Before kick-off a Nigeria fan wearing a loaf on his head paraded down the central aisle of the main stand bearing a message that read "Eat them like bread." Quite what that means is anybody's guess, but the Super Eagles beat Burkina Faso comfortably enough last night and so ended their 19-year wait for a third Cup of Nations triumph. The captain when they won the trophy in 1994 was Stephen Keshi and there was little doubt that he was key again as he became only the second man, after the Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, to win the Cup of Nations as player and coach.
"Winning this tournament is a melody for my nation," said Keshi, the first Nigerian coach to win the Cup of Nations. "I came on board nearly a year-and-a-half ago and my dream was to make Nigerians happy.
"My dream was to give Nigerians a very good team. We are not there yet but we are close. I want to dedicate this to all Nigerian coaches who were praying for this team. This is not for me alone. I hope other African coaches will get to this position and make this nation proud."
Keshi, who played in the losing side in the finals of 1984 and 1988 and then captained Nigeria to the trophy in 1994, their last success, had proved himself an exceptional leader, navigating the difficult political waters of Nigerian football with bullish charm, a wry chuckle and extremely thick skin. In the face of a welter of potential distractions, he has remained admirably single-minded, laying out from the off that his policy was "to close my eyes and ears to everybody else and do it my way".
Perhaps most significantly, Keshi has 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 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. The unity was very strong."
Part of Keshi's drive for unity was including players from the domestic league – six of them, an unprecedented number in recent times. He was severely criticised for it, not least when centre-back Godfrey Oboabona of Sunshine Stars slipped on the sandy surface in Nelspruit to gift Burkina Faso a late equaliser when they met in the group games. But Oboabona has grown in stature since, and yesterday made one timely intervention to cut out a through-ball to Jonathan Pitroipa to Aristide Bance in the first half. Sunday Mba, by scoring the winner against Ivory Coast, became the first player from the domestic Nigerian league to score in the Cup of Nations since Emmanuel Okocha in 1990.
The Warri Wolves forward broke the deadlock after 40 minutes last night, just as Nigeria's early surge seemed to have been contained. When Victor Moses's shot was blocked, he ran on, flicked the ball up and jabbed it home on the full from just inside the box.
The Burkina Faso coach Paul Put had said that just being in the final was victory enough. It is further than any Burkina Faso side has been before (in fact, before this tournament, the Stallions had never won a Cup of Nations match on foreign soil).
"Nobody was expecting to get this result so I think the way we have been playing was very good," he said "There's still a long way to go for this team, so we have to do everything possible, have to speak to federation and the government because we have not arrived as far as we can go. I'm very proud of my players for what they have achieved in this tournament."
Reaching the World Cup play-offs after losing their first two qualifiers, though, will be a severe test, despite the evident improvement Put has brought to the side.
Only in the final 20 minutes last night, after Nigeria's excellent left-back Elderson Echiejile was forced off by injury, did Burkina Faso begin to pose a threat, but when Prejuce Nakoulma laid in Wilfried Sanou, Vincent Enyeama made an excellent save low to his right. The keeper had an excellent competition, as did Mikel, but this was Keshi's tournament.
Nigeria (4-2-3-1): Enyeama; Ambrose, Omeruo, Oboabona, Echiejile (Oshaniwa, 67); Mikel, Onazi; Ideye, Mba (Yobo, 89), Moses; Uche (Musa, 53). Burkina Faso (4-2-3-1): Diakite; Koffi, B Kone, P Koulibaly (Dagano, 84), Panadetiguiri; D Kone (Traore, 90), Rouamba (Sanou, 65); Pitroipa, Kabore, Nakoulma; Bance.