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What ever happened to Nigeria's darling and AFCON winner Sunday Mba?

Heading into the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, few beyond the most ardent of Nigeria league followers knew of Sunday Mba. By the end of the tournament, which the Super Eagles won, he was the nation's darling.

The Warri Wolves player, then only ever plying his trade in the Nigerian leagues, was tipped to secure a move to Europe and all the riches that entailed on the back of his efforts. Today, he's just 33 and has been without a club for five years. But why?

It seemed like a fairytale...

Equatorial Guinea's stunning upset win over 2019 champions Algeria at this year's AFCON was the biggest triumph of an underdog over a favourite, in a tournament that proved to be a success for the continent's minnows, despite giants Egypt and Senegal reaching the final.

Esteban Obiang was the hero of that day, popping up at the back post to smash loose ball from a corner kick home from close range to hand the Equato-Guineans, who exited the tournament at the quarterfinal stage, a most famous win.

Obiang's goal echoes back to nine years ago, when all it took was one goal in the quarterfinal against Cote d'Ivoire to change everything. Mba went from a no-name player to Nigeria's poster child.

"It was unbelievable," Mba, who last played for Turkish side Yeni Matalyaspor in 2017, told ESPN.

"Coming from nowhere and turning into somebody whose name is recognized by everybody... That is special."

Mba was one of six players from the domestic league picked -- in what was a brave move by the late Stephen Keshi -- to be part of Nigeria's tilt for a third continental title.

Despite Keshi's belief in the ability of players from Nigeria's domestic league to compete with the best, not just on their team, but on the continent, very few expected them to have more than cameo appearances, not with the glut of Europe-based players on the squad.

Of the six, only defender Godfrey Oboabona was a guaranteed starter, as a centreback, alongside skipper Joseph Yobo.

As was usually the case when local players find their way into the Nigeria squad, the general belief was that they were what Nigerians have come to refer to as "training materials", there to make up the numbers at training sessions.

"Yes, people were telling us we might not get to play," Mba recalled. "But I just believed I had a space there to play and I was just waiting for the opportunity to come so I could grab it."

When Nigeria opened the tournament shabbily, with draws against Burkina Faso and Zambia, there was even less cause for optimism among fans of local players that Mba and the other four would get a chance.

Keshi was under suffocating pressure, and there were even reports that he would be fired and replaced with a foreign coach ahead of the final group game against Ethiopia, which the Super Eagles needed to win to advance.

Even in the face of such intense heat, Keshi took the supremely brave decision to start the unknown Mba in midfield in place of Nosa Igiebor of Real Betis. It was a decision that shocked even Mba himself.

He said: "In preparation for the third game, I was fixed with the main team. That was when I started having that feeling of 'okay, maybe I think I'm starting this game' but I did not know for sure as he [Keshi] did that sometimes.

"It was not until after the training and everything that he called and told me I was starting."

Mba said his reaction was nervous excitement but Keshi held his hand through it all: "He told me that it's nothing. That it's the same normal game that we have been playing and he trusts me, he believes in what I can do.

"So it's just for me to relax and give my best and do what I can do. That psyche alone, talking to me like a father, helped me psyche myself up for the opportunity."

Although he did not score as Nigeria secured a 2-0 win over Ethiopia and advanced to the quarterfinal, the midfielder showed more than enough to keep his place in the next, highly crucial, game.

Cote d'Ivoire were tournament favourites, loaded to the hilt with super stars led by Didier Drogba, and included the likes of Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Wilfried Bony, Didier Zokora, and Kolo Toure.

There were even reports that Nigerian officials were booking return tickets home for the players ahead of the game. Although these reports were ultimately debunked, that they surfaced at all was proof of how little Nigerians rated their team's chances of winning that game.

"Even though we had just won our last game 2-0, the confidence level in our team was low,"Mba said.

"Because we were going to play Cote D'Ivoire with all the stars they had that time, everybody was nervous and the morale in the dressing room was low.

"We even heard that everyone, including those in Nigeria, felt that that was our last game and we should just play and go home."

But the naysayers hadn't counted on Keshi's motivational qualities as he again kept faith with the local lad.

Mba added: "It's not like I was going to do something different, it was just normal football that I knew how to play. He encouraged me to have confidence in myself because this opportunity doesn't come all the time and I had been waiting patiently for it.

