Nigeria play Burkina Faso on Sunday in a 2013 Africa Cup of Nations final that few would have anticipated when the tournament kicked off last month.
The Nigerian Super Eagles did not even qualify for last year’s championship in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea and few outside the vast west African state gave them a chance of getting beyond the last eight this time.
However, if the presence of Nigeria at the 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium in Soweto will be a shock, the appearance of the Burkinabe Stallions is nothing less than sensational.
Virtually the same group of players was sent packing after the first round last year having lost all three games and they arrived in South Africa embarrassed by a 17-match finals winless run spanning 15 years.
Now, teams who drew 1-1 in the opening round of Group C, with since-injured Alain Traore leveling four minutes into stoppage time for the Burkinabe, clash again for a US$1.5 million prize and a FIFA Confederations Cup place.
The victors took starkly contrasting routes through the semi-finals with Nigeria scoring twice in six minutes to set up a 4-1 thrashing of Mali in Indian Ocean city Durban.
Burkina Faso won 3-2 on penalties against Ghana in the north-eastern city of Nelspruit after a controversial 1-1 draw, with the winners conceding a harsh penalty, having a goal disallowed, and a man sent off.
Jonathan Pitroipa offered Burkina Faso so much with his pace down the flanks, but he misses the final after getting a second yellow card for simulation when big-screen replays showed he had been fouled.
Belgium-born Burkina Faso coach Paul Put pulled no punches: “The refereeing decisions were scandalous. We have lost Pitroipa for the final — he is very important to us.”
Winning captain Charles Kabore added: “The referee is human — all humans make mistakes — but he happened to make too many tonight. We are not going to dwell on that, we have qualified.”
Ghana captain and striker Asamoah Gyan said: “The better side won on penalties. We are all really sad — that is normal — but we have to psyche ourselves up for the third place play-off with Mali.”
Nigeria exposed a slow Mali defense to lead 3-0 by halftime through goals from Elderson Echiejile, Brown Ideye and Emmanuel Emenike, whose effort may be reviewed by the organizers as it took a massive deflection off Momo Sissoko.
Emenike and Mubarak Wakaso of Ghana share first place with four goals each in the race to finish leading scorer and be awarded the Golden Boot.
Ahmed Musa, on for injured midfield star Victor Moses, added a fourth goal on the hour mark before another substitute, Fantamady Diarra, grabbed a consolation goal.
“Mali are a good team with a great player in Seydou Keita, but they are not very fast at the back and we took advantage of this to score our first two goals,” Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron said: “I’m still proud of this team — we worked hard even though we did not reach the final. Now we must try and match the performance of last year and finish third.”