To be sure, qualifying for the most important football event in the world is a big deal. After all only 32 countries get to participate in the fun-filled and skill driven reverie of the World Cup out of hundreds of nations that started the race.
Therefore the euphoria that greeted the qualification of Nigeria for its sixth world cup appearance is understandable. But if the truth must be told there is nothing outstandingly historical or big in the qualification of Nigeria for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It is almost ordinary. Indeed it has a deja vu ring imprinted boldly on it.
Yes, we have seen it before; the qualification is not yet a big deal. The only time our qualification in this epoch came with a ring of monumental achievement was in 1994 when the Super Eagles, led by Late Stephen Keshi, gave Nigeria its first ticket to the Mundial. And it was also at USA ‘94 that the benchmark of second round qualification was reached. And since then, in spite of four appearances, it has never been surpassed. So Russia will remain just another World cup adventure if something more than a second round qualification like the quarter final mark does come from the Super Eagles World Cup Class of 2018.
So now that the euphoria of Nigeria’s qualification for the 2018 world cup in Russia has been tempered by the arduous task that will confront the Super Eagles in that cold but boisterous region of the World it’s time to set forth at dawn to use the words of the Nobel Laurette, Professor Wole Soyinka.
Either by accident or design or both Nigeria has found itself in a group many pundits have described as one of the most difficult in the pairings that was done on December 1 and witnessed by our own Austin J.J Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu, two compatriots whose romance with the round leather game places them in the pantheon of legends.
Unarguably the most difficult match for the Eagles is its 5th consecutive match up with Argentina, the familiar foe. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they have played themselves into trouble with the Argentines. So when they confront the Lionel Messi-led squad on June 26th 2018 at the St Petersburg stadium in Russia, the South Americans will be the aggressors. For one they want to take their pound of flesh from the Africans who humiliated them when both sides played in a friendly in the same Russia late in 2017. The Eagles overawed the Argentines by 4 – 2.
Again in previous World Cup encounters Argentina had maintained the upper hand on four occasions. So they want their dominance over Nigeria to continue in Russia. And from the legendry Diego Maradona to Juan Veron who was part of the squad that deflated the Eagles ego by 1 – 0 during the Korea/Japan world cup in 2002 only a convincing win over Nigeria will be good enough. Maradona is still embittered by the 4 – 2 humiliation of Argentina by Nigeria and has even offered to become part of the technical crew to avenge the defeat. So the match between both countries in Russia will be an all-out war.
However the Super Eagles could make the task against Argentina less arduous if they set forth at dawn at the competition by beating Croatia at the Kaliningrad Stadium on 16th June 2018 when they open their world cup account and Iceland at the Volgograd Arena on 22nd June, 2018. Six points in the kitty will put the Eagles in a good stead.
Therefore the Eagles will do themselves and Nigeria a lot of good if they pick between six and four points before the crunchy and crucial encounter against Argentina to ensure a safe passage to the Second Round. However the trouble is that Iceland and Croatia may prove tougher than even the Argentina. Croatia with a third place finish in France 98 has carved a niche for itself as a major force in the round leather game. Its current crop of midfielders, Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan) and Ivan Raktic (Barcelona) have given the country the appellation of the team with the best midfield in the world. Their Coach, Zlatko Dalic, has started a study of the Eagles claiming that although the Eagles have no real stars, they are always dangerous and unpredictable and as such his team will go all out against them. And the only dark horse of the group Iceland will not be an easy nut to crack either. Even Jose Sampaoli, the Argentina coach has warned that the Icelanders are capable of going all the way with their unpredictability and sense of purpose.
So the way out for Technical Adviser, Gernot Rohr, and the crew is to “concentrate more on the physical conditions of the players and tactics rather than the pedigree of the team’s opponent in Russia”.
That is the position of Adegboyega Onigbinde who led Nigeria’s 2002 squad to Korea-Japan World Cup. What Onigbinde is saying is that In Russia the Super Eagles should give quality opposition and should be tactically and mentally prepared for the gritty encounters. Onigbinde says in the build-up Rohr should concentrate on intellectual capacity, psychological, medical, physiological technical and tactical fitness of the players. Simply put, the Eagles, which will be presenting the youngest squad in Russia , must roar from the beginning and must give their all in all the encounters.
Victor Moses, a key member of the squad is already leading the psychological war. The mercurial player says “Argentina are going to be scared of us as well, it’s all about football at the end of the day”. That’s a good mind-set. As Moses himself confessed that his team mates in Chelsea have written off the Super Eagles. “Everyone at Chelsea was saying we’re going to get a thrashing and we are not going to make it through the group stage,” he said. That means the Eagles are seen as the underdogs in their group in the eyes and permutations of pundits. Moses is unfazed by this denigration. He maintains that the Eagles will give a good account and will not be scared of the calibre and quality of opponents. “We’ve got to go and play our football and see what happens,” the Chelsea star declares.
Hopefully, the Solomon Dalung-led Ministry of Sports and Amaju Pinnick-led Nigerian Football Federation will also play their own role creditably well and facilitate a credible appearance in Russia. Already there is talk by Dalung to mobilise a very strong Federal Government delegation that will support the team because sports is also about number. According to him “the number of people you have on the ground can also give support to the players and intimidate.” But if past experiences are anything to go by this could also become an albatross and constitute a great impediment to the progress of the team. There have been occasions when some very important personalities visited players at odd hours causing division in the team through incentives shared inequitably and along ethnic and religious lines.
It should also not be said that so much efforts is spent on the welfare of the delegation to the disadvantage of the team. Already sports administrators are said to be asking the Federal Government to cough out billions of Naira to prosecute the Russian affair. This is troubling since the Federation of International Football Association, FIFA is giving Nigeria 12.5 Million dollars (N4.5Billion) and the Confederation of African Football CAF will top it with 500 thousand dollars (N900Million) to fine tune its preparation for the event. Of FIFA’s $12.5 Million dollars, $2.5 Million will be released as training and preparation grants. Therefore the bulk of the money the sports czars in Nigeria are asking for could become a major source of crisis that may eventually derail the prosecution of the World Cup.
However everything must be done to prevent the ugly incident and international embarrassment that happened in 2010 in South Africa when the Super Eagles boycotted training preparatory to a crucial world cup match after disagreements with sports administrators over bonus and other payments. While support by the ‘Federal Government Delegation”, some of whom will seize the opportunity of the free ride to Russia and fat estacodes to go on shopping sprees rather than appearing at venue of matches, is good, it should be done in such a way that it does not constitute a clog in the wheel of progress. At the end of the day what really matters are the 11 players on the field of play and their psychological readiness, physical fitness and technical knowhow and sense of hunger for victory. They will give their best if the administrators provide the right conditions and incentives.
And this class of Eagles has a tall order. Not even qualification from the group stage will be good enough since the classes of 1994, 1998, 2014 qualified from the group stages and got to the second round where the journey ended.
For the 2018 world cup to become a really big deal of landmark proportion the Super Eagles must not only qualify for the knockout stages but must get to at least the quarter final stage to equal the feat of Cameroon , Senegal and Ghana who all made the quarter finals in 1990, 2002 and 2010 respectively
The Federal Government and its sports administrators must provide the enabling environment for the country’s ambassadors in Russia so that they can fly the green-white-green flag loftily before the whole world and give their beleaguered countrymen and women something to cheer in these challenging times.
Adebanjo, former sports editor of TELL Magazine who covered the 1994 World Cup in USA, sent this piece via email@example.com