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#AFCON2023: Battle of Rustenburg re-echoes in Abidjan

One major event currently playing out on the minds of many Nigerian football fans and their Ivoirian counterparts ahead of today’s epic clash between the Super Eagles and the Elephants, is the battle of Rustenburg, where both teams met at the South Africa 2013 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Unlike this year’s event, where the two teams are meeting in their second group match, the battle of Rustenburg was a make or mar quarterfinal tie. The build-up was massive.

With football fans across the world focused on the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, the late Coach Stephen Keshi and his army were seen then as a misfit for the Elephants, going by Nigeria’s not-too-impressive build up to that encounter.

Then, not even the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) believed in the ability of the Super Eagles to deliver against the Elephants, a squad that was rated the best in Africa going by the calibre of players it paraded. The Ivoirians had everything going for them.

Tagged the ‘Golden generation,’ the team, led by the creative Didier Drogba, had other top-rated players like KoloToure, Yaya Toure, Gervinho Yao Kouassi, Solomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora, Arthur Boka, SiakaTiene and CheickTiote all shining in the English Premier League.

Then, Yaya Toure, a midfield ‘General’ with Manchester City was the commander-in-chief of African football, having won the African Footballer of the Year Award two consecutive times (2011 and 2012). He later won it in 2013 and 2014.

On the eve of the quarterfinal match in Rustenburg, all focus was on ‘dangerous’ Drogba and his squad to deliver, after failing on two previous occasions in the final.

Added to the drama was a statement by Emmanuel Eboue that: “We will eat the Eagles like super fried chicken.” It made bold headlines in many South African newspapers.

Every major sporting tournament comes with its defining moment for men and women who shape history for good or bad. On a day so much was expected from the Elephants, it was Keshi and his gang of ‘rookies’ that carried the day, with Emmanuel Emenike and Sunday Mba providing the killer punches that sent the Ivorian team and their flags-and banner-waving supporters to early bed.

At the end of that encounter, Eboue was seen crying like a baby. He later told The Guardian at a post-match interview that he was sorry for using such provocative and irritating words on the Super Eagles.

Like some other encounters, the stature of today’s tie has been enhanced by current realities around the two teams.
While the hosts, Elephants, currently sit on top of the group with three points, the Super Eagles have just one point, no thanks to their poor game against Equatorial Guinea.

Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire have a history of clashes etched in drama and determination. From Senegal ‘92 AFCON, where the late Rashidi Yekini’s stunner silenced the entire Cote d’Ivoire, to Tunisia ‘94 semifinal, where Nigeria won a tension soaked tie 4-2 on penalties after playing a 2-2 draw.

At Egypt 2006, both teams met in the semifinals in Alexandria, with Drogba scoring the only goal for the Ivoirians. Two years later, the Ivoirians were again 1-0 winners after Salomon Kalou scored the only goal in a group phase encounter in the Ghanaian city of Sekondi. It has been one form of passion and redemption in and outside the pitch in encounters involving the two countries.

The Super Eagles say they have put behind the 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea and are looking forward to what they believe will be an ‘interesting encounter’ with host, Cote d’Ivoire today.

The Elephants will be looking to book an early Round of 16 ticket if they beat the Super Eagles at the newly-built Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Ebimpe today.

On their part, the Eagles know anything short of victory will jeopadise their chances of progressing in the tournament. They have vowed to wrestle all the three points.

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