Nigerians look on the bright side

Nigeria 4 South Africa 0
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The Independent Online

In the city where The Life of Brian was filmed, there has been more than a whiff of the surreal about life in the Nigerian camp over the past few days. On Friday, three first-team players were suspended for allegedly entertaining prostitutes in the team hotel, while here they produced some of the most clinical football so far to restore their challenge for the African Cup of Nations.

Those players, including Chelsea's Celestine Babayaro and Portsmouth's Yakubu Ayegbeni, have not actually gone home yet, adding fuel to the conspiracy theory that they could be recalled should Nigeria progress beyond the first round. The likelihood of that increased with this win, against a limited South African side who will probably consider the margin of defeat as flattering to their opposition. Nigeria's final group game is against the weakest team in the group, Benin, while South Africa's qualification depends on a difficult match against Morocco.

But despite the off-field turmoil Nigeria finally showed on the pitch they are legitimate contenders to win their first Nations' Cup since 1994, which was also in Tunisia.

Nigeria lost their first match here, against Morocco last Tuesday, which meant it was vital they won this encounter, and after four minutes their nerves were eased thanks to their man from Everton. Joseph Yobo, who has been in imperious form, popped up at the far post to volley home from Ifeanyi Ekwueme, one of those to profit from the bad boys' behaviour. It was a rare goal for the adopted Merseysider but a precious one, as South Africa came into this game full of confidence.

Their key player is the striker Siyabonga Nomvete, and he was denied a goal after 26 minutes. He broke through the space vacated by George Abbey, of Third Division Macclesfield Town, and somehow the Nigeria goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, got one strong hand on his shot to prevent an equaliser. A minute later Nomvete again was in the danger area, but sent his effort over the bar.

Jay-Jay Okocha is never far away from the action, and his prompting and ceaseless searching for the ball meant Nigeria were a vastly improved team compared to days earlier. When a pass over the top to Nwankwo Kanu earned the Super Eagles a penalty, due to a handball by Aaron Mokoena, it was Okocha who stepped up. And this was not any ordinary penalty, as its conversion meant the Bolton midfielder had scored the 1,000th goal in the history of this tournament. He hit it inside the goalkeeper's left-hand post and was later presented with an award by the president of the African Football Federation, Issa Hayatou. South Africa had looked more likely to score until that unlucky break, which was their undoing.

Kanu was replaced by Osaze Odemwingie, and the 23-year-old proceeded to make it an inspired change. Osaze plays for La Louvière in Belgium, but on this evidence he may not be there much longer. He took his first goal with a left-footed shot from 20 yards that flew into the top corner, and his next he took with his other foot, finding the bottom corner.

The sublime and ridiculous are never far apart with Nigeria. Python would approve.

Nigeria 4 South Africa 0
Yobo 4, Okocha pen 64, Odemwingie 81, 83

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 15,000

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