Nigerians believe strongly in the efficacy of prayers to impact and even alter fate. So, they love to pray. Confronted with every conceivable challenge they pray and pray and pray. Last Tuesday, they prayed to defeat Argentina.
Only Nigerians believed it could happen that their national team of mostly good (not exceptional) players would upset the form books, defy statistics, damn the betting odds, prove expert analysis faulty, and make nonsense of history by defeating Argentina, the team projected by experts (except Nigerians) on the eve of the championship as one of the favoured teams to win the 2018 World Cup. For some inexplicable reason, last Tuesday was not a good day for granting wishful prayers.
Nigeria was 10 minutes away from what would have been the country’s greatest moment in football at the highest level when the elements decided to ditch sentiments. Argentina must have been praying fervently too. They too had run into storms in their first two games and needed to win this match to escape what would be an incomparable disaster – to be ousted by an African team in the first round of a championship they were tipped to win. To demonstrate their faith in their mission, they had come to Russia with an unprecedented army of some 40,000 fans.
Compare this to their Nigerian opponents. With all the ‘noise’ of loving the game like a religion, Nigeria went to Russia with a brigade of supporters 500-strong, with many of them joining the team to escape the country and become economic refugees. Add to that number another 500 officials and foreigners supporting the team. That is their own demonstration of faith in their team to win the World Cup.
On the night, their combined voices could not rise above the deafening roar of the Argentinian supporters. Their beautiful stylish new green, black and white colours were like a speck of paint in an overwhelming ocean of the sky blue and white colours of Argentina. What was at stake for both teams?
For Nigeria, there was nothing but the ambition to upset the applecart, halt the tide of defeat at this level by same Argentina, get to the second round of the World Cup, and achieve these mostly through prayers for the elements to smile on their Super Eagles.
For Argentina, what was at stake were monumental burdens – they had never lost to Nigeria in five previous meetings at the World Cup; they were so good historically that they were considered one of the favourites to win it; they had in their team celebrated and exceptionally gifted players including the best player in the history of the game; and finally, they had come in faith with, probably, the single largest travelling army to a World Cup final. So, under such conditions, what would the elements do? Which team would they favour? Obviously, they would not be partial and work against the grain of the divine order of things. So, it makes sense to assume that the elements decided to take sentimental, and wishful prayers out of the equation allowing nature to take its course. If the elements took sides, how does one explain the two easy goal-scoring chances lost by Nigeria? Or the role of the VAR? Or the poor strategy Nigeria adopted with 10 minutes left of a game they could have wrapped up applying any one of several known simple strategies of running down and ‘killing’ off a game with five minutes to go?
The Super Eagles took their foot off the throttle when they needed to do the opposite. They gave the Argentines the gas the South Americans needed badly to rev up their ‘coughing’ engines. And the Nigerians paid the ultimate price of their inexperience and lack of technical depth on the bench. When you add up all these, it becomes clear that the prayers of Nigerians were drowned by the experience, the desire and the passion (and prayers too) of the fanatical Argentine followers that had travelled halfway around the world to pack the 64,000 capacity, retractable-roofed, magnificent Zenit Stadium in St. Petersburg, like sardines in a can. Such steps are the demonstration of faith that moves mountains. It worked against Nigeria last Tuesday night.
Had Nigeria won that match, with the sort of passion and emotions I saw at the end, many Argentines would have ‘died’ in the agony, pain, shame and humiliation of being halted by Nigeria. It would have been the greatest disaster since their defeat at the Falklands War! As a Nigerian, it was cruel and painful to have lost in the manner the Eagles did. The reality, however, is that we were simply not hungry enough. At least, in the last 10 minutes of that match, we did not demonstrate on the field that we wanted to win badly enough. Nigeria must take away useful lessons from this Russian experience, particularly that a country doesn’t win the World Cup through prayers alone but through a combination of passion, hard work, planning and performance on the field of play. The prayers follow only as the icing on the cake.
My humble take
It is not easy to manage the logistics of a complex event like the World Cup. The present NFF lacks the depth and experienced staff to succeed without hitches. Beyond that, there will always be complaints by many of those familiar or not with these things. Have we stopped being Nigerians? The arrangements for the last match against Argentina did not go particularly well for reasons even I cannot fathom. The defeat exacerbated the pain and hurt that people felt.
Many stakeholders in the Nigerian football family came with agenda not unconnected with the elections into the NFF board coming up in September 2018. An inevitable political game has begun. Competing groups and camps were playing out scripts that will credit or discredit the present regime. The Super Eagles team was my principal focus and concern. From my observation, the team could not have been better treated. Morale was high and all needs were met. The players had a great relationship with the NFF leadership.
Technically, with what I saw during the matches in Russia, it is my humble submission that the Super Eagles were just not good enough yet for the goals and high expectations hung around their young shoulders. They are a team of the future. I am not so sure any more if Gernot Rohr is the right man to take the team to the next level. His earlier claims cannot be taken as gospel anymore. The evidence before me questions his suitability even though it cannot be conclusive. At the most crucial time in Russia, he did not do what everyone expected him to do.
Pinnick Amaju did his best for the Nigerian team. The players matter the most and in that regard, he scores very highly. No previous Chairman that I know of has been as meticulous and clinical in the small details and attention paid to the welfare of the players. As a young, experienced and ambitious man riding on the crest of African football administration, he has a lot to learn as well as to give to Nigerian football from his vintage positions in CAF and FIFA.
Meanwhile, I am still here in Russia thinking how best to serve out my role here now as the Ambassador and eyes of all clients and patrons of Bet9ja for the rest of the World Cup.
It is Thursday morning.
I have just had a very long night. All my friends have left. There is little to do now except wait for match time to feed the eyes. There are still a few persons around Park Inn Hotel waiting in the lounge to sort out their departures from St. Petersburg, and eventually from Russia in a few days’ time. Many people had booked their return flights believing that Nigeria would get to the second round of the World Cup at least. Now they are stuck and would have to manage this lonely and expensive period.
The master of romantic prose and poetic literature Mitchell Obi, called me up early today. He is in Moscow. He will be around till the end of the World Cup by virtue of his very privileged position as head of the IAP (International Press Association) in Africa. No one is certain about the state of members of the Nigerian Football Supporters Club. I have not met them during this entire period but heard tales of their horrendous experiences. I can’t wait to meet with Dr. Rafiu Ladipo to hear the stories; how their members could not access some venues; how several could not connect flights because of escalating costs that rise and fall within minutes; how some members were tricked and ‘detained’ by security agencies for disturbance at the airport in Volgograd, driven several kilometres to an unknown destination and dropped in the middle of nowhere to find their way home; how several members disappeared into Europe; and so on and so forth. I have read conflicting reports on social media of people’s reaction here about the performance of the Nigeria Football Federation as hosts.