Football has a knack for producing the unlikely, whether in the form of a modest nation’s fairytale rise or a football club achieving greatness against all odds—like Greece at the 2004 Euros and Leicester City’s sensational Premier League win in 2016.
Or the event whereby a previously unheralded player rises above expectations in the most improbable fashion, leaving their footprints in the game.
Eder’s story fits right into the latter category. But three years before his startling ascent from anonymity to hero status in his homeland of Portugal, a story of similar plot unfolded in the southern tip of Africa—the story of Nigeria’s Sunday Mba at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa.
Under the stewardship of the now-deceased Stephen Keshi, Nigeria had a straightforward march to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, dispatching Rwanda and Liberia in two qualifying rounds en route. Nigeria was then drawn into a tricky Group C alongside reigning champions Zambia, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia.
On January 9, 2013, Keshi revealed his 23-man tournament roster. Keeping with the pattern, the team, which included Chelsea pair Mikel Obi and Victor Moses, Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike, and CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa, was primarily composed of players playing in European leagues. In contrast, those who plied their trade in the Nigerian league continued to receive the short end of the stick; only six of them were selected. Even so, Keshi received criticism from some quarters for his persistence with the domestic players at the expense of other established foreign-based stars.
This was (and continues to be) a time when the nation’s very best footballers competed in various leagues around Europe, and made up the nucleus of the national team. This has been especially so since the turn of the millennium, when the Nigerian league began to decline and lose viewership due to administrative inefficiency, which explains the groans over Keshi’s selection choices.
One of the few home-based players picked was Sunday Mba, a relatively unknown midfielder. Mba, 24 years old at the time, was on the books of Rangers International (fresh off a spell at fellow Nigerian Premier League side Warri Wolves).
Born in Aba, a vibrant commercial city in Abia State in southeastern Nigeria, Sunday Mba discovered his love for football at a very young age, playing for several local teams before joining the prestigious Pepsi Football Academy in 2004. There, he continued his development and even received national recognition by being called up to the U17 Nigeria team in 2005. He inked a deal with local giants Enyimba that same year, kickstarting his professional football career. His trajectory to the senior Nigerian national team, however, was far from straightforward.
Between 2005 and 2013, the Aba native had spells at Enyimba (twice), Rangers International (twice), Dolphins FC, and Warri Wolves, indicating a nomadic period in his career. His first foray into senior international football came in 2010. While playing for Warri Wolves, Mba was selected to join the Super Eagles B, the home-based national team. He was a member of the team that won the 2010 WAFU Nations Cup (a tournament for players playing in their home leagues in West African countries) on home soil. The midfielder scored two goals during the course of the tournament. Mba continued to build a reputation for himself in the Nigerian league, largely unnoticed by the general public. But it was not until the appointment of Stephen Keshi as the Super Eagles manager that he would have the opportunity to play for the main national team
Keshi took over the job in November 2011, during one of the lowest moments in the national team’s history. The Super Eagles had finished rock bottom in their group at the 2010 World Cup. Even worse, they managed to do the unthinkable: miss out on qualification for the 2012 Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, something that had not happened since 1986. The outlook for the national team was permeated with pessimism.
Keshi was tasked with restoring lost pride. And unlike his predecessors, the ‘Big Boss’, as fans affectionately called him, promised to give players from the local league a fair shot with the national squad. He would keep his word, Sunday Mba becoming one of the beneficiaries.
Expectations were modest for Nigeria heading to the 2013 Nations Cup. And after the team’s opening two matches against Burkina Faso and Zambia ended in 1-1 draws, the pessimism seemed to deepen. Late equalisers conceded in both games placed Nigeria in danger of an early exit. Third in the standings, the Eagles entered their final group match against Ethiopia, needing a positive result to stay alive. Keshi made three changes for the match, including introducing Sunday Mba into the starting lineup. Mba, hitherto, had been on the team’s fringes, playing no part in the first two games.
