(CNN) – It was a period of turmoil, as the country’s president Goodluck Jonathan at first banned the national side for two years after a poor showing at the 2010 World Cup before world ruling body FIFA threatened even harsher sanctions, and the ruler backed down.
Under the guidance of former international player Stephen Keshi, Nigeria came through Group C with a win and two draws this month and then beat a side that the coach called “the top team on the continent.”
“I want to thank God for this wonderful victory, and sincerely thank my players for everything they did today. I hope we can keep going to the final,” the former Togo and Mali coach told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s semi in Durban.
“Ivory Coast are the top team on the continent with lots of quality, so we tried to speed up and try to catch out players like Drogba and Yaya Toure.
“I’m glad my team is progressing in every game — there is great discipline in the team and I just hope we keep going that way.”
Nigeria took the lead just before halftime when Emmanuel Emenike’s free-kick went straight through Ivory Coast goalkeeper Boubacar Barry for his third goal of the tournament in South Africa.
Cheick Tiote leveled with a header from veteran captain Drogba’s free-kick on the left, but Sunday Mba gave Nigeria victory as he beat three men and unleashed a 20-yard shot that was deflected past Barry.
The 24-year-old is one of five Nigeria-based players in the 23-man squad — none from the country’s top league featured in the 2008 or 2010 finals.
“The boys showed character. When I played for Nigeria I had to fight, fight, fight and they did that today,” Keshi said.
“When the Ivorians leveled we tried to defend and work out our tactics, and we scored again. Sunday came up with a beautiful, beautiful goal.”
Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi took responsibility for his team’s surprise exit.
“I put forward the team I judged to be the best to pose problems to a good Nigeria side,” said the Frenchman, who took over after last year’s penalty shootout defeat in the final against Zambia.
“Of course our aim was to win the title, and for certain players this could be their last chance so, yes, there is disappointment in the dressing room.
“It’s a great sadness for me as the players were working with one objective — to win this Nations Cup — but it proved not to be enough.”
Drogba and most of the Elephants squad will now head back to Europe — the 34-year-old will join his new Turkish club Galatasaray, where Ivory Coast teammate Emmanuel Eboue also plays.
Two-time African player of the year Yaya Toure will go back to England with his brother Kolo to help Manchester City’s faltering Premier League title defense.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso won the battle of first-time quarterfinalists in Sunday’s other game, beating Togo 1-0 after extra time at Nelspruit.
Jonathan Ptroipa headed the only goal from a corner in the 105th minute to set up a clash with four-time champion Ghana at the same venue on Wednesday.