"I knew the names of the Ivorian players but after the talk from Keshi, I was not scared of anybody. And since I played the last game to full time and we won 2-0, I wasn't nervous or worried."

With that courage came magic. Emmanuel Emenike slammed Nigeria into the lead with a smashing freekick on 43 minutes. Seven minutes later, Cheick Tiote stole in at the back post to head in Drogba's freekick and haul the Ivorians back into the game.

And then the Mba moment arrived.

The midfielder picked up a short ball from John Obi Mikel on the centre line, saw space opening up in front of him and took it, galloping 40 yards into Elephants territory, before unleashing an unstoppable effort that took a slight deflection and sailed in over Boubacar Barry.

Nobody was more surprised than Mba himself: "When I collected the ball I just felt like, 'Let me push the ball and see'. But as I pushed forward, nobody was coming to tackle me so I just kept going.

"Then I dribbled one person and another person and I just shifted the ball a bit and saw space and I took the shot and it went in.

"Before the game, I was just telling myself that if I score in this game, I will be very happy. The goal thing wasn't in my head. The most important thing for me was just to play well and remain in the team."

Nigeria held on to win that game. And the entire country went bonkers. For Mba, life had changed completely.

He said: "Everybody was happy. The dressing room was on fire. There was excitement on everybody's face, the joy in the locker room was something else. My phone just kept ringing and ringing.

"I felt special, I felt very good with myself. Scoring in a way like that and in a big game that everyone was scared of, I felt really good. And my coaches and team mates made me feel even more special, like I had conquered the world."

Mba kept his place for the semifinal, but failed to score as Nigeria hammered Mali 4-1.

Not to worry, he was saving his best for last. It came 40 minutes into the Final against Burkina Faso.

Victor Moses' shot was blocked and the ball -- high and difficult to control -- fell to Mba, making a late run from midfield. He took one touch in stride, but the ball would not sit kindly and he needed another touch to get away from a defender bearing down on him before volleying home with his left foot as another defender arrived to block.

Bedlam.

Mba says he has seen that goal over and over again and still can't believe he scored it.

He explained: "I have watched it countless times. You don't plan these goals or the particular style to score the goal. I just believed I would score but I didn't know if it would come in that form or in that way. I certainly wasn't expecting that type of goal.

"I was thinking to shoot at first but the way the ball came to me, I could not shoot. I could only control and then try to manoeuvre just the way I did. The defender was coming so I had to find my way to hit it before he blocked me and it just went in."

Nigeria held on to win their third, and most recent, African title, and Mba became an unlikely national hero.

Right from Johannesburg, and all the way back home to Nigeria, things had changed inexorably.

Mba remembered: "When we got back to the hotel, there was nowhere to pass. I couldn't get to my own room. It was at that time I realized that we have really done something big.

"On the pitch, it was like we won a cup, it was not that deep but getting back to the hotel changed that mindset.

"And then coming back to Nigeria, from the airport ,the crowd that came to welcome us was something else. People were trekking and lined up all the way from the Airport in Abuja to Central Area (the city centre). It was unbelievable!

"Then walking on the street, you see people waking up to you saying, 'Thank you for that goal'. They keep remembering the goal. It means a lot really. It makes me feel special, like I did something great for my country and I will never forget that."

But how did it go wrong for him in the aftermath?

All of that recognition did not translate to a lucrative move to Europe. Instead, Mba ended up at CA Bastia in the French third tie,r nearly a year after his Nations Cup heroics.

Mba said it was all down to club politics: "Warri Wolves and Enugu Rangers were fighting over who [held my contract].

"I had so many teams in Europe waiting to sign me but that alone delayed me because the fighting went on for about seven to eight months after the Nations Cup.

"Most of the teams waiting for me for the summer transfer window couldn't wait any more. I lost so many deals during that time. It was just that France deal that waited for me. That is why I went there."

From there, he went on to accumulate 21 caps for Nigeria, and played at Bastia for two seasons. He then moved to Turkey in 2015, scoring eight goals in 54 matches for Matalyaspor, before finding himself without a gig.

But where is he now, after disappearing from view in 2017?

He's not hung up his boots quite yet: "I am not retired. What I am doing now is training with a team in Abuja. They are called FC International and they play in the state league.

"It is a good team, like an academy but they are very serious. I am training with them and looking forward to any deal that comes for me.

"I am still actively working and playing football and hoping to move if something comes along."