When the news of Stephen Keshi's resignation broke, I was — for reasons far less interesting than you may imagine — standing in the car park of a Johannesburg warehouse that stocked poles for erotic dancing. The story was shocking yet somehow predictable: shocking because a day earlier Keshi had become the first Nigerian coach ever to win the Cup of Nations and only the second man ever, after the Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, to win the competition as both player and manager; predictable because he is strong-willed, nobody's fool and had clearly been frustrated with a lot of the nonsense that goes with being Nigeria coach.

Having filed three pieces that morning hailing Keshi's importance, I confess I panicked. By the time I'd negotiated a severe rainstorm to get to the airport, though, it had become apparent that the resignation wasn't quite as definitive as had first appeared and that my vague hints that his position was insecure were enough to render rewriting unnecessary. Keshi had been frustrated by a failure to pay his salary and by the fact that the car he had been promised had never materialised, and also by the constant rumours that he was about to be replaced. Even in the press conference after Nigeria's victory in the final, there were reports that Hervé Renard, the Zambia coach, had been approached. "Nigerians don't want me to stay," Keshi said. "They don't value what they have. When there's an African coach nobody wants to give you time, they want you to have the job today, build a wonderful team tomorrow and next year win the World Cup. If only we could work out how these things work we could have more success. But most coaches aren't given freedom to work so they are held back."

But Keshi is smart. Behind the ready chuckle and the studiedly relaxed manner there is cold calculation. He knew he would never be stronger than in the moments immediately after victory in Soccer City and so it was then that he faxed his resignation to the Nigerian Football Federation. It denied ever having received it, but it's a body so chaotic and with such a distant relationship with the truth that its statement is all but worthless. The politicians stepped in and, within 24 hours of his resignation, Keshi had unresigned. "While I have had cause," he said, "to express my displeasure over some issues that happened in the course of our participation in the 2013 Cup of Nations, which my team won by the grace of God, especially concerning my relationship with the Nigerian Football Federation,I have since had opportunity to discuss the various issues with all concerned. I am therefore pleased to say that I have reconsidered my position and have decided to continue with my job."

Nigeria can be very grateful, for Keshi's achievement in South Africa were remarkable and, although he insisted he had no unfinished business, it felt appropriate it was in Soccer City that the Super Eagles finally won their third Cup of Nations. It had, after all, been at the last Cup of Nations in South Africa that it all began to go wrong. Nigeria had won the Cup of Nations in Tunisia in 1994 with a side that featured the likes of Sunday Oliseh, Jay-Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and, as captain, Keshi. Two years later, though, they were denied the chance to defend their crown in South Africa when their president Sani Abacha withdrew the side after Nelson Mandela had criticised the military regime for executing the dissident novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa. As punishment, Nigeria were banned from competing two years later and so one of Africa's greatest sides missed two tournaments they might have won.

They lost on penalties in the final against Cameroon on home soil in 2000, when Victor Ikpeba's kick famously struck the bar, crossed the line and wasn't given as a goal but since then the story has been one of perpetual disappointment. When the squads were announced for this tournament, and Keshi named 17 players who'd never played at a Cup of Nations before, including six from the domestic league, few would have expected that to change. Yet their very humbleness would prove their greatest strength.

The rain lashed down. I blundered off the bus, saw a white tent and headed towards it, hoping it was media working area. It wasn't. I found a steward and asked where the media entrance was: no idea. I did a full circuit of the ground and nobody knew. I did a wider circuit and still nobody knew. Eventually I left the stadium compound and, halfway through my third lap found the entrance, by which time I was drenched, my shirt soaked through my jacket and clinging to my skin. It was the start of a dismal opening day. 

