By RON FANFAIR
Four-time World Cup finalist Nigeria will miss the Africa Cup of Nations soccer championship for the first time since 1998 when they were suspended for failing to defend the title two years earlier because of political differences with South Africa.
The Super Eagles were last weekend held to a 2-2 draw by Guinea at home, precipitating the country’s national soccer federation to demand coach Samson Siasia provide an explanation in 48 hours for the disappointing loss.
“When we don’t qualify for a Nations Cup, that hurts as it means we don’t belong to the best teams on the continent,” said former Nigerian international, Sunday Oliseh, who represented the country 63 times and was a member of the 1996 Olympics gold medal winning team.
The coach apologized for the country’s failure to reach next year’s 16-team final to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
“We understand the frustration of the fans because they love their team so much,” he said. “But sometimes, soccer can be cruel.”
Nigeria won the competition in 1980 and 1994 and finished third in last year’s competition in Angola.
The Ivory Coast, which won the championship in 1992, was the only country with a perfect record in the qualifying tournament. The West African team finished with the maximum 18 points while registering 19 goals and conceding just four.
The Ivory Coast and Ghana are the only two of the six African World Cup participants in last year’s World Cup in South Africa that have qualified for the 28th African championship.
Four-time champions Ghana, which lost to Uruguay in a shoot-out in the 2010 World Cup, shut out Sudan 2-0. Despite the defeat, the Sudanese – they clinched the title in 1970 – advanced to next year’s final for the seventh time.
Niger qualified for the finals for the first time despite losing 3-0 to Egypt. Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone finished with nine points, but the landlocked Western African country prevailed because of a better head-to-head record, having defeated both Sierra Leone and South Africa at home.
“It’s what we’ve been fighting for for 51 years and now we’ve got it,” said the country’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou. “This is a chance for the people of Niger to learn a lesson – that in all areas, we can be among the best.”
Seven-time champions Egypt, which has won the tournament the last three occasions, four-time winners Cameroon, 1990 champions Algeria and 1996 winners South Africa failed to qualify for Africa’s top soccer tournament.
The 16 participants in next year’s competition from January 21 to February 12 are co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea who automatically qualify, Niger, Angola, Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Libya, Sudan and Zambia which fired its Italian coach Dario Bonetti two days after the team qualified.
“Dario has done a good job but we don’t think he can take this team any further,” said Zambia Soccer Association president, Kalusha Bwalya. “With the players we have, we believe Zambia should be playing a lot better because our people have high expectations. We need someone to come in and shake up the squad because we have ambitions of playing at the next World Cup.”
Zambia topped its group, which included Libya, Mozambique and Comoros, with four wins in six qualifying matches while allowing just two goals and recording 11.