Former Nigeria defender Efe Sodje has painful memories of the Africa Cup of Nations, but is excited by what he expects to be the best one yet.
Bury centre-back Sodje is one of the most recognisable players in the lower leagues, thanks to his trademark wearing of the doo-rag.
Despite being born in London, the 40-year-old went on to represent Nigeria on nine occasions, and was part of the squad for the 2000 AFCON, meaning he has experience of the tournament.
Sodje was alongside the likes of Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha and Finidi George in the group that travelled for the competition, and eventually lost the final against Cameroon in unfortunate circumstances.
“We should have won it, as the Nigeria team at the time was unbelievable. We had some great players in the squad. In the final Victor Ikpeba’s penalty in the shootout hit the bar, and bounced down over the line, but the officials didn’t give it, and that would have won it for us,” Sodje explained.
That year Nigeria and Ghana co-hosted the tournament after Zimbabwe were stripped of the honour following poor preparations, with the final eventually being held in Lagos.
“For a long period we didn’t have the best players available, but people like Kanu came back to the team, as we really wanted to win it, as it was in our country, and it’s just a shame we fell just short.”
Sport and politics shouldn’t mix, but the Nigerian FA have endured a lot of fall-outs with their star players, with Peter Odemwingie the most recent victim, having fallen out with manager Steve Keshi, meaning he will miss this year's tournament in South Africa.
“It gets frustrating seeing the political issues with the Nigeria team. Sometimes we get annoyed that they don’t pick the best players, but we’ll support them to the end,” Sodje said. “I know they can get to the semi-finals. They don’t have the strongest squad that they could. I was with Peter Odemwingie a few weeks ago, and I could see in his face that he wanted to be playing for Nigeria, but he’s fallen out with the coach Keshi. I told him that despite that he would still go to South Africa, but he claimed he wouldn’t, and it’s just unfortunate for everyone that he misses out, as he's doing really well in the Premier League.”
The former Crewe defender has enjoyed the improvement in the continent’s game, which he believes is down the fact that more and more players are plying their trade in Europe’s major leagues.
“African football has totally changed in the last decade. Back in 2000 there were only about five good African teams, but now there’s the likes of Mali and Togo, who can challenge the major nations in tournaments like this,” Sodje told ITV.com. “African football has changed massively since players have moved across to Europe, to Spain, England and France. They learn different aspects of football, and take back what they’ve learnt to their national sides, which can only be good for African football.”
Sodje thinks that the Ivorians, who are the favourites, will be the team to beat once again.
“People are saying Ivory Coast will win it, and I can’t argue with that. They’ve got the best players, and their squad has been together for a long time, which helps them," Sodje said without hesitating. "Didier Drogba will be the top goalscorer. He’s going to come out and show that he’s still got it, despite playing in China.”