Nigeria has been to the FIFA World Cup 5 times in her history – 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014.
I have been to every one of them, but never as a player.
That may be the most painful part of my football career that had everything great and beautiful in it, except that aspect of showcasing my talent before a global audience.
Probably, in order to compensate myself for that void that will never be filled again in my life, I ensured, come rain or shine, that I went to all the World Cups involving the Nigerian national team since 1994, in one capacity or the other.
Before then however, my story with the World Cup was a catalogue of failures.
My World Cup Failures
Twice I was an integral part of Nigeria’s national team, the Green Eagles that got to the final hurdle of qualifying for the World Cup, when FIFA had only one slot for the entire continent but failed to cross it.
Both experiences have left very painful memories that will not go away 40 and 36 years after, respectively.
In 1977, the Green Eagleshad actually arrived at the gates of Argentina, with only Tunisia to play against on home ground (a hallowed ground where visiting teams were regularly ‘massacred’), to win that match and to become the first Nigerian national squad to go to the World Cup.
It was supposed to be a routine match until disaster struck and ‘Nigeria scored Nigeria’.
An unfortunate ‘own goal’ headed beyond the reach of his own goalkeeper, Emmanuel Okala, by most dependable defender, Godwin Odiye, sealed Nigeria’s fate.
Unfortunately, Godwin has had to live his life since that match with the ‘stigma’ of being responsible for Nigeria’s failure to qualify for her first World Cup experience.
4 years later in 1981, Nigeria got a second chance to qualify and participate in the 1982 World Cup in Germany. I was the leader of that campaign as captain of the Green Eagles.
We had arrived once again at the final hurdles – a two-legged match against a team we had defeated less than a year before to win the Africa Cup of Nations on home ground for the first time in Nigeria’s history – Algeria.
This time again, administrators took things for granted. Instead of preparing the best team for the final series of matches, sentiments crept into the choice of players, and disaster struck again!
We lost scandalously by 2-0 on home soil, thoroughly beaten by a very good Algerian team that did not have the distractions that bedeviled Nigeria’s team, a series of last-minute interference by politicians into the composition of the team to reflect sectional, political and ethnic interests.
The second leg in Algeria became a formality. No one went to the AstroTurf of the National Stadium in Algiers and came away unscathed.
That’s how my dream of appearing as a player at the World Cup was truncated for the second and final time.
Following that fumbling by administrators who did not even share in the trauma that we suffered as a result, I left my role as a football player and embarked on a new life.
So ended by romance with the ambition to play at the World Cup. That pain subsists till now.
How African Football Was Rated At The Time.
In those days, African football was not considered a major force. Only one World Cup slot was allocated to the entire continent.
That’s why it was much more difficult to develop the domestic African game, to qualify for the World Cup, and to get any European national team to agree to play against African national teams.
Whereas the European and South American countries were categorized as Grade A teams, Africa and Asia were considered to be Grade B or even C.
The best that could happen was for them to play against a club side in Europe or South America. Even then, the very best clubs would never agree to play an African team.
My First World Cup
10 years after I retired from football, I had my first taste of the World Cup. By this time, I was the Team Manager of the Green Eagles, responsible for the general affairs and well being of the players. I handled their travels, allowances, liaison with the board, player-disagreements and some team psychology.
America’s first World Cup was a great experience.
The freshly minted Green Eagles were re-christened Super Eagles as a result of their amazing string of successes in winning the African Cup of Nations away from home in Tunisia, and qualifying away from home in dreaded Algeria.
Their performances at USA ’94 were the best by any assembly of Eagles in the history of the national team.
They were young, enthusiastic, mature, fast, strong and conditioned to play to win by Clemens Westerhof, the Dutch Coach of the team.
Technically, if they had any deficiency, it was totally covered by the sheer individual brilliance of the players.
It was a great World Cup, therefore, because the Super Eagleslived up to the pre-World Cup hype, and exceeded it! The team was the focus of a special edition ofInternational Time magazine on the eve of the World Cup.
With a little bit of luck and concentration, the Super Eaglescould have gone farther than the second round.
For one or two moments during the second round match against Italy, they got lost in the excitement of their own incredible performance, slackened their grip on the match with a little bit of unnecessary showboating, and allowed the wily old World Cup foxes through the tiniest of cracks in the Nigerian defense, fed them enough oxygen to resurrect from the dead and to terminate what was developing into an incredible World Cup fairytale for Nigeria!
That notwithstanding, the team was rated so highly at the end of that championship that heading back to Nigeria, I stopped over in England and succeeded, without much persuasion, to get the England FA to agree for England to play a match against Nigeria at the sacred ground of Wembley Stadium, in London.
It was a historic match between the Three Lionsand the Super Eagles that took place on November 16, 1994, and a major turning point that created new respect for Nigerian players which the Nigerian national team enjoys till now.
That’s why, onSaturday, June 2, 2018, the two countries played each other again at the same venue in London, as final preparations for both teams for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
France ’98 World Cup
I attended the 1998 World Cup in France as a tourist. I also did some part time reporting.