Having found the media entrance, I followed the small photocopied signs to the media tribune. When I emerged into the stand, though, I assumed there was a mistake. I went back down and asked around. The answer kept coming back: that's it; up the stairs. It was laughably tiny, so small that there were only about 30 desks, all taken up by television and radio commentators. Written media were told to take their laptops and work off their knees in a section of the stand. Occasionally, in smaller stadiums, you accept that, but even at the Cup of Nations it hasn't happened since Egypt in 2006 (with the exception of the chaotic 2010 semi-final in Benguela when Duncan White of the Sunday Telegraph and I were caught up in a brawl between Algerian and Egyptian journalists that had to be broken up by riot police). The idea that it should happen at a venue that had hosted the World Cup final two-and-a-half years earlier is laughable. The usual excuse in Cups of Nations is a lack of infrastructure; here it was clearly down to personnel and CAF's habitual ineptitude.

To make it worse, the wind blew the rain into the press seating. I lasted about a quarter of an hour before retreating to a bar inside the stand, by which time the enter key on my laptop had stopped working and I was having to copy and paste. The game did little to lift the spirits. South Africa, seemingly petrified by nerves, were hopeless and Cape Verde never shifted from their defensive game-plan. Morocco's game against Angola, the second part of the double-header, featured a little more in terms of purposive play, but also finished 0-0. The tournament could hardly have got off to a worse start.

So much, I thought sniffily, for the World Cup legacy. It was an issue that dominated the opening days of the tournament — and Luke Alfred offers a South African view on page 123 — and, frankly, the more I looked into it the more confused I became. As in Poland last year, what the tournament had done was to provide impetus for investment that probably would have happened anyway. The highway from Johannesburg to Pretoria, for instance, has been widened from two lanes to four, something very necessary given the increasing car ownership among the expanding black middle-class, while the Gautrain, although it was completed too late for the World Cup, offers a magnificently swift, clean and efficient service. It has not, of course, eliminated poverty — how could it have? — but it may not even have alleviated it beyond the temporary jobs created in construction. 

George Tsoari, a youth football coach I met in Soweto, suggested that hosting the World Cup had opened people's eyes to South Africa, had made them realise it was a place it was possible to do business and there may be some truth to that, although his notion that "people thought there were lions in the streets" seems a misconception of a misconception. Strangely, it was a phrase Neil Tovey, who had captained South Africa to victory in the Cup of Nations in 1996, also used so perhaps the World Cup has reassured South Africans about how others view them, has helped them feel respected, just as Lech Wałęsa said the Euros had raised Poland's self-esteem.

South Africa's 1996 side has come to feel a little like England's World Cup winners, past glory becoming a stick with which to beat the comparative failure of the present team. It was a victory that had great symbolic value — perhaps more so even than the more famous rugby World Cup winners of a year earlier. Mark Williams, who came off the bench to score two goals in the final is even referred to as "Nation Builder". "In terms of what we achieved, that moment was important in the history of the country," said Tovey. "It was two years after we became a multi-racial country and we knew we had a role to play in uniting the country, that sporting achievement could do that. As a young democratic country [the football team] was far more representative [than the rugby team]. That is what proves that it is the national sport. You can add up all the numbers of participants and fans of the other sports put together and they still wouldn't match football."

With those players and greater resources than almost any other nation on the continent, it was assumed South Africa would go on to be one of the dominant forces in African football. They reached the final in 1998, losing to Egypt, and the decline thereafter was steady: semi-final in 2000, quarter-final in 2002, third in the group in 2004, bottom of the group in 2006 and 2008 before failing to qualify in 2010 and 2012. "I think people thought after '96 it would just be a conveyor belt, that they didn't have to do much about it, but now they realise," said Tovey.

Back in 1996, South Africa stepped in to host the tournament after Kenya had been deemed unready, although the suspicion has always been that CAF wanted to use the event as a prelude to a possible bid to host the World Cup, showing off South Africa's infrastructure. This time, South Africa, having hosted the World Cup, had all the stadiums ready to take over when the conflict in Libya meant it was impossible to stage the event there as planned. In a sense, memories of the 1996 triumph are just as much a legacy of the World Cup as having the capacity to replace Libya and host the 2013 tournament was.

