The much-maligned Jose Peseiro has led Nigeria to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, with a switch to a three-man central defence proving a turning point for the Super Eagles

Abidjan (AFP) - Nigeria’s run to this Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final against hosts Ivory Coast is a personal triumph for coach Jose Peseiro, the veteran from Portugal who had been the subject of stinging criticism in the run-up to the tournament.

The 63-year-old had been widely written off in Nigeria as the wrong man for the job long before they opened their AFCON campaign with a 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea in Abidjan on January 14.

Yet four weeks later he will lead the Super Eagles out at the same Ebimpe Olympic Stadium for a showdown against the Ivorians as Africa’s most populous country aims to become continental champions for the fourth time.

The way in which Peseiro has done it has been somewhat counter-intuitive.

Nigeria scored more goals than any other team in qualifying for this Cup of Nations, and in prolific striker Victor Osimhen they have the reigning African footballer of the year in their ranks.

Peseiro also has a wealth of other top-class attacking options, and yet he responded to that poor opening result by changing to a new system featuring three centre-backs.

The emphasis would now be firmly on not conceding goals.

“You cannot play 10 guys in attack. No team can win that way,” Peseiro told AFP at Nigeria’s Abidjan base just before they faced Ivory Coast in their second match.

“We try to command and control the game every time, it is our style. We have players to do that. It is different to the football Nigeria played before, with more power, speed, strength and fight.

“Our players have different characteristics, so you need to adapt but give balance at the same time, make sure your team does not concede goals.”

The impact was immediate, as Nigeria beat the Ivorians 1-0 in their second game and then defeated Guinea-Bissau, also 1-0. A 2-0 win over Cameroon came next in the last 16, before they edged Angola 1-0.

After four successive clean sheets came a 1-1 draw at the end of extra time in the semi-final against South Africa, as Nigeria emerged victorious on penalties.

- ‘A bad coach’ -

Peseiro with star striker Victor Osimhen during Nigeria's quarter-final win over Angola

He has faced continued criticism since taking over in May 2022 despite a record which he staunchly defends.

Nigeria’s only competitive defeat in that time remains a 1-0 home loss to Guinea-Bissau in AFCON qualifying.

“Until now Nigeria have lost one official match, one, but many people – I don’t know why – still speak, speak, speak about that one match,” he said after beating South Africa.

The man who was once assistant to Carlos Queiroz at Real Madrid and who took Sporting Lisbon to the 2005 UEFA Cup final had initially agreed to take the Nigeria job after leaving his role as Venezuela coach over unpaid wages.

The deal was called off just after the 2022 AFCON, only to be revived in May that year.

However, it was reported that he again had issues receiving his salary before the head of the Nigeria Football Federation announced last June that he would organise a fan poll to decide if Peseiro should be sacked.

That telephone vote would have the advantage of generating much-needed funds for the NFF.

“Maybe we didn’t get it right in the area of getting the right person,” Ibrahim Gusau told a radio show.

Peseiro was kept on and in September agreed a pay cut from a reported $70,000 per month down to $50,000.

But things did not get easier, as Nigeria began 2026 World Cup qualifying with two poor results in November, drawing 1-1 with Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

“Peseiro has to go, he’s a bad coach,” Nigerian journalist Wale Ajayi told AFP after those results. “Renewing his contract was renewing disaster.”

Peseiro held on, and did so again despite that poor opening result against Equatorial Guinea –- in contrast to his first taste of international management, when he was dismissed by Saudi Arabia after they lost their opening game at the 2011 Asian Cup.

Jovial and happy speaking to journalists in Ivory Coast, Peseiro has appeared untroubled by all the criticism and focused solely on returning to Nigeria with the trophy.

“Nigeria creates expectation, our shirt weighs heavier than other shirts,” he said.

“We have 220 million people who want and need to win. They need some happiness in their lives, and they push us a lot.”