JOHANNESBURG ? The Cup of Nations, in the end, was won and lost in the thunderstorm in Rustenburg. Nigeria had gone into its quarterfinal with hope but little concrete evidence of its abilities. Then it defeated the perennial favorites, Ivory Coast, 2-1 and discovered a profound sense that it would win the tournament. It went on to hammer Mali 4-1 in the semifinal before beating Burkina Faso 1-0 in Sunday's final.
For Stephen Keshi, Nigeria's bullish, single-minded coach, there must have been a great sense of putting right something that went very badly wrong 17 years ago. He should have captained Nigeria the last time the Cup of Nations was hosted by South Africa. Nigeria should have gone into the 1996 tournament as champion and favorite, with a squad featuring many of the Under-23 side that would win Olympic gold in Atlanta later that year. But shortly before the tournament, the military government in Nigeria executed the dissident novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Nelson Mandela, the South African president, spoke out in condemnation, and the Nigerian president Sani Abacha, withdrew his team from the competition.
That great Nigeria side was excluded from the 1998 competition as a result. It lost on penalties in the final in 2000 but by then the best was over and Nigeria remained stuck on two Cups of Nations. For the most populous nation in Africa, for a country with as proud a footballing tradition on the continent, to have own half as many Cups of Nations as the Egypt midfielder Ahmed Hassan was a profound embarrassment.
In the 19 years since Clemens Westerhof led Nigeria to the trophy, Nigeria has gone through 19 manager changes. It had reached one more final and lost in five semifinals, but only after that victory over Ivory Coast did it once again look like a champion. The credit must go to Keshi, who became the second man after the Egyptian Mahmoud Al Gohary, to win the Cup of nations as both player and coach.
The question now is why on earth Keshi wasn't given the job earlier. He was impressive in this tournament, dismissing all the distractions that besiege a coach of Nigeria with his natural authority and rumbling chuckle. Where previous coaches have allowed themselves to be influence by political or media interests, Keshi made it his policy to close his eyes and ears to everybody else and do it his way.
Perhaps most significantly, he formed a squad devoid of the cliques that have so often undermined Nigerian sides in the past. Dissenters and the uncommitted have been culled - even John Obi Mikel, comfortably Nigeria's best player in the tournament - was briefly omitted last year, and the result is a squad that is focused and firmly behind its coach.
The difference with this is that there's a lot of unity and a lot of potential at the same time, the Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo, a veteran of six tournaments, said. Other squads I've been with, the unity has not being that strong we've always had problems because we have different cultures and we're from different places. What brought us closer is that nobody thought we had a chance from the start. We were hurt and that gave us confidence and the unity was very strong.
As dissenters and the uncommitted were left out, Keshi filled their places with players from the domestic league - six of them, an unprecedented number in recent times. He was severely criticized for that, not least when the center-back Godfrey Oboabona of Sunshine Stars slipped on the sandy surface in Nelspruit to gift Burkina Faso its late equalizer when the sides met in the opening round of group games. But Oboabona then grew in stature to form a formidable partnership with Kenneth Omeruo at the center of defense.
Even more critical was the contribution of the Warri Wolves forward Sunday Mba. His winner against Ivory Coast in the quarterfinal made him the first player from the domestic Nigerian league to score in the Cup of Nations since Emmanuel Okocha in 1990 and if that didn't vindicate Keshi's faith in domestic players then his brilliant winner in the final, flicking up a dropping ball before smashing a volley into the corner, surely did.
The success of Nigeria-based players hinted at a broader truth, which is that Keshi's success was a victory for African coaches in general. He became the first Nigerian coach to in the tournament and was clearly helped in that by his knowledge of the Nigerian league. Would an outsider, a Lars Lagerback or a Berti Vogts, have had any way of judging the quality of Mba or Oboabona? "I want to dedicate this win to all Nigerian coaches who were praying for this team," Keshi said. "This is not for me alone. I hope other African coaches will get to this position and make this nation proud."
And yet, even as he spoke, rumors were surfacing that the Nigerian Football Federation was considering making an offer to Herve Renard, the Frenchman who led Zambia to success last year. In Nigerian football, the politicking never stops.