By Mike Collett
JOHANNESBURG, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Nigeria cemented their position as the best team at the African Nations Cup with a deserved title victory on Sunday in a tournament offering further evidence that soccer in the continent has reached a fascinating crossroads.
The 1-0 win over outsiders Burkina Faso, who also defied the odds to reach the final with a series of performances that continually exceeded expectations, was completed with a young and inexperienced squad that surprised many seasoned observers.
Coach Stephen Keshi, under intense pressure back home to lift the cup for the first time since he himself captained the last Super Eagles side to victory in 1994, ignored the critics and picked a squad in which 14 of his players were 24 or under.
And if proof was needed that Keshi had got it right, the stunning cup-winning goal was scored by 24-year-old Sunday Mba, a midfielder with just a handful of caps to his name who still plays domestically in Nigeria.
Nigeria's performance reflected that of the tournament's progress. The competition started slowly with 12 draws in the opening 24 group matches, before the real excitement started in the knockout stage.
The eventual champions were also slow out of the blocks with draws against Burkina Faso and Zambia before two late Victor Moses penalties gave them a 2-0 win over Ethiopia.
They then hit form with their 2-1 quarter-final win over tournament favourites Ivory Coast and reached their peak with a 4-1 demolition of Mali in the semi-finals.
Their win in the final was measured, mature and tactically astute, with the Super Eagles surviving a desperate onslaught from the Burkinabe in the final minutes.
But while the tournament was an undoubted success for Nigeria, who Keshi maintains "have only reached 80 percent" of their potential, it also represented something of a triumph for a number of the continent's middle-ranking or emerging nations.
As Keshi said earlier in the tournament: "You can no longer differentiate so much between which teams are better.
"In the old days, you could predict how many goals one team was going to score against the other but now you don't know what is going to happen. You might think one side will win but you don't know. I think this is wonderful for African football.
"The competition is so tight. You look at the likes of Ethiopia and Cape Verde and some of the other countries. I am very impressed with their performances and the standard they are reaching."
Burkina Faso led the way for the emerging teams, a country that before this tournament had never won a Nations Cup finals match on foreign soil and had gone 17 matches without a victory since they reached the semi-finals at home in 1998.
Others followed suit, including tiny Cape Verde on their finals debut and a spirited Ethiopia, who did not look out of place in the tournament despite a 31-year absence.
Also impressing were first-time quarter-finalists Togo and Mali, who lifted spirits in the impoverished and conflict-ridden country by finishing with the bronze medal for the second successive tournament.
Naturally there were failures too.
Pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast flattered to deceive by becoming the first team to qualify for the quarter-finals with a match to spare, before suffering an upset in Rustenburg when Mba scored his first superb goal of the tournament.
The defeat was a painful and significant one as it leaves Ivorian soccer closer to a dead end than a crossroads.
Their "golden generation" led by striker Didier Drogba, and including Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zakora, and Yaya and Kolo Toure are now set to end their careers without adding an international honour to their many successes at club level.
Champions Zambia may have exited the tournament unbeaten but they failed to repeat last year's fairytale victory with draws in their group games against Ethiopia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso not enough to see them advance to the knockout stage.
Ghana, who have waited 31 years to win their fifth African crown, were also eliminated, technically at least, without losing a game.
The Black Stars, who had high hopes of improving on last year's fourth place, began with wins over Mali and Niger, and a draw with DR Congo, before ending the fairytale of coach Lucio Antunes and his Cape Verde dreamweavers in the quarter-finals.
However, they failed to overcome the resilience of Burkina Faso in the semi-finals and were eliminated on penalties after being held to a 1-1 extra-time draw.
In the end they finished fourth again and although they were one of the quartet of West African sides that made up the last four, the fact that rivals and near-neighbours Nigeria went on to win is as big a body blow as their semi-final exit.
Hosts South Africa struggled to impress and although it was good for the tournament that they advanced from the group stage, they were nowhere near the standard set by the Bafana Bafana team that won the 1996 tournament on home soil.
There were few complaints when they went out in the quarter-finals to Mali on penalties.
Now that the finals are over, African attention switches to World Cup qualifiers with next year's finals in Brazil looming on the horizon.
On the evidence of the last three weeks, Africa appears no closer to winning a World Cup than it did when Cameroon reached the quarter-finals in 1990 or when Ghana repeated the feat at the 2010 finals in South Africa.
But if Keshi stays as Nigerian coach - he hinted repeatedly throughout the tournament he could leave at any time - they look more than capable of qualifying for the finals and will gain some invaluable experience in Brazil when they represent Africa in the Confederations Cup there in June. (Editing by John O'Brien)