The stadiums themselves remain hugely controversial, with the accusation that they are white elephants never far away. Mark Gleeson, the doyen of African football journalism, argues, though, that while the situation is far from ideal, the stadiums as a whole provide a facility that strengthens the South African Premier League, improving South African football, generating jobs and mass entertainment and offering a route out of poverty for those with talent. I heard a radio journalist ask how expenditure on stadiums could be justified when there were people living in shanty towns a mile or two down the road. At first it seems an unconscionable juxtaposition — and in the abstract, of course, it is —but on the other hand, what's the alternative? Stop football until poverty is eliminated? Perhaps the number of stadiums and the size of some of them was ill-conceived — but then arenas are the great public buildings of the age, a source of civic pride and a means of drawing visitors.

All I knew for sure as I sat soaking on the bus away from Soccer City was that the World Cup had not improved South Africa's national team. 

The opening game in Group D, between Côte d'Ivoire and Togo, featured a clash of two of the more baffling managerial appointments: Sabri Lamouchi and Didier Six. Togo, perhaps, were attracted by the glamour of a player from the great France side of the early eighties, unconcerned that his only managerial experience was a few months at Strasbourg in 1986. The Ivorians' decision to appoint Lamouchi, though, a man with no prior managerial experience, made no sense at all. This, after all, is a team blighted by its own underachievement. What was needed, surely, was somebody with experience to soothe nerves — or, in fact, simply to stick with François Zahoui, who came so close to winning last year.

Since they lost on penalties in the final to the hosts Egypt in 2006, Côte d'Ivoire have gone into each tournament as favourites. Each time they have failed. In 2008, they had been the most impressive team in the early part of the tournament, beating Nigeria in the group stage and hammering Guinea 5-0 in the quarter-final. But in the semi-final in Kumasi they ran into Egypt; Kolo Touré returned too quickly from a groin injury and was destroyed by Amr Zaki — and arguably hasn't been the same player since — and Egypt won 4-1. In 2010, they came through the group in Cabinda that had been reduced to three teams when Togo withdrew after the terror attack, and then took a 2-1 lead with a minute to go of their quarter-final against Algeria. But Majid Bougherra headed in a free-kick in injury-time and, stunned, Côte d'Ivoire lost 3-2.

Each defeat and disappointment has added a new layer of trauma and insecurity, made it harder at each passing tournament. Last year, Zahoui stripped their game back to basics, instilling an approach of severe risk aversion. It worked, in so much as Côte d'Ivoire didn't concede a goal in six games; more importantly, though, Didier Drogba missed a penalty with 20 minutes of the final remaining and, as the tension overwhelmed Kolo Touré and Gervinho, they lost another penalty shoot-out. At every tournament, we've asked, "is this finally the time?" and at least since Angola in 2010 we've wondered whether this could be their final opportunity: they've had a lock-in in last-chance saloon.

This time, they began sluggishly, seeming to switch off after Yaya Touré's opener, allowing Jonathan Ayité to level from a poorly defended corner. Gervinho sealed a scarcely deserved victory, crashing in Touré's free-kick with the outside of the right foot. The celebrations seemed almost patronising in their intensity, as though his Ivorian teammates know Gervinho's confidence needs bolstering at every opportunity. Up to a point it worked: he was superb in the 3-0 win over Tunisia in the second game before fading.

Six was apoplectic afterwards, lasting 22 seconds in the press-conference before storming out in protest at a refereeing decision that replays later showed had been entirely correct. Perhaps that could have been justified as some sort of sub-Fergie mind game, pressuring future officials, had he not abandoned an embarrassed Ayité to face the media alone.

Keshi didn't name names but when he spoke of the ongoing preference for even mediocre or unproven European coaches over locals, it didn't take much of a leap to see he wasn't just talking about Nigeria. "The white guys are coming to Africa just for the money," he said. "They are not doing anything that we cannot do. I am not racist but that's just the way it is. I am never against a white coach in Africa, because I've always worked with white coaches. If you want to bring in a classic, an experienced coach from Europe, I am ready to learn from that coach, because he's better than me, he has more knowledge than me. Meanwhile, we have quality African players, or ex-African players, who can do the same thing, but they're not given the opportunity because they're just black dudes. I don't like it."

