The die is now cast.
Last Friday night, the world witnessed the draws of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The entire event was so well choreographed that even the eventual draws turned out to represent every country’s interest and no country’s special interest.
The event had everything – glitz, glamour, fanfare and a true representation of those that matter the most in the game. FIFA did a great thing by making players the centre of the draws! They anchored and conducted the draws. The best of them from around the world constituted a large percentage of the audience of the football elite.
The event became as the game on the field itself, the most beautiful, widely followed and the most lucrative single social event in the world, bar none!
It was truly a night for football and for the very best of footballers through the decades of the World Cup.
The architecture of the draws proper, obviously adopted from other sports like tennis and basketball, was such that each final group of four countries was eventually made up by one team from the strongest pot, one team from the weakest pot, and the other two teams coming from the two pots of teams in between the strongest and weakest.
The strengths and weaknesses of the teams were determined by their last FIFA rankings before the draws. These were the cumulative sum of points garnered from the results of all the Grade A international matches played by each country. There could not be a fairer and more equitable way of arriving at the World Cup fixtures.
So, draws concluded, global conversations have begun all over the world about the chances of the different teams.
Here in Nigeria, it is the main topic of public discussion. The questions on every lip are ‘What are Nigeria’s chances? Are the Super Eagles in the Group of Death or the Group of Hope?’
During a showing of The Sports Parliament, an authoritative live national television program shown on Africa’s largest television network, the Nigeria Television Authority, NTA, last week, 3 of the 5 parliamentarians on the show, very well respected sports personalities not known for frivolities and cheap talk, seriously predicted that Nigeria would win the World Cup!
I was dumbfounded at their shocking isolated optimism.
I have been reading all manner of comments and predictions by analysts and ‘experts’ from around the world. Not one has even mentioned in passing the faint possibility of an African country (not just Nigeria) winning the coveted trophy.
A lot of respect is being accorded the African teams no doubt, particularly Nigeria, but the projections about the teams expected at the finish line do not include Nigeria.
So, where does the audacious postulation and prediction of a possible Nigerian victory come from?
Countries do not go to the World Cup and win the Cup just like that. That’s why only a few countries continue to dominate it every 4 years, with only a few exceptions that clearly find justification because they are an advanced football culture (Spain), are hosting it (France, England), or have been knocking on the door for a long time without success (Holland).
Obviously, the Sports Parliamentarians would not have such optimistic expectation had Nigeria and Argentina not met in a friendly international match on the eve of the draws, and had Nigeria not beaten the Argentines, one of the favourite teams to win the trophy, by a convincing 4-2 score line.
Otherwise, Nigeria, by FIFA ranking, the weakest of the 5 countries out of Africa, would not be considered a likely candidate for the finals of the World Cup.
But football is also NOT mathematics that follows a defined projection.In this beautiful game anything is possible! So, Nigerians continue to build their hope and are making calculations and permutations that can lead them to the cup.
In Nigeria’s five previous visits to the World Cup, the country had been grouped four times with Argentina.
On all the four occasions Nigeria lost. But those were very closely fought matches, Nigerians would tell you, that could have gone either way but for the one moment of magic by the Argentines, or one moment of madness by the Nigerian teams.
They also concede that the Argentines’ mastery of playing at this level of football has been their most glaring advantage.
Will things be different this time around? Will the talismanic Lionel Messi, who was not on the field when Nigeria bettered the Argentines a few weeks ago, make a difference?
Of course, he would. He is the life wire of that team, and this being his last World Cup predictably, he would give everything to lift the only silverware missing from his chest of trophies and that stands in the way of his ultimate recognition as the greatest football player of all time. In this mood, not even 10 Nigerians may be able to stop him!
So a big battle is in the offing between the Super Eagles and Lionel Messi, when Nigeria and Argentina meet in the final group match in June 2018.
A lot would have happened any way before that epic encounter, for lurking in the wings are two relatively ‘easier’ teams that give Nigerians a lot of hope that the last match against Argentina would be a mere formality.
Nigerians believe their team has the football armoury to handle both Croatia and Iceland, two European teams that present two very contrasting styles that would pose different kinds of challenges for the Eagles.
With the influx of more players honed in the disciplined organized style of English football now in the Super Eagles, plus the influence of a European coach who has proven he knows his onions in football, the Super Eagles are better as a team now than they have been in several past World Cups.
In USA 1994 World Cup and that of 1998 in France, Nigeria was loaded with individually brilliant players effectively deploying their natural speed and strength and wing play.
Today, the team is more organized, much younger but less individually gifted and expressive. The only truly expressive players in the entire team are Victor Moses and captain Mikel Obi.
Despite this, Nigerians hope that the Super Eagles under Gernot Rohr, and motivated by the trouble-free atmosphere around the team, would surmount the hurdles of Iceland and Croatia.
The only danger for the Eagles may be psychological – underrating Croatia and Iceland. Both are very dangerous customers.
The Croatians will be the Super Eagles first opponents.
That match will be very decisive. The Croatian national team is full of old and experienced campaigners in Europe. Along with Serbia they represent the remnant of old Yugoslavian style of a combination of flair and artistry in football.
That the team is ageing may be the most important advantage that the Nigerian team, with the youngest squad in the World Cup, has over Croatia.
Nigeria’s midfield of fit and hardworking Ndidi and Ogu will keep the Croatian team busy all night.
If the Eagles can control the midfield area, that might sew up the match and Nigeria will win. ‘If not’ is not an option any Nigerian will contemplate for now.
The match against Iceland is another kettle of fish entirely. Iceland play like Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Scandinavian countries with their hard, disciplined and organised style of football. Nigeria did not seem to have an answer for this style of football looking at past encounters against them. Remember the two times Nigeria faced Denmark in 1998 and Sweden in 2002!
Iceland may be debutants at the World Cup but if how they played during the 2016 European Cup is anything to go by, they might be the Eagles’ most difficult foes.
They are physical, strong, well organized and technically clinical without any big stars to pin down! They play like a well-oiled machine, endlessly running and fighting till the very last whistle.
It is hard to say now if group D is actually a Group of Death or one of Hope for Nigeria. There are still a few months to find out before the World Cup kicks off!