By Nurudeen Obalola:
The debate and the plans are still going on regarding the best way to immortalise Nigeria’s recently deceased heroes, Stephen Keshi and Shuaibu Amodu.
And these plans might remain ‘in the pipeline’ for years before a consensus is reached or until the pipeline gets blown to pieces by some obnoxious, faceless ‘avengers’.
So, while waiting for the notoriously slow Federal Government and the Nigeria Football Federation to make up their minds, how about something straightforward. Something difficult, but ultimately doable.
What better way to make these Nigerian football icons smile down on us from heaven than qualifying for the World Cup?
Between them, Keshi and Amodu helped the Super Eagles qualify for three of the five World Cups the team have attended.
Keshi captained Nigeria to the country’s first ever senior World Cup too and coached the team to their last one.
One of the greatest injustices in Nigerian sporting history is that Amodu never got to coach Nigeria at the World Cup despite being the only man in the country’s history to qualify the team for that biggest of big tournaments TWICE.
Without Amodu, Nigeria would have failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup after Dutchman Jo Bofrere had made a total mess of the campaign. Amodu was also responsible for qualification to the 2010 edition in South Africa.
Without Keshi, Brazil 2014 would probably have been beyond Nigeria’s reach.
Between them, these late heroes were responsible for 60 per cent of Nigeria’s World Cup participation. That is HUGE.
Somewhere hopefully in heaven these men will probably be holding hands and praying that their dear country does not disgrace them by failing to reach Russia 2018.
I’m assuming there is a special place in heaven where ex-football men hang out and watch earthly matches on giant-screen television sets.
Imagine late Ghanaian football heroes or Camerounian heroes having bragging rights over our own Keshi and Amodu, men who mastered the art of World Cup qualification.
If the banter in heaven is the same as what we have on earth these days, then Keshi and Amodu’s previous achievements will not count for much if the Eagles fail to fly to Russia.
The only thing that matters is what’s happening now and I imagine the Nigerians would be mercilessly mocked if the Super Eagles fail the Russia 2018 test, especially with the failure to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations still fresh.
So how do we make these heroes proud as they look down from heaven?
First, we must determine – quickly – who will coach the Super Eagles through the qualifiers.
Are the NFF going with Samson Siasia, who dispayed some tactical naivety against Egypt and paid dearly for it, or Salisu Yusuf, who seems to have found his voice after beating the ‘almighty’ Luxembourg and Mali in largely meaningless friendlies?
Will they settle for the Frenchman Paul Le Guen, who helped Cameroun qualify for the 2010 World Cup but executed an atrociously poor campaign and got later sacked by Oman?
Whoever they settle for, the NFF need to act quickly and decisively, because it is already clear that the race for Russia is going to be a hard one.
With just one team qualifying from a group of four and the likelihood that Nigeria will draw at least two very strong teams, there is no time to faff about.
I keep looking at the World Cup pots for the African qualifiers ahead of Friday’s final round draw and I keep wondering how the Super Eagles will somehow get to Russia.
The top pot consists of Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Senegal and Algeria, meaning there’s no escaping these teams; Nigeria must draw one of them.
So, given how we struggle even when the draw seems to favour us, who would we rather have as group opponents?
Perennial rivals Ghana, who seem to be in the ascendancy these days as Nigeria plummet? Ghana who would love nothing more than to be the ones responsible for Nigeria’s failure? Ghana who sometimes derive more pleasure in Nigeria’s misery than even their own success?
Or is it Senegal, who have failed to qualify for the World Cup since reaching the quarter-finals in 2002 on their debut? Senegal who would give anything to return to that great stage they still celebrate in Dakar and other cities till this present time? Senegal who have taken great strides and have worked their way up the African hierarchy with some of the continent’s most talented players in their ranks?
Perhaps, Cote d’Ivoire the African champions would suit us? At least the Super Eagles defeated them on the way to winning the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations under Keshi, although the Elephants have gone on to win the AFCON title two years later while Nigeria have missed qualification twice in succession.
Then there are the North African powerhouses : Algeria, Africa’s top-ranking team, and Tunisia. While the Super Eagles have generally fared well against North African teams in the past few years, the most recent encounter with Egypt suggests Algeria and Tunisia will be tough nuts to crack.
The Pharaohs basically breezed through their group, winning all their games bar the draw with Nigeria in Kaduna to qualify for their first AFCON in six years.
At the moment, Egypt are not considered as good as Algeria or Tunisia.
So the choice is basically between the devil, the deep blue sea, frying pan, fire, a rock and a hard place. Whichever way the Eagles turn, it feels like there is a roadblock where somebody is waiting to smash their World Cup dreams to pieces.
To make matters even worse, the top pot is not Nigeria’s only big challenge.
The Eagles are in Pot 2 for Friday’s draw so they will certainly avoid Egypt, DR Congo, Mali and Cape Verde, but more danger lies in Pot 3.
The third-tier pot is supposed to be weaker than Nigeria’s Pot 2, but there is not one team there that is a pushover.
There is Cameroon, Nigeria’s perennial torturers whose first three AFCON titles were won with the Eagles as losing finalists.
The Lions are not so Indomitable these days, but they still pose great danger, especially to the Eagles who are also not so super anymore.
Pot 3 also has Guinea, who stopped the Eagles from qualifying for the 2012 AFCON, as well as Morocco, Congo and South Africa.
Morocco being a North African side should never be taken lightly, while South Africa may never have beaten Nigeria in a competitive match but qualified ahead of the Eagles for the 2015 AFCON.
As a matter of fact, Bafana Bafana almost defeated the Eagles in Uyo but for two late goals, and they set in motion the wheels for Keshi’s eventual removal as Nigeria head coach.
Pot 4 looks relatively easy with Zambia, Burkina Faso, Libya, Gabon and Uganda. But in there are two AFCON losing finalists and a North African side.
Nobody likes playing away to a North African side.
A nightmarish scenario would pit the Eagles against say Ghana from Pot 1, Cameroon from Pot 3 and Burkina Faso/South Africa from Pot 4, with only one team qualifying for Russia.
The truth is, no matter who Nigeria get from Pots 1 and 3, qualifying would be one hell of a long, arduous journey to Russia.
Are we ready to successfully undertake that journey?
It is going to be very tough however the draw goes, but the Nigeria Football Federation and the Super Eagles owe it to Keshi, Amodu, other fallen Nigerian heroes and millions of long-suffering Nigerian fans who have watched helplessly as their darling team lurch from one embarrassing result to another.
It’s time for the real Super Eagles to stand up. Don’t let Keshi, Amodu, Rashidi Yekini, Uche Okafor, Wilfred Agbonivbare and the rest of them become the butt of crude jokes in the football heroes’ section of heaven.
Do it for them. Do it for us. Don’t mess this campaign up.