The match always had the potential for goals, but few would have predicted such a lopsided result. With four goals in a 35-minute span starting mid-first half, Nigeria qualified for their first Africa Cup on Nations final in 13 years, eliminating Mali 4-1.
In some ways the result was just as impressive as Sunday’s quarterfinal defeat of tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire. While the Malians are not held in the same regard as Les Elephants, the Super Eagles put on a more impressive show, leaving little doubt the project initiated by Stephen Keshi — one that left many of the team’s highest profile, most-capped players out — has come good.
Braga defender Uwa Echiejile opened the scoring in the 25th minute, heading come a cross from Victor Moses. Five minutes later, Dyanmo Kyiv striker Brown Ideye doubled Nigeria’s lead, with Spartak Moscow attacker Emmanuel Emenike giving the Super Eagles a 3-0 lead minutes before halftime. CSKA attacker Ahmed Musa’s goal on the hour completed the Nigerian onslaught, with Bordeaux forward Cheick Diarra’s late tally sparing Mali a sliver of indignity.
Nigeria will meet the winner of the day’s other semifinal, Burkina Faso-Ghana, Sunday in Johannesburg.
That final appearance will be the latest vindication of Keshi, who selected a young team for South Africa with the hopes of leaving the program’s baggage behind.
“There were a lot of problems in Nigeria because some of the big players, I did not want to take along in the team,” Keshi said of the response to his Cup of Nations selection. Players like Peter Odemwingie and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, veterans who have combined for 112 appearances and 30 international goals, were omitted from the squad, as were experienced players Obafemi Martins and Taye Taiwo.
The result is a team that may lack the attacking power of some of Nigeria’s previous major tournament squads, but it’s also a team that’s avoiding the pitfalls. After a disappointing 2010 World Cup and the failure to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations, Nigeria has yet to lose in their five games in South Africa, scoring 10 goals while allowing only four.
Now the Super Eagles have a chance to win their first African title since 1994, when their squad featured a 32-year-old Keshi as well as a young Jay Jay Okocha.