shrugging off much of the doubt Nigerians had about him and his team before this AFCON.

With one more triumph, which would deliver that fourth title they've spent the last 11 years pining for, he can go a step further and eternally win them over.

Bring on Sunday.

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Godfred Budu

Godfred Budu is a purpose-driven Ghanaian sports writer with a sharp eye for excellence. He has had stints with www.kickgh.com inkandkicks.com and ghanafans.com. He loves to talk and write about football on the African continent.