In the event, Morocco became the first nation to win both senior men’s titles in the African continent, following from their triumph in the AFCON in Ethiopia 42 years ago.
A heavy rain driven by strong winds was a feature of the match throughout, with the Eagles struggling to cope with a very wet turf at the Stade Mohamed V. Yet, they put up a creditable first 45 minutes, holding the Atlas Lions well and creating chances of their own, with only Zakaria Hadraf’s 45th-minute goal separating both teams at the time Senegalese referee Papa Gassama brought the first period to a close.
A battling performance by the Super Eagles was not enough as hosts Morocco fired from all cylinders to hit Nigeria 4-0 and win the African Nations Championship title in Casablanca on Sunday.
Coach Salisu Yusuf started Peter Eneji instead of Anthony Okpotu, with the strategy of two wingers who could also do damage at the fore. But Eneji, playing his first match of the tournament, bagged his second yellow card only three minutes into the second half, leaving the Eagles disadvantaged under pouring rain and at the mercy of an Atlas Lions’ attack that had netted 12 goals in their previous five matches in the competition.
A goal down and a man less, and a wet turf to deal with, the Eagles truly struggled. Despite the good spirit of Gabriel Okechukwu and Emeka Ogbuh, and energetic play of Rabiu Ali, Dayo Ojo and Emeka Atuloma, the Eagles’ rearguard was overwhelmed time and again and the second goal came as El Karti reacted quickest when goalkeeper Oladele Ajiboye punched the ball in the 62nd minute.
Two minutes later, the Lions broke again on the counter as Nigeria lost the ball on an onslaught. Poor communication between Ajiboye and defender Stephen Eze saw the ball roll into the path of an unmarked Hadraf, who easily got his brace.
El Kaabi, who had rocked Ajiboye’s crossbar and upright with acrobatic cycle kicks in the 15th and 62nd minute, scored his ninth goal of the tournament as the Eagles’ defence crumbled again in the 73rd minute. He was named Player of the Tournament and also became the championship’s record scorer.
At the end, Nigeria celebrated a best-ever performance at the African Nations Championship, picking up the silver medals and the runners-up prize money of $750,000 – better than the bronze medal outing in South Africa four years ago.