These two international matches in Nigeria played important, if somewhat underestimated roles, in the progress of their respective parties to the Champions League final.
The South African provider of sports cable content, Supersport, announced on Wednesday that they have secured the rights for the broadcast of the 2021 Caf Champions League final.
While the presence of Kaizer Chiefs in their everyday continental finals undoubtedly played a role in the decision to pursue the license, the announcement was greeted with universal approval by journalists and other stakeholders in African football.
However, in Nigeria, the second largest customer base of Multichoice (owners of Supersport), the news is barely registered. It’s not hard to understand why: Africa’s populated country has had a difficult relationship with the Caf Champions League over the years.
When Enyimba, the country of an entire state, became the first Nigerian club to win the competition in 2003, and repeated it the following year, it was seen as the end of a hoodoo, the breaking of a glass ceiling. .
Since that historic double, however, a Nigerian club has only once – Heartland FC in 2009 – reached another final.
As a result, Nigeria’s interest in the competition has slowly waned as the country’s representatives have repeatedly failed to play a decisive role in the eventual fate of the trophy.
However, this final needs to be investigated further.
Look beyond the superficial identity and nationality of Saturday’s competitors, and there are important Nigerian – centered storylines to sink your teeth into.
On the Al Ahly side, there is forward Junior Ajayi. The Nigerian has established himself over the course of five years as a key cog in the Ahly winning machine and played a key role in the Egyptian giants’ Champions League triumph.
The former Shooting Stars forward has undergone a stop-start campaign so far, with a number of injuries hampering his rhythm and seeing him lose his place in the starting lineup for the Red Devils.
This, combined with the form of Mohamed Afsha, played Ajayi to a bit of a role.
However, he made an important contribution in the knockout phase, which marked his return from a long dismissal by coming off the bench in the Ahly quarter-finals’ first match over Mamelodi Sundowns to assist Salah Mohsen for an important second goal that definitely kept the tie away from the Brazilians.
As he has not competed in any of their last four league matches for the nine-time African champions, it is unlikely he will be selected to start on Saturday.
However, his discipline and dynamics in the last third place make him a valuable asset to address at any stage of the match, and the coach, Pitso Mosimane, is a big enough supporter of his abilities that he joins the team after Casablanca recorded.
Although Ajayi could influence the proceedings, whether he starts or not, Super Eagles goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi is part of a split to make a starting point for Kaizer Chiefs. If he loses Bruce Bvuma or Itumeleng Khune, his semi-final against Wydad Casablanca will probably be his last contribution to the case of Amakhosi.
That would be almost unfair, as Stuart Baxter’s team would certainly have been under the weight of not only the Moroccans’ attack, but also the memory of their close shave in the previous round against the Tanzanian Simba.
This time, however, there was no capitulation, especially since Akpeyi made an almighty seven times and thereafter earned the Man of the Match award.
It was an overdue redemption for the 34-year-old, who has had a very mixed time since joining the Glamor Boys.
Backed up for the first time when Khune’s Chiefs legend was injured, Akpeeyi’s ability to scroll between the sublime and the ridiculous made his reward difficult, allowing the former third-choice Bvuma not to just get his foot in the door , but putting it on the bench with some impressive performances of his own.
With all three in the starting lineup, Baxter has quite the task of making a decision that could very well determine the fate of his team in Saturday’s final.
It will also have a major impact on Akpeyi’s faded international outlook with Nigeria, for whom he has yet to start a match since a 4-2 victory over Lesotho in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. A Champions League final start (and impressive) provides exactly the kind of closet that would make him interesting again for Super Eagles boss Gernot Rohr.
Similarly, Ajayi has struggled to earn the recognition he probably deserves, mainly due to the game on the mainland.
Able to do a job in advance or from outside, it may seem like an oversight when Ahmed Musa, sans club, and Ayomide Marcus, who plays from the Portuguese second division, received calls in the latest international window. If he were to prove decisive even in a limited capacity, it would be a more eloquent matter than any public call would make.
The final may be contested between clubs from Egypt and South Africa, but there is a good reason for Nigerian audiences to join on Saturday.