It was a completely new feel to the World Cup for me, observing things from a distance and having nothing directly to do with the team. Even when I traveled to the team’s camp to meet with them, for a while I was treated with suspicion and initially denied entry into the camp, until some players came to the gates and insisted that the former captain of the national team should never be denied access to the national team. That’s how I finally got to meet with the players.
In France 1998, I had the opportunity to follow other teams after the Super Eagleshad exited the championship in the second round due to performances that oscillated wildly between brilliance and naivety.
After defeating Spain, one of the best teams in the world at the time, the Eagles lost woefully to Denmark, one of the weaker teams from Europe.
From my tourist’s position, I went on to experience the rest of the festival without the Eagles. That’s how I sat unknown in the huge terraces of the magnificent Stadium in Paris, and watched how Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and company delivered a virtuoso final performance that gave France their first and only World Cup to date!
Watching the World Cup final live for the first time, was a unique experience.
I celebrated with the victorious home crowd on the streets of Paris throughout the night after the finals. Every inch of that city became a huge party with total strangers from all over the world hugging and kissing like lifelong friends.
2002 was a totally different kettle of fish.
Even now I can’t remember much of it because it went like a blur.
The Nigerian team had never been more disorganized.
I went there as a fulltime writer, documenting the first World Cup to be co-hosted by two countries, and to be held in South East Asia!
Language was surely a problem. The inability to communicate easily, the challenges of commuting to venues in both countries with one visa, did not allow for the usual full and sweet experiences of the World Cup.
Unfortunately, Nigeria went to that World Cup with probably its weakest national team ever assembled.
Players who would never have dreamt of playing in the national team were hurriedly huddled together, children of circumstances, and taken to represent the country in the biggest football theatre in the world.
It was a disaster.
I could not wait for Nigeria’s last match against England to end, before I scrambled out of Tokyo to watch the rest of the championship from the comfort of London.
South Africa 2010.
Nigerian football fell to such low depths in administration and the game itself that the country did not even qualify for the 2006 event in Germany.
But 2010 was the epic World Cup – the first one to come to the African continent. South Africa was a great advertisement for the continent. It was a festival beyond football. It had everything a World Cup should have and more.
This time I went as a member of an official government delegation, a member of a Presidential Task Force set up by the federal government to steady the ship of a sinking Super Eagles on the eve of qualifying for the World Cup. The Task force did its job, steadied the ship and ensured that the team qualified.
Travelling with such an exalted group made the 2010 World Cup very memorable. Everything was arranged for the delegation, and moving around the country, meeting with the players, and getting close to the action were all vintage.
Unfortunately, the team imploded as a result of irreconcilable technical differences. It did not surprise anyone that the Super Eaglesfell like a pack of cards, did not go beyond the first round, and did not win even a single match.
That would mark the fourth time in a row that the manager that took the Eagles to the World Cup would not return to the country and continue to handle the team!
Clemens Westerhof did not return with the team to Nigeria in 1994; Bora Milutinovic disappeared from Paris; Chief Adegboye Onigbinde’s contract ended with the match against England – he went straight back to Ibadan from Tokyo; no one saw Lars Lagerback again after Nigeria’s exit from South Africa 2010.
This may be my best World Cup visitation yet. I went as an independent reporter and as a partial guest of the Nigeria Football Federation. My journalistic responsibilities gave me unfettered access to every conceivable venue and event in the World Cup. I went everywhere, saw everything and met everyone. I watched matches from the best seats in the stadia, and had extra first-class tickets to offer several persons courtesy of Rotimi Pedro, whose intervention ensured that I had the best time of my World Cup experience in Brazil. I sometimes even went onto the field of play to make pre-match analysis.
The World Cup in Brazil was a very colourful festival of football, dance and music, reflected everywhere I turned for social engagements in Brazil.
Nigeria’s early exit from the championship was due to a little bit of ill- luck.
The Eagles were never really humiliated in any match. Their painful loss that saw them exit the championship was not because France were really better but because of some momentary lapses in concentration and inexperience. Otherwise Nigeria gave a good account of itself.
Brazil’s Humiliation – A Tonic For 2018!
The most memorable part of that 2014 World Cup was Brazil’s ouster from the championship at the semifinals in a humiliating loss to eventual winners, Germany.
Brazil conceded 7 goals in that embarrassing match, for the first and only time in their entire history.
As the 2018 edition beckons, many analysts are tipping them as favourites only for the reason that they have something to now prove to the world.
The only way they can regain their respect as the best football country in history, is to win the 2018 World Cup. And they might have to do it without their talismanic player, Neymar Junior, who has been injured and out of action for several months and may not be fit enough to contribute much, if at all, to how Brazil fares in 2018.
Russia 2018 Through My Eyes.
I am on my way to Russia.
On this page, I shall be looking at Super Eagles in the championship through my experienced eyes. Keep a date with me!