"No hero ball": AFCON hero’s powerful message to Super Eagles ahead of South Africa clash

Paul Okoku, a member of Nigeria’s team to the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations in Cote d’Ivoire has reflected on the team’s journey back in 1984, and has called on the Super Eagles players “to play to instructions” and avoid “trying to be the hero” in Wednesday’s AFCON 2023 semi-final clash against South Africa.

The Super Eagles tackle the Bafana Bafana on Wednesday with a place in the final of the tournament beckoning for the three-time AFCON champions. Nigeria booked their record 15th semi-final berth in the championship, following their 1-0 victory over Angola in the quarter-final.

That win over Angola set up a juicy semi-final clash against the South Africans, this time not in Abidjan, where the former have been playing their games since the start of the AFCON on January 13, but in Bouaké, where the likes of Okoku lit up the championship 40 years ago when Cote d’Ivoire hosted CAF’s flagship championship for the first time.

Cameroon Nigeria Afcon 1984 Keshi Roger Milla

Stephen Keshi challenges Cameroon’s Roger Milla during the 1984 AFCON final.

Okoku and the likes of Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Humphrey Edobor, Peter Rufai, Yisa Sofoluwe, and other iconic Nigerian stars of that glorious era would end up finishing as runners-up after losing to Cameroon in the final, but the former Nigeria international is confident the current crop of Super Eagles stars can go one better than that AFCON 1984 and has urged Jose Peseiro’s men to etch their names in glory.

In a statement, ahead of Wednesday’s clash with South Africa, titled ‘Bouaké Chronicles: Super Eagles’ Historic Return & AFCON 2024 Anticipations against South Africa,’ Okoku said: “In the teeming heart of Bouaké, Ivory Coast, echoes of the past pulsated through the air when news broke that the Super Eagles would face Bafana Bafana of South Africa in the City of Bouaké. A surge of excitement and adrenaline enveloped me, accompanied by a mix of emotions and moments of relief. Bouaké, a city reminiscent of Super Eagles’ triumphs during the AFCON 1984, held a special place in our football history.

“The historical triumph in Bouaké and our favourable head-to-head record against South Africa fuelled confidence. Dating back to the 10th of October 1992, we’ve met 14 times, with Nigeria winning 7, losing 2, and tying 5 – an impressive record. Yet, acknowledging that historical success doesn’t guarantee victory, Super Eagles should brace themselves for an intense match.

Paul Okoku and Rabah MadjerPaul Okoku and Rabah Madjer

Paul Okoku (right) and Algerian great and former African Footballer of the Year Rabah Madjer after Nigeria’s goalless draw against the Algerians at AFCON 1984.

“Understanding the expectations on strikers like Victor Osimhen, whose primary role is scoring goals, I appreciate the millions of Nigerians who will be soaked in perspiration from the tension. The anticipation is palpable, and we trust the Super Eagles to deliver, again.

“While winning has the power to make us forget the challenges, agony and pain in the nation, Victor Osimhen’s presence on the field adds a unique dimension. Albeit, he has not been scoring goals, however, his ability to make opposing defenders mindful of him creates fear, providing opportunities for other players to capitalize. Osimhen’s workhorse mentality, contributing in various aspects of the game, reflects the team’s commitment to finding ways to win and improving continuously.

Bafana BafanaBafana Bafana

South Africa pose for photos before their Africa Cup of Nations Afcon 2023 match against Cape Verde at Stade Charles Konan Banny Stadium on February 3, 2024 in Yamoussoukro.

“As the Super Eagles approach the game, the legacy of true Nigerian champions is at the forefront. Encouraging the Super Eagles to play to instructions, avoid trying to be the hero, let the game come to you, let it flow, and trust one another, I’m confident that their unwavering confidence will translate into a remarkable performance. It’s time to put it all together and soar to victory!

“To the Super Eagles’ players, your strength, skill, and spirit make us proud. Go out there, play with heart, and create moments that will echo through time. Nigerians are with you all the way! I am getting ready for a Cinderella story, Super Eagles! From zero to hero, go ahead and script a legendary tale on the field for your legacy. The magic begins, and the Nigerians across the globe are all cheering for you!

“Oh yeah, it reminds me much like a Shakespearean play, this vital soccer game against South Africa takes the centre stage, weaving drama, skill, and passion into acts of triumph. On this field, in Bouake, each player becomes a character in the grand narrative of victory. To play or not to play? The answer is clear: Let the game commence! Bring home the victory.”

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