The picturesque Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on Sunday is the setting for a titanic battle pitting bullish Nigeria against buoyant hosts Ivory Coast in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final.
This heavyweight showdown sees two great rivals collide for the second time at this tournament with continental glory at stake.
Rejuvenated hosts Ivory Coast edged Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) 1-0 in their tense semi-final on Wednesday night, thanks to a Sebastien Haller strike midway through the second half.
They will now look to become the first team to win the Afcon on home soil since Egypt in 2006.
Standing in their way are Nigeria’s formidable Super Eagles, who swept past South Africa 4-2 on penalties, following a 1-1 draw at the end of extra time in a drama-filled last-four clash earlier on Wednesday.
DR Congo’s Leopards and South Africa’s Bafana Bafana will face off in the consolatory third-place play-off for the bronze medal at Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium tomorrow.
Near-perfect Nigeria are favourites to claim a fourth title, following a 1-0 group phase victory over the Ivorians, which put the hosts on the brink of an embarrassing early exit from what will go down as arguably one of the most captivating Afcon tournaments in recent memory.
The Elephants sacked their coach, Jean-Louis Gasset, after the 4-0 thrashing by Equatorial Guinea in their final group game.
But since sneaking into the knockout rounds, stand-in head coach Emerse Fae has overseen a remarkable run that culminated in the jittery Elephants bulldozing their way to an unlikely final.
“We are happy, we’re really moved. It’s like a dream, when you go back two weeks to the defeat here against Equatorial Guinea,” Fae says.
“It was hard then to imagine that we might qualify for the final of our own Afcon.”
After the mauling at the hands of Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants looked certain to be eliminated in the first round, only to scrape through as the last of the four best third-placed teams.
They then conjured up two thrilling come-from-behind performances, stunning 2021 Afcon winners Senegal on penalties in the round of 16 before sucker-punching Mali 2-1 with nine men in the last eight.
“As long as you still have a 5% or 10% chance you need to keep believing, because that is what makes football beautiful,” says midfielder Franck Kessie, who was named man of the match against DR Congo.
The last time Ivory Coast won the title was in 2015 with their superstar Toure brothers, Yaya and Kolo, playing a prominent role.
The current squad lacks similar star power, however, backed by vociferous home support and a burning desire to crown their redemption story, they are primed to deliver glory in astonishing fashion.
“We need to keep going like this, because you can’t go all the way to the final only to then give up,” Kessie says.
Efficient rather than spectacular, Nigeria have won five of their six 2023 Afcon matches, making them the most consistent team at the tournament and now stand on the cusp of greatness.
With three previous titles in 1980, 1994 and 2013, Nigeria can join arch rivals Ghana on four titles with victory on Sunday.
Only five-time champions Cameroon and Egypt, who have won the Africa’s showpiece competition on seven occasions, have more.
Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro says they had to dig deep to attain victory in Wednesday’s energy-sapping battle with South Africa and maintain their push for glory.
“The team fights together. There are 25 of us, and it’s difficult to beat us,” he says.
“I am very happy, the players are happy, they deserve it, we deserve it, the Super Eagles deserve it, the Nigerian people deserve it.”
Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali (27), the hero for Nigeria after he saved two spot kicks in the shootout, vowed to keep his nation joyful.
“When football goes like this, your fans really want more from you. I just see this as a motivation for me to show off my team and country,” said Nwabali, who is being linked with a move to Europe from South African Premiership side Chippa United.
“I did not fully understand how I was feeling. When I look around, I see millions of Nigerians, and I only want to make them happy. I just want to make them feel good,” he said.
“We no go gree for anybody [Nigerian pidgin mantra for resilience against adversity]. I wish everybody well, and I really want to do more for Nigeria.”
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