By Sulaiman Alao
Hurrah! 2018 is here and I am excited not only because it is a New Year but because it is the World Cup year. That Nigeria booked the sole ticket in the Group B of the African qualifications series ahead of tough opponents like Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia was no mean feat. And with expectations now high for Nigeria to improve on past achievements at the global showpiece, there is need for us to avoid our self-destruct tendencies that have consistently haunted us before and during previous outings.
In fact, the self-destruct tendencies I am talking about already reared their ugly heads just after qualification. Only last month, the Eagles survived the scare of missing out at the World Cup following the deduction of points from Nigeria by FIFA Disciplinary Committee on account of fielding an ineligible player during the dead rubber clash with Algeria in the last qualifying game in Constantine last October. Thank God that the Eagles had already booked qualification prior to the last game. If not, Nigerians’ celebrations would have turned into a nightmare and our quest to feature at our sixth World Cup outing would have been a case of stillbirth. And to talk of all that had been put in during the qualifiers, to lose the ticket in such a scandalous fashion would have amounted to a colossal disaster. Sadly, even with that narrow escape, there is no guarantee that the self-destruct tendencies will not show their heads again especially with those responsible for the oversight that almost put Nigeria’s World Cup dreams in jeopardy still very much active in the Nigeria Football Federation.
From Nigeria’s debut at USA ‘94 through to the last edition in Brazil 2014, the Eagles outing was littered with mixed tales of joy and anguish. Issues ranging from constant changes of managers, players’ selection problems, instability in the football house coupled with inefficiency, political leadership crisis, government interference as well as financial problems and such things have conspired to ensure Nigeria never fulfilled her potential at the World Cup. Now let’s take a closer look and observe the self-destruct tendencies in our past outings.
Our first adventure at the USA ’94 World Cup remains our best reference point till date. Yet it was an underwhelming outing going by the calibre of team we had under Dutch manager Clemens Westerhof. Despite getting to the second round, tales later emerged about internal division in the team as well as poor administrative issues that prevented the Eagles from truly fulfilling their potential. That explains why Bulgaria, a team Nigeria defeated 3-0 in the group stages went on to play in the semi-finals while Italy that struggled to beat the Eagles 2-1 in the second round went all the way to the final. By the time the Eagles exited the tournament, coach Clemens Westerhof five-year romance with the football house ended without both parties saying goodbye as the self-styled Dutchgerian practically absconded and never returned with the team to Nigeria.
France ‘98 was no better under Bora Milutinovic who was appointed to lead the team after the sacking of Phillipe Troussier who did well to book qualification ticket for the Eagles with a game to spare. Troussier’s sins then was that he introduced a strange 3-5-2 team formation which some players and football house officials were not comfortable with. At the tournament proper, issues bordering on match bonuses nearly tore the team apart with Nigeria eventually crashing out of the tournament in the second round following a 4-1 thrashing by Denmark.
Korea/Japan 2002 was the worst outing for the Eagles so far. Nigeria under the late Shuaibu Amodu managed to qualify with 16 points in Group B ahead of Liberia who finished with 15 points in a group that also had African football powerhouse, Ghana and minnows Sudan and Sierra Leone. Prior to the World Cup, a major reshuffle led to the sacking of Amodu and the disbandment of the team following a third place finish at the 2002 African Cup of Nations held in Mali. Chief Adegboye Onigbinde was appointed to rebuild a new team almost from the scratch and the result at the World Cup as they say, is history. The ripple effect of the 2002 misadventure contributed to Nigeria not qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany breaking, a three-time consecutive qualification chain.
South Africa 2010 was almost a playback of 2002 edition as Nigeria made a return to the FIFA Mundial with little or no lesson learnt from previous experiences. The qualifiers were successfully prosecuted by late coach Shuaibu Amodu with Nigeria beating Tunisia, Mozambique and Kenya to the ticket. However, Amodu was relieved of his job again following another third place finish at the Angola 2010 Nations Cup. Lars Largerback was contracted to lead the Eagles to the World Cup where Nigeria again crashed out in the group stages following losses to Argentina and Greece with Nigeria’s only point coming from the drawn game against South Korea.
Brazil 2014 was better for Nigeria. Late Stephen Keshi having led Nigeria to win the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa, went on to secure the Eagles qualification for the FIFA Mundial. Criticism however rightly trailed his final 23-man team selection after Keshi dropped some key players who featured prominently in the AFCON success. Nigeria got to the second round but crashed out after losing to France.
Russia 2018 provides Nigeria the chance to do much better and thankfully the current Eagles led by Gernot Rohr has the potential to do just that if our selt-destruct tendencies are put in total check. The Amaju Pinnick-led NFF have started on a good note having taken decisive steps to ensure that the Eagles would not be distracted at the tournament proper by signing agreement with the players and officials as regards what is due to them in terms of bonuses and other financial entitlement. The football house has also extended coach Rohr’s contract for two years which will help the gaffer concentrate on the task ahead and not worry about his future after the World Cup. These positive moves were unprecedented in our World Cup outing history. And with barely six months to the kick-off in Russia, let’s hope and pray we can sustain this positive tempo.
Nigeria can’t afford to self-destruct in Russia. Something tells me the Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t like it!