NELSPRUIT — Nigeria, with a stand-out 13 top-three finishes in the bank, return to the African Nations Cup fold after missing the boat last year, with an opening run-out against Burkina Faso on Monday.
No-nonsense coach Stephen Keshi knows what it takes to claim the continental showcase, having been captain of the last Super Eagles team to go all the way in Tunis 19 years ago.
They beat Zambia 2-1 in the final then and come up against the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) again in their second Group C game next Friday.
Keshi, who made a name for himself as a physically formidable centre-back, has spent the last few weeks fine-tuning his squad in Portugal.
Nigeria’s diet of warm-up friendlies harvested a mediocre set of results, with a 1-1 draw against a Barcelona-boosted Catalonia side, a goalless draw with fellow qualifiers Cape Verde, a 1-0 behind-closed-doors win over Dutch club Sparta Rotterdam and a 5-0 rout of a Portuguese second division outfit.
But Keshi, who failed to get past the first round in previous stints with Togo and Mali, is happy with his squad’s commitment.
"It is good to see players work so hard to win places in my starting line-up. Such competition gives me a nice kind of headache.
"No one has a permanent shirt in the team — they must fight to get it and fight to keep it."
Captain Joseph Yobo, poised to equal Nwankwo Kanu’s record of playing in six Nations Cups, is not blind to the difficulty of the task that lies before them.
"Winning the trophy is not going to be easy, but I promise we will give it our best shot," the veteran said.
"Let us not get beyond ourselves. The focus for now is on getting past the group stages and only then should we think about quarterfinals and, hopefully, the semifinals and final."
In midfield, Chelsea pair John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses are expected to make their presence heavily felt.
Winger Moses, at his first Nations Cup, said: "We have prepared well and, having missed the last tournament, wish to make Nigerians proud by the end of it."
On the future, Keshi said Nigeria are starting a five-year project which will culminate at the 2018 World Cup in Brazil.
"This is a team that is in a process to become better over the next five years," he said.
"We are not looking at this Nations Cup alone but looking at the World Cup in five years from now. That is why we decided to go with some of the younger players in our squad. I have confidence in them, they have been working hard," he said.
Burkina Faso can only cast covetous glances at Nigeria’s outstanding Cup record, the Stallions’ having gone 17 matches without a win. Their last victory was way back in 1998.
Some of their exits have been gallant, others humiliating, with the team failing to harvest a single point at the 1978, 1996 and 2012 finals.
But ahead of their opener in Nelspruit, striker Aristide Bance was in positive frame of mind.
"I believe we have learnt from past failures and have a realistic chance of getting out of the group," said the star, who plays for Bundesliga side Augsburg.
Burkina Faso’s prospects were boosted with the return to fitness of another striker, Alain Traore, but his heel injury may prevent him from playing in the opening round already.
Such is his significance to the national cause — he scored a stoppage-time goal to put Burkina Faso through at the expense of the Central African Republic — that a high-ranking delegation headed to Brittany last month to pay him a courtesy visit at his club, Lorient.