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The Nigerian Super Eagles did not even qualify for the 2012 championship in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea and few outside the vast west African state gave them a chance of getting beyond the last eight this time.
But if the presence of Nigeria at the 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium in Soweto will be a shock -- the appearance of the Burkinabe Stallions is nothing less than sensational.
Virtually the same group of footballers were sent packing after the first round last year having lost all three games and they arrived in South Africa embarrassed by a 17-match winless run spanning 15 years.
Now, teams who drew 1-1 in the opening round of Group C, with since-injured Alain Traore levelling four minutes into stoppage time for the Burkinabe, clash again for a $1.5 million prize and a 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup place.
The victors took starkly contrasting routes through the semi-finals with Nigeria scoring twice in six minutes to set up a 4-1 thrashing of Mali in Indian Ocean city Durban.
Burkina Faso won 3-2 on penalties against Ghana in north-eastern city Nelspruit after a controversial 1-1 draw with the winners conceding a harshly-awarded penalty, having a goal disallowed, and a man sent off.
Jonathan Pitroipa offered Burkina Faso so much with his pace down the flanks, but he misses the final after getting a second yellow card for simulation when big-screen replays showed he had been fouled.
Belgium-born Burkina Faso coach Paul Put pulled no punches: "The refereeing decisions were scandalous. We have lost Pitroipa for the final -- he is very important to us.
Winning captain Charles Kabore added: "The referee is human -- all humans make mistakes -- but he happened to make too many tonight. We are not going to dwell on that, we have qualified."
Ghana captain and striker Asamoah Gyan admitted: "The better side won on penalties. We are all really sad -- that is normal -- but we have to psyche ourselves up for the third place play-off with Mali."
Nigeria exposed a slow Mali defence to lead 3-0 by half-time through goals from Elderson Echiejile, Brown Ideye and Emmanuel Emenike, whose effort may be reviewed by the organisers as it took a massive deflection off Momo Sissoko.
Emenike and Mubarak Wakaso of Ghana share first place with four goals each in the race to finish leading scorer and be awarded the Golden Boot.
Ahmed Musa, on for injured midfield star Victor Moses, added a fourth goal on the hour mark before another substitute, Fantamady Diarra, grabbed a consolation goal.
"Mali are a good team with a great player in Seydou Keita, but they are not very fast at the back and we took advantage of this to score our first two goals," said Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron said: "I'm still proud of this team -- we worked hard even though we did not reach the final. Now we must try and match the performance of last year and finish third."
With Nigeria through in style, the stage seemed set for a showdown with long-standing football rivals Ghana, a belief strengthened by the early lead Wakaso gave the Black Stars from a penalty that should not have been awarded.
But Aristide Bance from German Bundesliga outfit Augsburg, unmissable on the sandy Mbombela Stadium pitch with his blond dreadlocks, was a constant menace and levelled on 60 minutes.