Up stepped Kelechi Iheanacho. The 27-year-old had been introduced as a substitute in the 102nd minute to make his first appearance at the tournament.
After 120 minutes, Nigeria and South Africa had not been separated until the penalty-saving exploits of Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali gave the Leicester City striker the chance of glory. Score from 12 yards and send your country to their first AFCON final since 2013, which they won by beating Burkina Faso.
Iheanacho put the ball on the spot, exhaled, began his run up and proceeded to slot a confident left-footed penalty past South Africa goalkeeper Ronwen Williams.
It was a penalty that generated jubilant scenes in the Stade Bouake in Ivory Coast where the game was being played, in cities and neighbourhoods all around Nigeria, and in Wembley, north west London, where The Athletic was watching with fans.
This is the fourth time that three-time AFCON winners Nigeria and one-time winners South Africa have faced each other at the competition, and the first time they have met in the semi-finals since Tijani Babangida’s double secured a 2-0 win for Nigeria in 2000.
As Nigeria’s first-half dominance increases, so does the number of fans taking their seats.
One of the first people The Athletic meets at Boxpark Wembley is 24-year-old Danny, a Nigerian who grew up in the area. He is quick to hail the performances of the former Everton winger Ademola Lookman, a player who’s scored three goals at AFCON. Lookman, now of Atalanta, has thrived in his role, playing on either wing behind Napoli’s Victor Osimhen.
“Lookman has been my player of the tournament,” Daniel says. “He has been carrying us. Osimhen is the reason that Lookman and Moses Simon have been getting chances. Hopefully, the boys can bring it home for us.”
Sat next to Daniel, is Justice, another Nigeria fan who picks a different British-born Nigerian as his key player. “Ola Aina has been outstanding,” Justice says. “Rock solid. Today he is playing on the left-hand side and is doing more offensively. He has been a major part of why we have got this far.”
Nigeria manager Jose Peseiro has made full use of Nottingham Forest defender Aina’s versatility as a right-back, left-back, and right wing-back.
Eze, 22, is not pleased with Nigeria’s first-half performance and lets everyone know as much, taking a particular disliking to how Fulham midfielder Alex Iwobi, nephew of Nigeria legend Jay-Jay Okocha, is being utilised.
“We are playing far too deep,” he said, “Iwobi, especially as one of our most creative players. He should be playing much closer to Osimhen. Osimhen up top on his own is looking kinda lost. South Africa are one of the only teams that have come to us and really tried to play. We need to think more offensively.”
Osimhen must have heard Eze’s pleas, as the striker goes on one of his trademark long-legged runs into the South Africa penalty area and gets fouled. Nigeria captain and former Watford defender William Troost-Ekong dispatches the penalty in the 66th minute, his second goal of the tournament, to put Nigeria 1-0 up, and the fans lose their minds.
Ignore his goal tally – Victor Osimhen is having a superb AFCON for Nigeria
In typical AFCON fashion, cue chaos. Osimhen thinks he has put Nigeria 2-0 up in the 84th minute before a VAR check deems midfielder Alhassan Yusuf has fouled Percy Tau at the other end in the build-up to the goal. Midfielder Teboho Mokoena scores the spot kick to level the score to the delight of Lea, a 19-year-old South African.
“I’m happy. I’m not tense. I’m chilling. We’ve got this in the bag and I’m ready to listen to some Amapiano when we win,“ she says.
Tyla, another South African, 21, echoes Lea’s sentiment of wanting to celebrate by dancing to Amapiano, a South African sub-genre of house music, if victory is secured. “The atmosphere here is good. It could be a bit louder but that is because everyone is tense. It will be loud when South Africa win.” Oh, Tyla…
As the penalty shootout begins, Emmanuel, 23, from Canning Town, does not share Tyla’s calmness. “My heart can’t take this,“ he said. ”I’m going to throw up, bro.”
Nwabali has been Nigeria’s surprise hero in this year’s tournament. Before the semi-final, Nigeria had only conceded one goal, and the 27-year-old was largely to thank for this.
In the penalty shootout, he shows his ability yet again, saving spot kicks from Evidence Makgopa and Mokoena to set up Iheanacho’s winning strike. Nwabali has only played eight times for Nigeria and plays his club football for Chippa United in South Africa.
The scenes in Wembley match those on the pitch at Stade Bouake and for Nigerians across the world: bedlam.
“This is a game I am born to play,“ Nwabali says after his heroics. ”This is a night to remember. I felt every bit of it. Brick by brick, dreams are coming true. I still love South Africa as much as their fans love me but I love this Nigeria team with all my heart.”
Everyone played their part in the victory and the celebrations. Osimhen was seen dancing in the changing rooms alongside Calvin Bassey, Samuel Chukwueze, Semi Ajayi, and Frank Onyeka. Aina, who blazed his penalty over the bar jokingly thanked his team-mates for bailing him out.
Nigeria will face hosts Ivory Coast, who they beat 1-0 in the group stage, in the final on Sunday at the 60,000-seater Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe, and their fans will congregate in restaurants, bars, and living rooms across the world ready to support their team.
A third of AFCON players were born outside of Africa. Does it matter?
(Main image: Nigeria fans celebrating in Abule-Egba, Lagos. Photo: Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)