17 November 2017

Nigeria: Super Eagles Tantalise With World Cup Hopes

After securing their place, with a game to spare, at the 2018 World Cup, from a tough group that included Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, the Super Eagles gave us a titillating experience of what lies ahead with a 4-2 victory against Argentina on Tuesday night.

Having gone two goals behind just after half an hour inside the Krasnodar Stadium, our boys dusted themselves off and scored via a Kelechi Iheanacho free kick just before the first half ended. Alex Iwobi made the scores even a few minutes after the restart before debutant Bryan Idowu surprisingly put the Eagles in the lead three minutes later. Iwobi then put the icing on the cake with a cheeky nutmeg on veteran Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano before shooting into the Argentina goal to make it 4-2 in an emphatic comeback victory.

Like many other Nigerians who were caught up in other activities and could not watch the game live, I have since been watching replays over and over on YouTube in hopes of making sense of the result. It is too good to be true. One does not beat La Albiceleste with or without Lionel Messi like the Eagles did on Tuesday. It was an overwhelming victory that was sadly overshadowed in the global media by the news of Sergio Aguero fainting at halftime.

While it was definitely a friendly victory and we should not read too much into it, the win gives many Nigeria fans hope that the Eagles could pull off a surprise in Russia when the World Cup kicks off in June. This win against a team ranked number four in the world with an array of superstars in their line up shows that Nigeria is capable of the sublime on a good day.

Parading several youngsters in the ranks, Nigeria's feat underlines the amount of progress made by the team in recent months under the watch of coach Gernot Rohr who interestingly was not the first choice for the position when Sunday Oliseh left us in the lurch in February 2016 after a reign that almost destroyed the team's core. Backed by an increasingly powerful Nigeria Football Federation president, Amaju Pinnick and his kitchen cabinet, Rohr led the Eagles to a successful World Cup qualification in the face of palpable fear at the outset when our group opponents were named.

That successful qualifying run has engendered a lot of confidence in the squad and we saw it emerge in the game against Argentina. Until that game, Rohr's team had not come from a deficit to win a game but the halftime talk did wonders for the team that played with a new 5-3-2 formation. The victory against an Argentina side that struggled through its own qualifying round in South America has suddenly made us start to believe that the Super Eagles have a great potential to surprise the world next year.

With the news that emerged just before the game that the NFF had reached an agreement with the players on their bonuses and allowances leading up to the World Cup just makes it more interesting. If we can avoid the problems of the past whereby players have revolted on the eve of matches due to unpaid wages, then we could be onto something big in Russia. Many African teams have suffered in the past due to disagreements over bonuses leading to distractions and eventual eliminations.

In 2014, as we prepared to meet France in the Round of 16, the Super Eagles fell into that money trap as players decided to skip training in protest against the NFF. I stood in front of the team's hotel in Campinas waiting for them to board the bus for training when news emerged that there was agitation over unpaid bonuses. In that moment, I recall a French broadcast journalist tell me happily right there that they would beat the Eagles. The French had experienced their own camp problems four years earlier in South Africa where they failed to win a game. So that journalist knew that the upheaval meant one thing only, advantage France.

Two days later in Brasilia as a billion African hearts beat as one in support of the Eagles, our boys put up a half-hearted performance against Les Bleus and our captain Joseph Yobo even scored a late own-goal in a defensive blunder to hand the French a 2-0 victory.

So it gladdens my heart that Mr Pinnick's NFF has looked to forestall the havoc that poor planning has wreaked on our teams in the past. We can make things work when we plan well. The countries that get these things right have red blood running through their veins, why can we not do it too? With the potential distractions of money for coaches (through a partnership with Aiteo) and players out of the way, the Super Eagles can now focus on preparing for the World Cup in an atmosphere of possibilities.

Tuesday's victory against Argentina in Krasnodar could be the beginning of great things ahead. It definitely would make a lot of big teams become interested in playing the Eagles ahead of the championship. Playing big teams will test our ability and expose our weaknesses as we will see what and how to improve. Perhaps we are onto something huge in 2018; we are allowed to be hopeful.

Nigeria

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