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Day ‘unknown’ Mba made Drogba cry like a baby

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Drogba looking dejected while his teammate was being consoled after the defeat to Super Eagles in Rustenburg

Every major sporting tournament comes with its defining moment for men and women who shape history for good or bad. Though he had a brief playing stint with the Super Eagles, many African football fans still remember the impact of Sunday Mba, particularly during the 2013 African Cup of Nations held in South Africa. The midfielder contributed so much to the Super Eagles clinching the trophy for the third time in history.

At South Africa 2013, Mba shone, scoring two important goals, a heart breaker against the star-studded Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in the quarterfinal and the match-winner against the Stallions of Burkina Faso in the epic final.

On a day many had written off the Super Eagles, Mba provided the killer strike against the Elephants, a squad that was rated the best in Africa going by the caliber of players it paraded then.

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The Ivoirian squad to the 2013 AFCON had everything going well for them. Tagged the ‘Golden generation,’ the team, led by the creative and deadly Didier Drogba, had other top-rated players like Kolo Toure, Gervinho Yao Kouassi, Solomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora, Arthur Boka, Siaka Tiene and Cheick Tiote all shining in the English Premier League. It was their fifth successive tournament.

Then, Yaya Toure, a midfielder 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 the city of Rustenburg, all focus was on 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 saying: “We will eat the Eagles like super fried chicken.” It made a bold headline in many South African newspapers.

Only a few officials of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) were confident that the Eagles would scale the hurdles. A jittery NFF had already arranged the flight tickets for the players and their officials in anticipation of a defeat by the Elephants.

Seven years earlier (2006), Didier Drogba had done a great damage to Super Eagles’ quest of winning the trophy in the city of Alexander, Egypt. Then, the Eagles laced with experienced players as Jay Jay Okocha, Wilson Oruma, Garba Lawal, Kanu Nwankwo, Julius Aghahowa and Vincent Enyeama had eliminated Tunisia, which was one of the pre-tournament favourites in a hard way in Port Said, a city along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of the popular Suez Canal.

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A semifinal cracker against the Elephants in Alexandria four days later went the way of the Ivoirians after coach Austin Eguavoen made a schoolboy error by benching his experienced players for rookies. Drogba had a field day and accounted for the lone strike, which eliminated the Eagles. That was at Egypt 2006.

Drogba was looking forward to repeating the same in the city of Rustenburg.

At the age of 34, Didier Drogba and his ‘golden generation’ felt the South Africa 2013 was the last chance to lift the continent’s coveted trophy. He was hoping to rebound from a disappointing loss to the Chipolopolo of Zambia in the final of the African Nations Cup a year earlier. Drogba and ‘the gang’ had been part of the Ivoirian squad since 1992. They were always tagged pre-tournament favorites at every edition of the Nations Cup, but they never won the competition.

The battle of Rustenburg was one of the most anticipated of the quarterfinal matches at South Africa 2013 AFCON.

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It began and the Super Eagles had most of the chances in the first half but Cote d’Ivoire improved in the second and threatened more often, especially with Drogba and Gervinho looking menacing up front.

The Stephen Keshi-led Super Eagles adjusted quickly and Emmanuel Emenike opened the scoring when his well-struck free kick in the 43rd minute flew straight through the arms of goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, who was in goal for the Elephants.

Sensing that his dream of winning the Nations Cup in a lifetime was in danger, Drogba increased his fighting rate, pushing and hitting down all Nigerian players on the pitch. At a stage, Mikel Obi, his teammate at Chelsea could not tolerate it and confronted Drogba, but the Algerian referee Djamel Haimoudi quickly intervened.

In his usual way of digging out goals in the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League matches for Chelsea, Drogba continued pressing, and his effort was rewarded soon afterward. In one of his moves, ‘The Bulldozer’ was fouled just outside the area. Drogba won’t miss such an opportunity. His well-placed free kick from the set piece found the head of Cheik Tiote, who curved it into the far post, beating goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama in the process.

I have done it….Sunday Mba seems to say after his strike that sent the Elephants out of the Nations Cup

The Ivoirians, particularly Drogba celebrated the equalizer as if they had won the Nations Cup trophy.

But the moment of judgment soon came for Drogba and ‘the gang’ in the 78th minute.

A relatively unknown Sunday Mba, who was plying his soccer trade with Warri Wolves, made the difference. He set on a mazy run from outside the Ivoirians’ 18-yard box, beat three men and unleashed a 20-yard shot that looped over the head of goalkeeper Boubacar Barry to make it 2-1.

The 24-year-old Mba was one of the five home-based players in the Super Eagles 23-man squad at South Africa 2013 AFCON.

Mba became an instant hero. He was carried on the shoulder by his colleagues as the Eagles danced around the stadium celebrating one of the greatest achievements of the competition. Mba was the player every Nigerian wanted to meet.

Before Mba, no home-based player from Nigeria’s top league featured at the Ghana 2008 and Angola 2010 editions of the Nations Cup.

Mba’s strike was all the Eagles needed to send the boastful Elephants, their fans and supporters (home and abroad) to early bed.

His goal did not only send the Elephants into the Rustenburg forest, but helped the Super Eagles to advance to the last four for the sixth time in eight tournaments.

Drogba had a chance to square things up in stoppage time and force the tie into extra-time but saw his header sail over the crossbar.

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While the Nigerians took to the streets in celebration, Drogba, Kolo Toure, Gervinho, Solomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora, Yaya Toure and goalkeeper Boubacar Barry wept like babies inside their Marcopolo Bus.

At the mixed zone, a boastful Emmanuel Eboue covered his face in shame. When he summoned the courage to speak, Eboue, who had vowed to chew the Eagles like super fried chicken, ate his words during a brief chat with The Guardian: “I really apologise to my Nigerian brothers.”

The South Africa 2013 AFCON turned out to be the final Cup of Nations outing for the 34-year-old Drogba, despite being Cote d’Ivoire’s all-time top scorer. He never managed to win the African Cup of Nations. Drogba was twice African Footballer of the Year (2006, 2009).

The Eagles went on to beat Mali in the semifinal before overpowering the Stallions of Burkina Faso in the final, with Mba proving the winner.

Though, the Elephants won the 2015 edition of the African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea, beating the Black Stars of Ghana on penalty, Drogba was not part of the team.

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