Mike Collett of Reuters and I had made good progress on the road from Rustenburg to Nelspruit so we stopped for a coffee. Thank goodness we did. About 10 minutes after setting off again, we joined a line of perhaps two dozen cars travelling at little more than a crawl. There were police everywhere, directing cars into a single lane. The road turned gritty with broken glass. To the left lay the shell of a car, a blanket draped ominously over it. A few yards on to the right was a burnt out engine block and a few yards after that a minivan, its front smashed, straddled the central reservation. Quite how the crash had happened I still can't quite comprehend but its severity was shocking. Given the debris and the number of people hanging around, it seemed the accident had happened recently, about as long ago as it takes to drink a coffee.

Some roadworks also delayed us so we ended up watching South Africa's game against Angola in a petrol station, perched on stools at a coffee bar with two locals who seemed to have come specifically to watch the match. After an anxious opening, South Africa won comfortably enough thanks to goals from Siyabonga Sangweni and Lehlohonolo Majoro. Towards the end, the manager — who was white — came out of his office. "I thought games were 90 minutes long," he said. "Why does it say 93?" As one of the locals explained the concept of injury time to him, I glanced behind me and saw about a dozen staff — all black — peering through the window at the television, hands cupped against the glare.

Ultimately, tournaments are judged more on their drama than on the quality of play. The complaint in the first week of the competition was that it was flat, that there was little to excite the neutral. There was some truth to that but it's a trope of most modern tournaments, the price that must be paid for expansion.

That is not to say that the decision to increase the number of participants from 12 to 16 teams for the 1996 tournament was a bad thing, far from it. Regular competition has clearly raised the level of what might be considered the second-rank of African teams, just as the likes of Venezuela and Ecuador have improved significantly since South American World Cup qualifying began to be organised on a league basis for the 1998 tournament; regular competitive games against better teams of higher quality (so long as the gulf in quality is not too big) sharpens sides, teaches them how to organise themselves, gives them gamecraft. "You can no longer differentiate so much between which teams are better," Keshi said. "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."

The problem is that the early days of a tournament, before the giants, the sides who are perceived as potential champions, start playing each other, can often feel like an extension of the qualifying process. Unless there is a remarkable underdog tale — such as Equatorial Guinea's progress last year —only with the final round of group games, when the objectives are clearly defined, when it becomes go through or go out, does a tournament really get going. This tournament essentially began eight days after the opening game, as South Africa faced Morocco and Cape Verde met Angola in the final games in Group A.

Morocco had been their usual flaky selves, packed with potential yet somehow never quite playing to their ability. After two draws they needed a win to progress, while a draw left them needing the other game to finish in a lower-scoring draw. At half-time, Morocco led through Issam El Adoua's header, while a Nando own goal had given Angola the lead in Port Elizabeth, scorelines that if turned into results would have taken Morocco and South Africa through. Morocco had played well in the first half, dominating a timid South Africa. But then, with 19 minutes remaining, May Mahlangu curled a sumptuous shot into the top corner to pull South Africa level. Suddenly it was the hosts and Angola going through. Fernando Varela bundled in a header for Cape Verde; only disciplinary points separated them and Morocco at that stage. But then Morocco scored again to take the initiative. 

Sangweni, after his superb finish in the second game, came up with another, the centre-back emerging inexplicably in the inside-left channel with four minutes to go to arc in a low finish. That meant it was South Africa to top the group (a relief, frankly, having already booked flights to Durban in the expectation of seeing them in the last eight) with Morocco in second — so long as there wasn't a deciding goal in Port Elizabeth. There was. Two minutes into injury time, the Angola goalkeeper Lama fumbled an apparently simple cross and Héldon Ramos slammed the loose ball in. The smallest nation ever to qualify for the Cup of Nations was through to the quarter-finals, while Morocco became just the second team since the tournament switched to its present format 17 years ago to go out having been undefeated in the group stage. Within three days they'd have been joined by two more: the defending champions Zambia, whose rapid counter-attacking game foundered on the sand of the Mbombela, and DR Congo, who came from 2-0 down to draw with Ghana in their first game but then lacked the guile to break down Niger and went out with a tepid draw against Mali.