Ethiopia managed to keep Nigeria at bay for most of the game. With Burkina Faso and Zambia still at deadlock in the other group clash, Keshi’s men remained third on the table and were headed for the exit. But that changed when, in the 80th minute, Victor Moses was hacked inside the Ethiopian 18-yard box. Moses scored the resulting penalty to give Nigeria the lead. In the 90th minute, the winger earned another penalty, which he converted to double Nigeria’s lead, sending the Super Eagles through to the knockout rounds as Group C runners-up.
Mba went the distance and drew praise from the manager for his performance. “He [Mba] had a wonderful match. He played so well, and I am happy for him,” Keshi told reports in his post-match press conference. It was, however, in the knockout stages that Mba would truly justify the faith placed in him.
Ivory Coast were Nigeria’s quarterfinal opponent. The golden generation Ivorian team, spearheaded by Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, were pre-tournament favorites. And given Nigeria’s scrappy form, not many gave them a chance.
Nigeria were surprisingly the better side in the first half, with the dynamic trio of Moses, Emenike, and Ideye causing the Ivorians backline all sorts of problems. Twenty-six minutes in, Emenike had the chance to open the scoring after sharp attacking play saw Nigeria carve open the Ivorian defense, but he skied his effort from close range. The Spartak Moscow man redeemed himself and gave Nigeria a well-deserved lead with an audacious long-range free kick just before halftime. The Elephants almost drew level minutes later, but Romaric’s free-kick went inches wide.
The stunned Ivorians emerged in the second half with a heightened sense of urgency as they sought an equalizer. Drogba went down under minimal contact, just outside the Nigerian box. The Ivorian captain’s delivery found its way to the unmarked Cheick Tioté at the back post, who headed home to level the score shortly after the restart. The game heated up as the minutes went by, with both teams creating several chances. A highly anticipated affair between two of the biggest names in African football was living up to the hype.
12 minutes from time, Mba received possession in the middle of the pitch. The Rangers International star, seeing space to run into, surged deep into enemy territory, eluding a couple of orange shirts before unleashing a shot from 20 yards out. Mba’s shot took a deflection off Souleymane Bamba on its way to the back of the net. It was at this moment that Mba truly stepped into the spotlight.
The Ivorians pressed for an equaliser, but the damage had already been done. An encounter that featured a host of Africa’s premier talents was decided by a player whose inclusion in the Nigerian squad was questioned. The result sent shock waves across the continent, and the Super Eagles were no longer considered underdogs when they faced Mali in the semifinal.
Early on, Mali forced Nigeria back with a barrage of attacks and set pieces, which caused them panic. The Super Eagles would go on to find their rhythm from there, missing an opportunity when Ideye couldn’t bury his attempt from within the 18-yard box. Mikel then flashed a shot just wide off the post in the 21st minute. Four minutes later, the floodgates were opened when Elderson Echiejile connected with a cross that Moses whipped in from the right. By halftime, Nigeria were 3-0 up, courtesy of two more goals from Ideye and Emenike.
If Les Aigles had any hopes of pulling off a remarkable comeback in the second half, Nigeria’s fourth goal in the 60th minute, scored by substitute Ahmed Musa, took the wind out of their sails and sealed their fate. Fantamady Diarra gave the Malians a late consolation.
And so Nigeria advanced to the Nations Cup final. Standing between them and Africa’s football ultimate prize were familiar opponents, Burkina Faso. The Burkinabes had required a last-gasp equaliser when both teams met in the group stage, but Nigeria had grown by leaps and bounds since that meeting and went into the final as clear favorites. For their part, Burkina Faso were the tournament’s surprise package. Les Étalons stride to the podium saw them take down Togo and Ghana in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, to reach the nation’s maiden Nations Cup final.
Nigeria, as was the case when both teams first met, controlled possession in the early stages. Only one minute into the match, Efe Ambrose took the first shot on goal, and in the seventh, he headed a free kick from Moses narrowly over the crossbar. Nigeria continued to have the majority of the ball as the half progressed, while Burkina Faso sat deep, looking to lure on their more fancied opponents and hit them on the counter.
