By Peter Claver Oparah
The Nigerian Super Eagles had an effortless ride to the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. Not that it drew an easy group in the African group qualification, where it was paired alongside Cameroon, Zambia and Algeria in what was seen as a group of death. Yes, Cameroon, the five-time African Cup of Nations winners, was coming fresh from a roller coaster ride at the last Cup of Nations where it emerged unlikely champions over more favored African teams. Curiously, Nigeria was not in the competition because it couldn’t qualify for that biennial African soccer fiesta! Algeria is a dreaded North African team that has, over the years, combined the sweet, free-flowing North African football with a rugged staying power to emerge as a power house in African football while Zambia is a rugged, fast emerging soccer powerhouse which is making very steady and impressive strides in African football.
Nigeria? A hugely talented African soccer power that had rather been badly managed over the years to turn out a mixed cocktail of results that establish its prominent role in African football and at the same time, reflected the horrible management the country has passed through over the years. So, it was a gritty group where Nigerian Super Eagles was drawn in the qualification rounds and many expected a very tough fight amongst these African soccer powers and while many betted on the chances of the country’s Super Eagles, many did not foresee the ease with which the Eagles strode through a tough group to emerge as Africa’s first team to qualify for the World Cup finals.
The Eagles beat difficult Zambia by two goals to one in Zambia, defeated Algeria by three goals to nothing in Nigeria, defeated high fancied Cameroon by four goals to nothing in Nigeria, drew one apiece with Cameroon in Cameroon, beat Zambia by a lone goal in Nigeria and drew one apiece with Algeria in Algeria to round off a very successful campaign that saw Nigeria as one of the earliest qualifiers for the global soccer show piece in Russia next year. It was like a dream land as not many Nigerians and African soccer pundits gave Nigeria such incredible chances especially when the same team, in between the qualifiers, lost by a scandalous two goals to nothing to South Africa right here in Nigeria in a Cup of Nations qualifier.
The Super Eagles has even gone ahead to beat highly fancied Argentina by four goals to two in an international friendly, preparatory to the World Cup finals in June next year! From all seeming indices, the country has arrived and there have been loud boasts from sports managers in Nigeria that the Eagles will not go to the World Cup as spectators.
It is really heartening that the Super Eagles, fresh from the disappointing recent history which had seen it miss out in most major football competitions in African and global levels, is showing such great promises. It is even cheery that Nigeria is showing such profound rekindling in soccer when viewed from the perspective of the poor management and ill-preparations that have been the hallmarks of our sporting federations for many decades. It is even surprising that Nigeria practically strolled through what should be a very difficult qualification group when the country’s football management is still afflicted by terrible management woes but the easy qualification of the Eagles should challenge the soccer bodies in Nigeria to prove that our good fortune at the qualification stage wasn’t mere happenstance. The best way to do this is to put away our traditional lethargies and give all to ensure that the Eagles put up a superlative performance in the World Cup and possible equal or surpass the previous African records of quarter final qualifications achieved by Senegal and Cameroon.
To make an impressive outing in next year’s World Cup, Nigeria must work with the mindset that the World Cup finals is a very different cup of tea from the African qualifications or the friendly against Argentina. It is a very different game entirely. The country needs to operate in a six-months soccer emergency before the World Cup to create, build and prepare a winnable team for the competition. This requires much more seriousness that does not tolerate the traditional tardiness our soccer managers are noted for. It forbids the extraneous factors and insidious indices that have been brought to sabotage our football and this emergency must seek to attend to the kind of bickering and petty quarrels that always crop up when Nigeria is participating in a major competition.
I am of the opinion that the handlers of the Eagles must strive to build a team that nears the 1994 team, which arguably remains Nigeria’s best team ever, with a defense, midfield and attack that stood the test of time before and during the 1994 World Cup competition. The team with such notable players like Rashidi Yekini, Peter Rufai, Stephen Keshi, Samson Siasia, Daniel Amokachi, Chidi Nwanu, Emmanuel Amuneke, Mike Emenalo, Austine Eguaveon, among many other numerous stars was so good that it went to the 1994 World Cup as FIFA rated fifth best team in the world! The target of the present handlers of the Eagles is to recreate such team. In doing this, they need to review the present team, to know its weaknesses and strengths and where to add or remove. The Eagles handlers must still fiddle with the team that earned us the ticket to replace the players that operate beyond par and retain those that excelled. They should not shy from replacing any member of that qualifying team that does not meet the expectation of the handlers and must be ready to inject newer blood in the abundant talents that bound both in Nigeria and in professional football. Let the handlers aim at building two equally competent and strong teams for the World Cup as France did in 1998 when she won the World Cup.
I know that Nigeria, as a country, is blessed with abundant talents and creative soccer resources so our soccer management authorities must be ready to tap this to build an impregnable team for the World Cup. Six months is enough to tap newer talents, make some adventurous moves and prepare a team for world soccer glory in June. We should not sleep on the feeling that we have a world cup conquering team in the team that secured qualification for we will wake up to discover that the World Cup is not a tea party. So let the managers of our football and our national team handlers wake to the need to start meticulously building a team that will really compete in the World Cup.
One area our football managers must look into in the Super Eagles is the attack. The Eagles attack is not as clinical and ruthless as it should be. The handlers must scavenge for newer bloods, with a thirsty appetite to excel and draft them to give the present attackers a run for their money. Without a clinical attack, that will complement the efforts of the midfield and deliver the killing punch, the team equals nothing so let measures be taken to sharpen the attack by bringing in newer and hungrier attackers that will deliver in the most critical moment. This is not to say that the defense and the midfield are perfect. No, these departments still need be touched up with fresh vista of competition opened but from the qualifications, it is easy to discern that the defense has got some semblance of quality as well as the midfield, with Leon Balogun and Victor Moses proving capable leaders in both departments as to rekindle hope for an enduring contest by our team in the competition. But there is no harm in making the existing players compete for shirts in the upcoming team that will go to the world cup.
Then, deliberate efforts must be made to procure strong opponents for friendly matches on very regular basis in this period. This will give the handlers the opportunity to meld the team to a desirable one and give them adequate preparations for the competition. More importantly, the team’s psychology must be worked on. The players must be made to believe in themselves as well as their capacities to face any team. This is a critical component we always lack in our sports and at the very crucial moments, our teams have submitted to the superior psychological threats of strong competitors. The managers of the Super Eagles must procure a competent and experienced sports psychologist who will put the players in the right frame of mind to compete in bigger stages and with bigger opponents. This remains a crucial variant the Super Eagles must be equipped with before the World Cup.
If we do the right thing, we will present a credible performance in the coming World Cup but if we make the mistake of seeing our superlative performance at the qualification stages as proof that we can do well in the competition proper, then we must prepare for a huge flop. So let us do what is right, make adequate preparation and procure all we need for the World Cup and definitely, we will do well in the competition. All said, I wish the Super Eagles of Nigeria a resounding success in the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia.
Peter Claver Oparah writes from Ikeja, Lagos.