Tales of taxi drivers are a lazy journalist's staple, but two I met seemed particularly relevant. The first, who picked me up at the airport in Johannesburg remains the only South African I've spoken to who actually went to a game at the World Cup (journalists excepted). He'd saved up to buy a ticket for the opening game and had then been given a ticket for Holland against Denmark by some Dutch fans he'd driven around, a touching story that suggested that Fifa's corporate ideal of a great family of footballing nations isn't quite such saccharine nonsense as it often appears.

The other took me to Nelspruit airport. He was called Peter, will turn 60 in June, and had once played in defence for a local side called Roger's Black Stars. "Roger owned the farm," he said, "so that's why we were called Roger. We were all black and so that was why we were called black. Stars… well, we had to dream." He was wearing a new Zambia shirt, a present to him from Renard after he'd given him a lift. Somebody in the Zambia set-up also gave him a ticket for the opening doubler-header. He'd enjoyed it, he said, but he wouldn't pay to go back, not when you could watch the matches on television for nothing.

This partly explains one of the features of Cups of Nations: low crowds. In the first week of each tournament, I always feel an irritation I confess is unjustified as Twitter and comments sections fill up with questions about half-empty stadiums: I want to grab each poster, whether earnest or snide, shake them and scream, "Have you never watched the thing before?" For the fact is that apart for games involving the host nation and the final, stadiums at Cups of Nations are never full. 

In part the issue is economic, less to do with ticket prices than simply the difficulty of travelling across Africa. At last summer's European Championship, for instance, the majority of fans weren't from Poland or Ukraine, but from elsewhere in Europe. For, say, an Ivorian to travel to Rustenburg to watch a game against Togo, though, is much more difficult, both in terms of expense and logistics (even given the vagaries of the Polish rail network), than for, say, a Croatian to travel to Gdansk. Add in the comparative lack of disposable income in Africa, and the low crowd figures are readily comprehensible.

The situation is exacerbated by the lack of a culture of going to games, something Gleeson highlights. The popularity of the Champions League and European domestic leagues means a lot of fans in South Africa (and by extension elsewhere on the continent), have got into the habit of watching matches in bars, or with a few mates over a crate of beers at home, and the fact Didier Drogba happens to be playing 10 miles down the road doesn't change that.

In fact this tournament was comparatively well-attended, thanks in part to large numbers of travelling Algerian fans and in part to the significant Nigerian and Ethiopian populations in South Africa. The green-and-white clad Nigerians are a feature of Cups of Nations but the Ethiopians, many of them brandishing pictures of Haile Selassie, came as a revelation at their first finals since 1982. The fans were raucously noisy and, while they let themselves down by showering the pitch with vuvuzelas after their goalkeeper Jemal Tessaw had been sent off for a dreadful foul in their game against Zambia, they at least had the grace then to hold up a banner apologising. As a team, Ethiopia looked good in patches and forced a memorable draw with 10 men against Zambia, but an injury to Adane Girma early in their second game, against Burkina Faso, robbed them of their most creative player and a certain defensive rawness eventually found them out.

Only for the final did Nigerian fans really have the confidence to express themselves. Coffins, supposedly carrying the corpse of Burkinabé football were paraded around the aisles (a little gracelessly, given the relative status of the sides — the demise of Nigerian underachievement might have been a more appropriate thing to celebrate). At least two fans brought chickens painted in national colours while another wore a loaf on his head and carried the message, "Eat them like bread."

After Zambia had been awarded a contentious late penalty against Nigeria by the Egyptian referee Gehad Grisha, the goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama dismissed the decision as "one of the worst in football history". It would soon have some competition. 

