William Troost-Ekong's stride through the mixed zone at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan carried with it a triumphant aura, his broad smile signalling a moment of personal and team victory.
The PAOK Salonika defender had just executed a pivotal penalty, propelling Nigeria to a 1-0 win against Ivory Coast, rekindling the Super Eagles' campaign in a dazzling fashion.
This scenario marked a striking déjà vu for Troost-Ekong, who, preceding the tournament, lingered in the shadows of international football.
He wasn't the forefront choice in Jose Peseiro‘s considerations, especially after being snubbed following Nigeria's 4-0 loss to Portugal in Lisbon during a friendly in November 2022.
Subsequently, Peseiro had entrusted Semi Ajayi and Calvin Bassey as his preferred centre-back duo during the World Cup qualifiers and other games after that.
Troost-Ekong the Super Eagles' silver lining
However, fate took a turn for Troost-Ekong as the Super Eagles' defensive vulnerabilities in the Nations Cup and World Cup qualifiers became glaring.
Defeats to Guinea-Bissau in Abuja and defensive frailties against Sierra Leone underscored the urgent need for a change in Nigeria's defensive lineup.
Interestingly, Ekong found a resurgence at his new Greek club, PAOK Thessaloniki, earning a regular starting spot and delivering standout performances in the Europa Conference League.
Troost-Ekong back in the Super Eagles fold
Peseiro, observing Troost-Ekong's renaissance, extended a recall to the Super Eagles' provisional squad, eventually securing a place in the final selection. Nigeria, aiming to clinch another African title, commenced the journey, last conquered in South Africa in 2013.
Despite the 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea in the opening game, Ekong showcased a return to form, exhibiting impeccable positioning and providing on-field leadership.
The subsequent clash against Ivory Coast emphasised Troost-Ekong's defensive mastery, effectively thwarting Ivorian attacks and concluding the match with a clinically taken penalty.
An unfortunate injury sidelined him for the last group game against Guinea-Bissau, but Troost-Ekong staged a triumphant return in the Round of 16 encounter against Cameroon.
This match witnessed Troost-Ekong's stellar performance in a Nigeria shirt—excelling in tackles, closely marking Cameroon striker Magri, and orchestrating defensive solidarity.
As the Super Eagles prepare to face Angola in the quarter-finals, Ekong braces for yet another stern test.
Angola, with seven goals in the tournament, aim to disrupt Nigeria, now perceived as favourites following the early exits of the top-five ranked African teams.
Can Troost Ekong lead Nigeria to AFCON 2024 glory?
Assuming the captaincy role in place of Ahmed Musa, Troost-Ekong may harbour dreams of lifting the title on February 11, signifying a remarkable turnaround for the seasoned defender.
Regardless, in this defining moment, Troost- Ekong epitomises the saying, “the older the wine, the better it tastes.”
His resurgence is not just a personal triumph but a key narrative shaping Nigeria's quest for glory in the African Cup of Nations.