Aiteo Cup Final lays foundation for greatness

Nigeria football fans have had little to cheer about since July, with all leagues suspended. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Let's be brutally honest: the Aiteo Cup final between Akwa United and Niger Tornadoes last night didn't make for great viewing, and that's putting it nicely.

Both sides struggled to string passes together, and the game overall was a poor advertisement for the quality of Nigerian football as it ended in a 0-0 draw after regulation time.

And as absorbing as the required penalty kicks were, they were just as abysmal as the game preceding them. A total of seven missed penalties between the two sides, resulting in a 3-2 win for Akwa, hardly showcased the country's talent.

But sometimes, as important as the actual 90 minutes' activity (there was no extra-time) on the pitch are, there are also other important takeaways acting as counterweight. There was plenty of drama and back stories to make the Aiteo Cup final valuable viewing.

For starters, Akwa walked away with a cheque for N25million ($67 000). That is the highest-ever prize-money paid out in Nigeria's oldest competition, and far outstrips anything paid prior.

For perspective, the last time Akwa won the title two years ago, then known as the Federation Cup, they took home a N2million cheque, the same as last year's winners, FC Ifeanyi Ubah.

Additionally, Niger Tornadoes had Ishiaku Ilyasu, a player who was looking to make a rare form of history. When Tornadoes reached their first final in 2000, which they won 1-0 against Rangers, Ilyasu was part of that squad. Seventeen years later, he is the only player left from that victorious squad.

Then there is Okechukwu Gabriel, who scored the winning penalty kick. Just over two years ago, he was in the middle of a Super Eagles selection controversy involving the late Stephen Keshi.

As an amateur player for Works FC, he was not just selected for the senior national team by Keshi, but also handed the number 10 jersey. That decision ultimately played a part in the NFF's decision to sack Keshi.

Gabriel subsequently dropped off the radar, moving to Europe where he joined Kaparty Lyiv before returning home to suit up for Akwa. His cup-winning kick would have gone some way to easing some of the nightmare of that period.

From a team perspective, Akwa came in as overwhelming favourites for this title; not just because they were the more recent winners of the two, but because they had what many considered the overwhelmingly better team.

Shooting Stars general manager Rasheed Balogun even went as far as labelling the Uyo-based club as the best in the division.

"Player for player and as a team, I think Akwa have the best team in the league," Balogun told KweséESPN. "When you see their players walking out of the dressing-room, you just know your team has to play their very best to win.

"They also have a great coach in Maikaba, and they play the best football in the league. If not for a bit of luck, they should have won the league this year."

Sadly, that eye-pleasing football was not on display on the night. Nerves may have played a part. Tornadoes, as underdogs, had little to lose, and were the marginally better side for most of the game as Akwa struggled to get a foothold.

Perhaps looking up at the VIP box, where CAF president Ahmad Ahmad sat, flanked by two Nigerian governors and senior members of the CAF Exco, as well as Nigerian football bigwigs, may have also played its part.

Their presence added to the unprecedented star-spangled glitz of the occasion as fans trooped to the Agege Stadium, home of MFM FC.

By the end of the game, the competition hashtag #AiteoCupFinal was trending at number one in Nigeria with over 30million impressions on Twitter. All earned, all organic.

Much remains to be improved upon, but if there was any doubt that Nigerian domestic football is on the up, this has been quickly put to rest. Next year's competition should be one worth marking the calendar for.