People who regularly watch the South African referee Daniel Bennett say he's usually pretty good, but his performance in the final group game between Togo and Tunisia was awful. Togo needed only a draw to go through and looked likely to get it as Emmanuel Adebayor, breaking a rickety Tunisian offside trap for the umpteenth time, laid in Serge Gakpo to open the scoring. Replays later showed Gakpo was a foot or so offside. So there was an element of evening the score when Daré Nibombé was harshly penalised for a push on Walid Hichri; Khaled Mouelhi rolled in the penalty.

In the second half, Bennett's decisions became increasingly bizarre. He denied Tunisia a clear penalty when Vincent Bossou clattered through the back of Oussmana Darragi. He ignored two decent Togolese shouts for penalties and then waved play on when the goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia blatantly tripped Adebayor as the Tottenham forward wandered round him. When the 5'10" Serge Akakpo chopped down Yousef Msakhni, he booked the 6'5" Nibombé, who'd been about 10 yards from the incident. And then, with 13 minutes remaining, he awarded a penalty to Tunisia as Saber Khalifa tumbled in the vicinity of Nibombé. The two Togolese journalists sitting next to me, having passed through anxiety to anger to resignation, giggled at the sheer preposterousness of it. Mouelhi's penalty seemed almost embarrassed, his dink coming back off the post.

So Togo held on to reach the last eight for the first time, an achievement Adebayor, who had a fine tournament, immediately dedicated to the memory of the three men who were killed in the gun attack on the team bus last time Togo had reached the finals, three years ago. Adebayor, terrified for his own life, had cradled his good friend, the press officer Stan Oclo'o, as he died and only came to South Africa after being convinced security would be more stringent than in Angola. "I'm very proud of my country, of what we have been through," said Adebayor. "I think you guys know better than I do that two months ago when we qualified against Gabon we went through a lot of difficult moments, of me coming to the Africa Cup of Nations or not coming. Today I'm here and I'm very happy — I'm part of the history. It's a good thing for the country and a good thing for me."

Tunisia's exit meant that, for the first time since 1992, there was no north African presence in the quarter-finals. The trend is concerning but there were mitigating factors. Tunisia were poor and Morocco were as self-destructive as ever, but Algeria were unlucky, outplaying Tunisia and Togo before losing to both. Football in Egypt, the most successful team in Cup of Nations history, meanwhile, has fallen victim to the political upheaval. With the next two tournaments to be held in Morocco and Libya a swift upturn is likely.

As though inspired by the drama of their final group stage game, South Africa came alive for their quarter-final against Mali. The Moses Mabhida in Durban, by some way the most aesthetically pleasing of the World Cup stadiums, was awash with yellow, while the rendition of the South African anthem sent shivers down the spine (and raised the question, yet again, of why so many countries insist on having a diva on a microphone drowning out everyone else when there is something so moving about thousands of voices raised together in song). South Africa themselves seemed inspired and deserved their 1-0 half-time lead. They conceded a soft goal on the break to Seydou Keita after 55 minutes, though, and wilted, perhaps exhausted by the intensity of their pressing. 

As they had at the same stage a year ago in Gabon, Mali, having come from behind against the hosts, went through after a penalty shoot-out. And as he had a year ago, Keita spoke movingly about the ongoing conflict in Mali after the team gave up a percentage of their bonuses to help the war effort. "Giving hope to the country has been priceless," he said. "There is a crisis in Mali and I did my best to give hope to those who are suffering. We have made an effort to help, but money doesn't matter. You can't imagine what it means to play for Mali at this time. I told my government they could reduce our bonuses. My priority is to play for my country."

It was the quarter-final in Rustenburg the following day, though, Côte d'Ivoire against Nigeria, an unfulfilled power against one that had lost its way, that really sent a jolt through the tournament. Everything about it had an epic feel. The day had begun sunny but by an hour before kick off the wind had got up and heavy clouds had rolled over. Curtains of rain draped the hills that surround the east and south sides of the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, while eddies of dust scudded across the veld to the north and lightning flickered above the platinum mines. The stage was set for the last stand of the Elephants.

