By Victor Okoye
The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has reached the knockout stages and there are no more second chances as Nigeria’s Super Eagles take on the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia.
The News Agency of Nigeria of Nigeria (NAN) reports that Sunday’s AFCON Round of 16 encounter between Nigeria and Tunisia will take place at the Stade Roumdé Adjia, in Garoua, Cameroon from 8.00 p.m.
It is indeed a meeting of two Eagles, with both Eagles finely balanced on six wins each with eight draws from 20 previous encounters.
Nigeria ran out 2-0 winners the first-ever time these two nations met in the Surulere Stadium, Lagos, in 1961 during the 1962 AFCON qualifying series.
It was the Carthage Eagles who made it to the tournament proper in controversial circumstances though.
Nigeria were 2-1 up at the Stade Chedly Zouiten in Tunis when a hotly debated Tunisian equaliser forced a Nigerian walkout in the 65th minute.
Tunisia was thus awarded a 2–0 win and qualified for the final by an aggregate score of 3–2.
The North Africans yet again proved to be Nigeria’s nemesis during the qualification rounds of the 1978 FIFA World Cup.
The Green Eagles pulled off a credible scoreless draw in Tunisia only to suffer a 1-0 sucker-punch at home in the return fixture.
The two nations continued their acrimonious face-offs at the third-place match of the 11th edition of the African Cup of Nations tagged Ghana ’78.
Mohamed Amid gave the Tunisians a 19th-minute lead, but Baba Otu Mohammed equalised for Nigerians just before halftime to the displeasure of their opponents.
Unable to contain their anger, Tunisia players walked off in protest of the officiating. As a result, CAF awarded Nigeria a 2-0 win, and Tunisia were banned from the next tournament.
In July 1980, nearly 20 years after their first win, Nigeria finally recorded their second victory over Tunisia, winning 2-0 in Lagos two weeks after losing by the same scoreline in Tunis.
But it was the West Africans who advanced on penalties to the second round of the 1982 FIFA World Cup qualifying series.
A first international friendly match was organised in 1984 between the two nations to smoothen strained relations.
Still, it turned out to be a sad day for the Green Eagles with Tunisia claiming a 5-0 win, their biggest victory over the Nigerians.
Nigeria quickly put the loss behind them the following year, with a 1-0 victory during another World Cup qualifier. But the North Africans responded with a 2-0 win a fortnight later.
A second international friendly match ended 1-1 in 1992 before Tunisia, as host, defeated Nigeria 2-0 in the final of the inaugural edition of the LG Cup in 1997.
Nigeria, co-host of AFCON 2000 with Ghana, shared Group D with Tunisia.
A brace each from the mercurial Austin Okocha and Victor Ikpeba helped the Super Eagles to a 4-2 win in front of more than 80,000 spectators at the National Stadium in Lagos.
Jay Jay Okocha was voted the best player at Tunisia 2004, but it was the host who dumped the Nigerians out of the tournament on penalties after full-time scores stood at 1-1.
A similar result was repeated at the next edition in Egypt, but it was Nigeria’s turn to edge past the Carthage Eagles on penalties.
Three more draws followed between the two nations between 2009 and 2016 before the fixture sprung up again in 2021 at the third-place match of the African Cup of Nations.
Odion Ighalo’s third-minute strike at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo was all the Super Eagles needed to power past Algeria and secure the tournament’s bronze medal.
Their most recent encounter was a friendly game in Austria in October 2020, which ended 1-1 with Nigeria’s goal scored by Kelechi Iheanacho.
Nigeria has been superb so far in Cameroon and the only team with a perfect record with three wins in three from their group phase campaign file
There’s a reason for that – they lead the entire field in shots per game (16).
They put down a serious marker, when they not only beat a well fancied Egypt side in the first game, but shut them out, allowing only four shots and have gone from strength to strength since.
On current form, they should have no problem dispatching a Tunisia team that ‘luckily” fell into this round as one of the third best teams after losing two out of three group games.
The Tunisians were only able to defeat minnows Mauritania while losing to Mali and The Gambia.
To add to their problems is the fact that the Tunisian camp has been somewhat ravaged by positive COVID tests and there are no indications yet as to whether their star players, including Wahbi Khazri will return for this game.
Both countries are led by indigenous coaches. Mondher Kebaier will sit on the Tunisians’ bench.
The match will be Eguavoen’s 16th for Nigeria across three stints, during which he has walked off the pitch victorious in 13 of the previous 15, with only two narrow defeats.
He is also the only man to have coached Nigeria to win all three group phase matches at the AFCON, achieving this in both his AFCON odysseys in 2006 and 2022.
Eguavoen has, however, stressed on the need of not taking the Tunisians for granted, adding that he expects a tough duel between both teams.
“I expect a very tough game against the Tunisians. Our group will not be lulled into any sense of superiority over any team here until we do the business on the field.
“Tunisia is a big name in African football and we must acknowledge that, in spite the manner in which they reached this stage.
“We have watched some of their games and from what we know of them in the distant past and in lucid memory, they are never a team to take for granted.”
Eguavoen’s 51 caps for Nigeria did not include an encounter with Tunisia, but he was head coach of the Super Eagles when Nigeria upended the Carthage Eagles on penalty shootout in Port Said in Egypt 16 years ago.
It was a sweet victory for the Eagles which sent the Cup holders out of the tournament at the quarter final stage.
“That was a huge, huge game and a memorable one for me. The match ended 1-1 in regulation and extra time and we had to go into penalties.
“We lost two of our first three kicks or something like that and then bounced back when our goalkeeper (Vincent Enyeama) stopped two of their kicks. It was a sweet victory,” Eguavoen recalled. (NAN) (www.nannews.ng)