By Adegbenro Adebanjo
There will be no hiding place for the Super Eagles of Nigeria when the World’s most glamorous sporting event, the world cup, opens in Russia in 2018. The Nigerian side will actually be the team to beat as other countries who have qualified have started redoubling efforts to overawe the Nigerian side should they be drawn together on December 1 when the draw is made in Russia.
The gang up against Nigeria is not because it qualified from its group even with a match to spare. It’s also not because in its round robin encounters with Cameroun, Algeria and Zambia, super powers of the round leather game on the continent, it did not taste defeat. Nigeria is in trouble because after qualifying for the showpiece event, the Super Eagles went on to do the unthinkable.
Yes, the Nigeria Super Eagles are actually the architect of their own trouble. They played themselves into trouble when they went to Russia on November 13 and decimated one of the Super powers in the sport Argentina 4-2 with the whole world watching proceedings. The legendary Diego Maradona described the defeat of Argentina by Nigeria in the friendly match thus, ‘I am angry because they have taken away our prestige”.
Indeed that famous victory has cast the Super Eagles in a new light and football aficionados across the world, including coaches and players who will be playing in the world, cup now see Nigeria as a formidable opponent which should not be trifle with. So Nigeria’s opponent in Russia will not take matches against the Super Eagle with levity. They will go all out and fire from all cylinders to humble this team that humiliated Argentina in Russia.
From all indications this will be Nigeria’s toughest World Cup ever. Forget the fact that by African standard the country has done relatively well in the competition. From the first appearance in 1994, the Eagles led by the Late Stephen Keshi almost created the biggest upset when they faced Italy in the second round and led by 1-0 until the very last moment when a momentary lack of concentration prevented them from caging the Roberto Baggio led squad in the second round. Italy eventually prevailed by 2-1.
Prior to that, the Eagles had humiliated Greece, Bulgaria and virtually retired Andoni Zubizarreta, the Spaniard all-time great goalkeeper who fumbled with the ball and allowed Eagles to run away with 3 – 2 win over Spain. After USA’94 the Eagles had managed to put up mainly respectable, and at times shambolic, performances in subsequent appearances at the world cup in the first round almost always qualifying for the second round. That’s where they always stopped. And that is why the Eagles are in greater trouble with their compatriots who follow the game with dizzying passion. So this time around the Super Eagles and their handlers must know that second round qualification is not enough.
The success at Russia 2018 will be measured by at least a quarter final berth. Anything short of that will be tantamount to a successful failure. And these Eagles Class of 2018 have what it takes to shake the world. They have as Technical Adviser a man who seems to know his onions and has weathered the politics of the Football Association and the interference from high and low quarters.
Yes, Gernot Rohr has been inspiring and has engineered the team to deliver at critical times. He cannot afford not to deliver in Russia. And luckily for him he has a group of experienced players and new intakes who want to show that they have all it takes to become world beaters.
The Captain of the team, John Mikel Obi, is a veteran of sorts and he has shown that he has the support of his mates which is critical and the character of a team leader off and on the field of play. The likes of Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa, Ogenyi Onazi, Odion Ighalo, Abdulahi Sheu, Alex Iwobi have enough experience and fire in their belly to hold their own against any opposition. And of course emerging key players like Kelechi Ihenacho, Leon Balogun and William Troost Ekong and new kid on the block Brian Idowu could also contribute to an anticipated success story in Russia.
However, as in the past extraneous forces and matters must not be allowed to infiltrate the team and preparations. Before long, those who played little or no role in the qualification race will want to reap from where they did not sow and through subterfuge and influence peddling will create division in the team. And of course, even ethnic jingoists and religious zealots are waiting in the wings to canvas for ethnic balance and religious equity. Such inanities and aberrations must not be imported into the march to Russia. Rohr must be given the free hand to select his team. The role of the Football Association must be limited to contingency support from the background while government officials who have enough money to go to Russia must confine themselves to designated spots.
Former Super Eagles Chief Coach, Adegboye Onigbinde, has this advice for Rohr and his boys, ”The Eagles have a technical team employed to ensure they do well at competitions and I believe they should know what to do after seeing the way the team played both halves against Argentina. The team can go on to win the World Cup next year if the right things are done-part of which is giving them quality matches to play to prepare them for the task ahead. No two games are the same, and the same Argentina we beat 4-2 may meet us at World Cup and beat us silly. The team look good but they need reinforcements to enable them to keep up the performances and do better. The players should guard against being overconfident because they have defeated Argentina”. Certainly, a timely advice to steer Nigeria off the path of trouble in Russia.
Adebanjo, former sports editor of TELL Magazine, sent this piece via firstname.lastname@example.org