That Boubacar Barry has been the first-choice Côte d'Ivoire goalkeeper for six years remains baffling; how can a nation that has produced talented footballers in such numbers have failed to have generated anybody better? He probably has improved over the years and he is certainly capable of spectacular saves but the propensity for skittishness has never left him. The warning was there after 10 minutes as he thumped a Victor Moses shot back into the centre of the penalty area and the mistake arrived three minutes before half-time as he reacted pathetically late to a vicious Emmanuel Emenike free-kick. Mido, harshly but not entirely inaccurately, promptly tweeted that Barry had already won three Cups of Nations for Egypt.

Côte d'Ivoire have had a habit of collapsing under pressure, but this time they fought back. Three minutes into the second half, Didier Drogba was tripped just outside the box, about five yards from the goalline. He took the free-kick himself, dinking it to the back post where Cheick Tioté headed in. The stadium braced itself for a charge but with Efe Ambrose quashing Gervinho and Mikel having the better of his battle with Yaya Touré, it never quite materialised and, with 12 minutes remaining, came vindication for Keshi. Sunday Mba collected the ball just outside the centre-circle, accelerated through two diffident challenges and struck a shot from the edge of the box that glanced off Sol Bamba's backside and looped past Barry. For the Ivorians, it was a setback too far: energy and belief melted away, just as it had in Cabinda three years earlier, and Nigeria were through.

In the post-match press-conference, Mark Gleeson, at 6'8" an unmissable figure, took the mic. "Where have you been?" bellowed Keshi. "I haven't seen you for years."

"I've been covering the big boys," Gleeson replied.

Keshi laughed — as he does a lot — but the point was a valid one. This was probably Nigeria's best result since they beat Spain 3-2 at the 1998 World Cup and, although they'd reached the semi-finals in five of the six tournaments before failing to qualify for last year's competition, it was the first time they'd really looked like potential champions since reaching the final on home soil in 2000.

Before this tournament, Burkina Faso had seemed a classic argument against the expansion of the finals to 16 teams. In 26 previous matches at the finals, they had won only two games, drawing six and losing 18. Away from home soil, they'd gathered four points from a possible 60. The previous year, in Equatorial Guinea, having been extremely fortunate to have been allowed to compete after fielding an ineligible player in a qualifier against Namibia, they were a shambles and lost all three matches.

Burkina Faso's coach Paul Put, who was once banned for match-fixing in Belgium, admitted that when he left Ouagadougou, he'd have been happy just to win a game. But this side proved rather better than that: it was solid at the back — aided, perhaps, by the awful pitch at the Mbombela where they played their first five games —and had, in Jonathan Pitroipa, an intelligent winger, and, in Charles Kaboré, a languid midfield passer. For 125 minutes, it also had the most devastating forward in the competition: Alain Traoré. He came off the bench to equalise in the opener against Nigeria and then scored with two thunderous strikes in the 4-0 victory over Ethiopia but suffered a thigh injury early in the final group game, the goalless draw against Zambia that took the Stallions through. They still had enough to overcome Togo in extra time in the quarter-final but few thought they had much of a chance against Ghana in the semi-final.

Yet Ghana, essentially, were a team of reputations. Without Dédé Ayew, omitted for failing to show up on time to have a hamstring strain assessed (he didn't miss a minute for Marseille between the restart of the French season and the end of the tournament) and with Anthony Annan carrying a knee injury, they lacked drive. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu battled manfully in midfield, Christian Atsu sparkled intermittently and Kwadwoh Asmaoah always projected danger, but he never had a settled position, being shifted from left-back to play off a striker and back again. The biggest disappointment, though, was Asamoah Gyan. There were glimmers of his talent in the 3-0 win over a poor Tunisia but for most of the tournament he looked exactly what he is, a good player gone soft by playing at too low a level.

