By Nurudeen Obalola:
Obviously as a Super Eagles fan and a Nigerian sports journalist I want the best for my national team at the World Cup. So don’t look at the headline of this piece and conclude ‘this (expletive) guy wants the Super Eagles back home early’.
I’m also risking a query from my boss Alhaji Mumini Alao, the Group Managing Director of Complete Communications Ltd, who has not hidden his preference for Russia as Pot 1 opponents and clearly does not want Germany.
But, all joking aside, I would really love the Super Eagles to draw Germany from Pot 1 and Spain from Pot 2 during the draw on Friday (by the way, are you aware that Completesportsnigeria.com Assistant Editor Kayode Ogundare is LIVE in Moscow to cover the draw exclusively for this website and the Complete Sports newspaper?).
For those who might have been somehow out of circulation for the past few weeks and still need an explanation, the 32 teams that qualified for the World Cup finals will be placed in four pots of eight teams each for the draw.
Pot 1 is perceived as the strongest pool of teams and it contains the seven highest ranked teams in the finals plus hosts Russia. Pots 2, 3 and 4 follow in order of perceived strength with Pot 4, where the Super Eagles are housed, seen as the weakest as it contains the lowest ranked teams in Russia.
Since a team from Pot 4 must draw one team each from the other pots, the Super Eagles cannot escape one of the teams in Pot 1, which has Russia, Poland, Belgium, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Germany and France.
Common sense and the fear of disgrace before a global audience suggest that the average Nigerian would rather have Russia or Poland from Pot A, or even familiar foes Argentina or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
But I would rather have Germany and I am not being overconfident, far from it. I’m as afraid of the big sides as any Nigerian but drawing them might just be best for the Super Eagles.
I would also love the Eagles to draw Spain from Pot B, probably the best side in the second-tier pot being former champions and all.
One of the main reasons I believe it is good for the Super Eagles to be placed in the same group as the big guns is the tendency of the Nigerian team to raise their game when up against the favourites.
Who can forget how a debuting Super Eagles side completely destroyed Bulgaria and Hristo Stoichkov and his band of superstar sidekicks who were seen in 1994 as one of the top five teams in the world given their form going into the World Cup.
But the Super Eagles were not fazed one bit and did not just demystify the Eastern Europeans, they did it in style with a magnificent 3-0 win. To put that win for the African debutantes in perspective, Bulgaria still went on to reach the semi-finals.
Even when Nigeria lost to Italy in the second round, it took an extra-time goal and the dark arts (some still swear to this day that Emmanuel Amuneke and Daniel Amokachi were deliberately targeted and taken out by Italian defenders) to stop the Super Eagles.
The Super Eagles were just minutes away from upsetting a true world power until Roberto Baggio’s late, late equaliser.
Not many Nigerians were excited by the prospects of the Super Eagles facing the star-studded Spain at the France ’98 World Cup but Sunday Oliseh’s stunning missile settled an edge-of-your-seat 3-2 win for the African underdogs.
Curiously at that same World Cup in France, the Super Eagles lost to modest Paraguay in their last group game (admittedly Nigeria had already qualified for the round of 16 before the game) and suffered their heaviest defeat in their round of 16 clash with Denmark.
The Super Eagles were clear favourites to beat Denmark and there was already talk of a potential blockbuster quarter-final meeting with Brazil. But the Laudrup brothers Michael and Brian and the likes of Ebbe Sand absolutely tore Nigeria apart and won 4-1.
Despite the Denmark thrashing, the Super Eagles have fared generally well against European opposition at the group stages of the World Cup.
Nigeria have won five of eight fixtures against European opposition at the World Cup group stages, losing only two and drawing one. Instructively, three of those wins were against Spain and Bulgaria (twice). The defeats were to Greece and Sweden, teams you would expect the Super Eagles to at least get a point from.
The point is the Super Eagles, over the years, tend to get a little complacent when they see themselves as favourites but they are usually a different animal when you have written them off.
The qualifying campaign for this World Cup clearly illustrates this trait. The Eagles were dominant in defeating then Africa’s top team Algeria 3-1 in Uyo and completely annihilated arch-rivals and African champions Cameroon 4-0. But Zambia, rated as the easiest side in the group when the draw for the qualifiers was made, gave the Eagles their toughest home game in Uyo and it took a late goal to defeat the southern African underdogs.
The Eagles breezed through what was considered a tough qualifying group without defeat in six games, winning four matches against Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia.
Nigeria qualified for the World Cup second round when drawn against Argentina, hot Bulgaria and Greece and when in the same group as Spain, Paraguay and Bulgaria. But the same team failed to progress in 2010 when drawn against Argentina, Greece and South Korea, when Nigeria were the second favourites in the group.
If drawn against Poland or Russia on Friday, the talk would be that the Super Eagles have an easy route to the round of 16 and this usually breeds complacency.
But if placed in the same group as Germany and Spain and maybe Denmark, the Super Eagles would be written off but driven by a desire to prove every doubter wrong.
That is when you get the best of the Super Eagles, when nobody gives them a chance.
Russia 2018 Draw: FIFA, Please Give Super Eagles Germany, Spain
By Nurudeen Obalola: