AFCON 2023 – Drama at the finish line

The finish line is the very end of a race when an athlete breasts the tape and runs across the line. It is usually a thrilling and happy time to get to cross it.

Sometimes, however, crossing it may be harrowing, challenging, difficult and heart-wrenching, like the famous case of Juli Moss.
The story of Juli Moss

In 1982, Juli was a young American student researching exercise physiology thesis and using a new sport at the time, Ironman Triathlon, a three-in-one event involving swimming, cycling and a mini-marathon, as her subject.

Without much pre-event preparation or special training to prepare her, she decided to participate in the race. Towards the end of the grueling event, as dusk settled, she was first into the stadium for the final lap of the race. She was the clear leader of the race by up to 2 miles. It was impossible to catch her, under normal circumstances.

But then, with no previous experience of the event, she had run herself out of gas and fast was dehydrated by the time she ran into the stadium for the last lap around the tracks and the final stretch.

Then, she started to stagger and run across the tracks. She fell, rose to her feet, stumbled and staggered along and fell again. Urged on by the crowd and the officials by the tracks, she started to crawl.

A television camera at the stadium had started to focus on her, beaming live to people watching at home fascinated by her effort and calling each other up to tune-in to the channel and watch a most dramatic finish to a race.

Juli crawled on, and just as she was about a metre to the end, the TV camera still covering her effort on the track, recorded a pair of running legs, belonging to Kathleen McCartney, who had been over three minutes, or so, behind her when she entered the stadium, that went past her with only one foot to the end to win the race.

The story of Juli Moss has been told over and over again, a manual for how not to lose a race at the very end. It created a massive global interest for Ironman Triathlon, and influenced its eventual inclusion as an Olympic Sport.

For middle and long-distance runners, successfully covering the minute details along the distance till the very end of the race has often made the small difference between winning and losing races. The finish line represents the culmination of every thing an athlete goes through and does throughout the race including when the limbs are tired, the heart is pounding, the body is dehydrated, and the end of the the race is just a foot away.

Crossing that line is everything. Until that is done nothing can be taken for granted. As the Super Eagles approach the finish line of AFCON 2023, an event that has taken them successfully over several hurdles, and with only one last hurdle to cross that is the most critical, it would now require the skills and discipline of one that knows how to manage a race to the finish line to win the last match and become Kings of Africa.

Super Eagles – avoiding the only pitfall
There is only one major thing that could possibly be in the way of the Super Eagles as they approach the finish line. Where failure is an orphan, success has many fathers.

At the start of their journey, there were few believers in the Super Eagles cause, understandably, because, in the past two years or more, they had not been impressive. With the state of the Nigerian economy, sponsors of the national team had been very few and the people’s enthusiasm was low.

But three weeks into AFCON have changed all that narrative. The Super Eagles have become the biggest and the most courted brand in Nigeria. Organisations are now falling over each other to identify with their success. They can see how football has captured the imagination and interest of 200 million Nigerians, and driving them into a frenzy of hope, happiness and unprecedented excitement.

With five million television viewing centres in Nigeria, and growing, over 100 million Nigerians must have been watching every match of the Eagles all over the country.

Flights to Abidjan have been sold out for all the airlines. I am besieged, even as a nobody in the football establishment, with requests for how to get tickets for the final match. State Governors and even the Presidency have become regular callers and visitors to the Eagles.

Several companies and agencies of government are already donated large sums of money to the players with the promise of more when they cross the finish line. And there are many more lining up to do justice to their effort.

Abidjan will witness a flood of the high and the mighty in Nigerian society on Sunday, and the President of the country himself may be coming to be a part of the cheering army of Nigerians.

Now, all of these are good, and will mean nothing and may indeed help the psyche of the players to cross the finish line and win a most difficult match against Cote d’Ivoire on Sunday.

The difficulty would not be technical as in their capacity to play and win on the field, but psychological as in their state of mind getting onto the field to play as well as we all know they can, and confidently win. That would take concentrating for 90 minutes, outplaying the Elephants, silencing the millions of Ivorians who know that only another ‘miracle’ will save them.

Defeating the Elephants
The Elephants are way below Nigeria in quality of players, quality of performances so far, and the strength and depth of outstanding players in the teams. By all parametres, except physical voice support, the Eagles are superior.

They need to take this knowledge to boost their confidence t on the field of play. They can go to the field and deliver on their ability to the exclusion of all distractions. That’s the only thing that stands in their way to the finish line – distractions.

So my admonition is that officials with promises of rewards and unproductive words that would only add pressure to the players’ state of mind must be avoided. Visitation by officials should be reduced to the barest minimum. No promises should be accommodated any more before the match, but any such rewards should be offered after the finish line has been crossed.

Support is essential for the team and its die-hard supporters. Their voices will be drowned by the vociferous support of Ivorians on the day. But Nigeria can still minimise that effect with our own mobilisation of a small number of the 4 to 5 million Nigerians living in Ivory Coast to counter them. It is not too late to do so. It should start by encouraging and supporting with last minute resources the effort of the supporters’ clubs already in Ivory Coast, people that have left everything, made the journey to Ivory Coast, and have been staying there for a whole month just to cheer their team to success.

These Eagles are destined to win the AFCON 2023. Let us help them by leaving them alone at this time to focus on the last match ahead and cross the finish line. Having said all of that, however, there is guaranteed drama at the finish line.

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