The first Burkinabes attempt came in the 25th minute from Aristide Bance, but his ambitious strike from distance was always rising. The tall, blonde-haired striker dragged a long-range free kick off target to Victor Enyeama’s left post three minutes later.
As the half ticked away with the score at 0-0 and the Burkinabes gradually finding their feet, Nigerians watching could have been excused for thinking that destiny was working against them. Despite having the upper hand in possession and scoring opportunities, the Super Eagles were unable to achieve a breakthrough.
Time after time, Moses caused problems for the Burkinabes’ defense. Five minutes from the interval, the Chelsea man drove into the box, drawing the attention of two Burkina Faso defenders before letting off a shot that was blocked. Moses’ blocked shot fell to the onrushing Sunday Mba outside the box. Mba controlled the ball, and with one deft touch, dinked it over a startled Mohamed Koffi—by then, he was already inside the box. Before the ball had come down, he volleyed it to the far right corner with his weak left foot. Mba peeled away in celebration and was soon swarmed by his teammates. His beauty of a strike had given Nigeria the lead.
Even as Burkina Faso pressed forward in pursuit of an equaliser following the restart, the impetus remained with Nigeria. But things got a little more interesting in the final 20 minutes in front of a sold-out crowd at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. In the 72nd minute, a promising Super Eagles attack saw Moses play through Ahemed Musa. Musa lost his footing before the ball reached him inside the box, and that allowed Burkina Faso to surge on an attack of their own. The chance to restore parity fell to Wilfried Sanou when Prejuce Nakoulma played him through. Sanou’s fierce low drive was tipped away by Enyeama. It was the closest Les Étalons would come to equalising. Moses and Ideye then squandered two opportunities to increase Nigeria’s lead in the last minutes. But one goal was enough, in the end; the final whistle sparking scenes of unbridled joy back home in Nigeria.
Nineteen years of agony—that heartbreaking final loss to Cameroon on home soil in 2000, the four semi-final losses that followed in the next five editions, and the shame of missing out all together the year prior—banished in a blink by that peach of a goal by Sunday Mba.
The Nations Cup heroics made Sunday Mba an instant celebrity and everyone was curious about what the future held for their star. The general expectation, regardless, was that he would secure a move to one of Europe’s better leagues. But Mba ended months of speculation with a shock transfer to CA Bastia in the French second tier in January 2014.
Mba explained what really transpired in an interview with ESPN years later.
“Warri Wolves and Rangers were fighting over who [held my contract],” he said. “I had so many teams in Europe waiting to sign me, but that alone delayed me because the fighting went on for about seven to eight months after the Nations Cup.
“Most of the teams waiting for me for the summer transfer window couldn’t wait any more. I lost so many deals during that time. It was just that France deal that waited for me. That is why I went there.”
The now-defunct Bastia was competing in the French third tier by the time Mba left in the middle of 2015, and the spotlight on the player was fast fizzling out.
Upon departing France in 2015, he signed with Yeni Malatyaspor in the Turkish second tier. He spent two years there, making 55 appearances and scoring eight goals before being released in September 2017, with one year remaining on his contract. He has been club-less since then, and it’s safe to say that Mba, 35 years old as I write this, has kicked his last ball as a professional.
Reflecting on it now, Mba’s journey from obscurity to national hero for Nigeria in the 2013 Nations Cup was a captivating tale, a script that the footballing gods, in their penchant for the extraordinary, could have written. However, what was supposed to be, and felt like, a launchpad, turned out to be a fleeting moment in the sun, thanks in part to events beyond his control, which leaves a sense of regret among those of us who witnessed his brilliance and, at times, sheer audacity. More than anything else, Sunday Mba has left his imprint in the annals of Nigerian football, and, for that reason, his story will not be lost to time.