Even before the deciding match at the CAF U-23 Africa Cup of Nations had been played, the two finalists Nigeria and Algeria considered themselves victorious as both had achieved their primary goal of qualifying for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Rio de Janeiro. The two giants of African football were joined later by South Africa, who won the third-place play-off match against hosts Senegal.
With the pressure of qualification behind them, it was Nigeria's Dream Team VI, named after the original Dream Team of 1996 that became the first African country to win Olympic gold, who managed to lift the trophy after beating the North Africans 2-1. The hero for the Nigerians was goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel, who saved a penalty against the Senegalese in the semi-final and then repeated that in the final itself. The performances in Senegal of the 21-year-old Enugu Rangers goal-stopper will have done his chances of being called up into the locally-based team for the Championship of African Nations tournament next month no harm.
Also impressing for the winning side was Azubuike Okechukwu, who was one of three foreign-based players in the squad. The midfielder, who captains the team, was suspended for the semi-final, but put in a great performance in the championship match, dictating play from deep. The tournament's top scorer was Etebo Oghenekaro, who scored five goals – four of them from the penalty spot. The Warri Wolves midfielder is an influential, powerful playmaker who not only possesses a lot of pace but also has an eye for goal.
Siasia's side qualified for the semi-finals after beating Mali and drawing with Algeria and Egypt in their group games. The ticket for Rio was finalised with the 1-0 win against Senegal in the semis, before two Oghenekaro goals gave them the trophy in the final. Coach Samson Siasia, who was in charge of the side the last time they qualified for the finals at Beijing 2008, said that it had been a worthy accomplishment to reach Rio. “There were some ups and downs, but we achieved the objective and then we wanted to win the tournament for our people back home in Nigeria.”
Like Nigeria, Algeria made it out of the group phase with two draws and a win against Mali, before beating South Africa in the round of the last four. The side is coached by former FC Sion coach Andre-Pierre Schurmann. He was given the task of taking the side to Rio, which he managed admirably. "The players have been rewarded, everyone worked hard to make sure we would qualify for the Olympics. I'm proud of this team and our staff.”
While Nigeria and Algeria knew that they were Rio bound ahead of their final game, South Africa and Senegal were involved in a winner-take-all match for the third spot. Both teams had already met in the group stage, with the hosts winning 3-1. Senegal also beat Tunisia and Zambia to comfortably advance to the semi-finals, while South Africa needed to avoid defeat in their final group game against Tunisia and went one better, beating the North Africans 1-0 to reach the last four
The play-off was an evenly-contested game with both sides having chances. As they did in their semi-final, the hosts squandered a golden opportunity from the penalty spot. As neither side managed to find the net, the game had to be decided on penalties and there it was South African goalkeeper Jody February who performed heroics. Having already saved the spot-kick during the game, the Ajax Cape Town custodian added three more saves in the shoot-out to help his side to a 3-1 victory. February played down his performance after the game. “I just wanted to contribute to the team. I am no penalty specialist. I am at a loss for words, just happy. We showed that with passion, determination and a lot of sweat we can achieve things as South Africans. This is a good start for things to come,” he said.
The team, whose only previous appearance at the Olympics dates back to 2000, will make the trip to Rio alongside their women's team Banyana Banyana, who had earlier also qualified. South African coach Owen Da Gama admitted after the game that his side had been fortunate. “We fought hard and it's clear that the harder you work the luckier you get. But I also think we were lucky. Sorry to Senegal.”