It took a couple of odd refereeing decisions to get Ghana through a quarter-final against Cape Verde; their coach, Lucio Antunes, an air-traffic controller in Praia, had sung in delight after their progression from the group, but after his side's 2-0 defeat he wondered openly whether referees had been instructed to help the big sides go through. His words took on yet greater significance after the semi-final.

Slim Jedidi, the Tunisian referee, was even worse than Daniel Bennett had been in the game between Togo and Tunisia. Bennett had at least been awful both ways, although Togo probably just got the worst of it; Jedidi, with the exception of booking Keba Paul Koulibaly for kicking out at Gyan when he should have sent him off, seemed to give everything Ghana's way. Burkina Faso were denied two penalties, had an extremely dubious penalty awarded against them, had a goal disallowed after some anodyne tussling between Préjuce Nakoulma and Asamoah and then, worst of all, when that second penalty was denied them, four minutes from the end of extra time Pitroipa was booked for diving. It was his second yellow of the game, so off he went, which meant he would be suspended for the final if Burkina Faso got through the penalty shoot-out.

They did, and they deserved to. There had been an assumption that Ghana would get going when they really needed to but they never did. Their coach, James Kwesi Appiah, tightened up the defensive laxity that had been apparent in the 2-2 draw with DR Congo, but they never attacked with any verve or fluency. They were fortunate to go ahead against Burkina Faso and, although Gyan did hit the post in the second half, extremely fortunate not to lose the game. Aristide Bancé, leading the line in the absence of Traoré, was a revelation, his weirdly perpetual fury for once focused. He is not the world's most natural finisher, but he scored one, drew one fine save from Fatawu Dauda and had a header cleared off the line by Harrison Afful. In the shoot-out, it was he who had the nerve to panenka his kick. 

When Badu's effort was then saved by Daouda Diakité, confirming Burkina Faso's victory, Bancé made straight for Put. There is a wonderful photograph of the two, one peroxide blonde, the other with his sandy hair bleached by the sun, both with mouths wide in triumph, arms outstretched like long-lost lovers, about to embrace as dozens of moths flit around them, illuminated in the floodlights like a flurry of snow. Whatever his sins in Europe, Put has done a remarkable job in Burkina Faso.

But that was as far as the Burkinabé fairy tale went. Nigeria had cruised by Mali in the semi-final, Victor Moses, Emmanuel Emenike and Elderson Echiejile all superb in a 4-1 win. One of the criticisms of African football for years has been the lack of creative wide play but Nigeria won with two wingers and an attacking full-back in superb form. The only concerns were injuries to Moses and Emenike: Moses recovered and played in the final; Emenike did not.

It hardly mattered. Nigeria were comfortably the better side and took the lead five minutes before half-time as Mba flicked up the dropping ball after Moses's shot had been blocked, hurtled into the box and volleyed it into the corner. His goal in the quarter-final had made him the first player from the Nigerian league to score at a Cup of Nations since Emmanuel Okocha in 1990; his winner in the final, and the superlative form of Godfrey Oboabona at centre-back, fully vindicated Keshi's much-criticised decision to select home-based players. 

Only anxiety on the break in the final minutes denied them further goals and Keshi felt secure enough in the lead to give his squad captain Joseph Yobo, a veteran of six Cups of Nations, a cameo. "The difference with this squad is that there's a lot of unity and a lot of potential at the same time," Yobo said. "Other squads I've been with, the unity has not being that strong — we've always had problems because we have different cultures and we're from different places. What brought us closer is that nobody thought we had a chance from the start. We were hurt and that gave us confidence and the unity was very strong."

Within the team, maybe, but, as Keshi's subsequent actions showed, not within the federation. His genius was to make Nigeria prepare like underdogs; he made them champions by persuading them they were not champions, by throwing out the egos and insisting on a work ethic and tactical discipline. In 2006, in Cairo, on one of the rare occasions when the relaxed façade slipped, he announced, "Some day I will be coach of Nigeria and then they will know what a coach is." The players do, the fans do, perhaps even the usual hypercritical journalists do. The federation and the politicians still seem in some doubt.