Nigeria has had an easy walk on its way to the World Cup in 2018 in Russia. We did it in style, with a thumping victory over Zambia in a reverse qualifier on Saturday, October 7 in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state. In that match, Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi scored the crucial lone that put us on our way to Russia 2018. Nigeria thus became the first African side to book a ticket for the prestigious mundial.
The win put Nigeria on an unassailable 13 points at the top of Group B. Others in the group are Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, all former African soccer champions. The four nations’ pedigree made football experts to dub their group as a “zone of death”. But as it turned out, Nigeria’s Super Eagles made their qualification look like a walk in the park. They have a game against Algeria next month but its outcome will be just academic. However, it will be an opportunity for Algeria’s desert foxes to redeem a bruised image. They sit at the bottom of the group with just a point from 5 games played.
In the penultimate Saturday match in Uyo, chances were missed at both ends by the time Shehu Abdullahi provided the cut-back for Iwobi to finish from inside the box in the 73rd minute. Odion Ighalo, John Mikel Obi, Victor Moses and Moses Simon went close for the Super Eagles but failed to score.
Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene produced an acrobatic save to deny Wilfred Ndidi in the second half in a pulsating end-to-end encounter. Augustine Mulenga thought he had put Zambia ahead in the 22nd minute, but his effort was ruled out for offside. Fashion Sakala, Alex Ng’onga and Enock Mwepu had chances for the Chipolopolo but the 2012 African champions failed to punish an over-worked Super Eagles defence. But substitute Iwobi, who had scored in the reverse fixture in Ndola last October, finished off a decent attack to send Nigeria to a third straight World Cup appearance. Moses had a great opportunity to add a second towards the end but the Chelsea wing-back slipped inside
Russia 2018 will be Nigeria’s sixth appearance at the World Cup. We reached the second round in 1994, 1998 and 2014 but exited the tournament in the group stage in 2002 and 2010.
The Super Eagles’ sweet victory over Zambia and qualification to the World Cup in Russia have not gone unnoticed by the country’s political leadership which has applauded the team’s unity, tenacity and never-say-die spirit – vaues the leaders themselves lack. President Muhammadu Buhari described, in a statement, the World Cup ticket as a “very sweet, soothing 57th independence anniversary gift”. He implored all Nigerians to leverage on the team’s “team spirit, peserverance, resilience, discipline, hard work” to improve the quality of “our national life”.
The President also asked the team’s technical crew, led by the head coach Mr. Rohr, and the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) to focus on building a winning team going into the World Cup. Buhari’s admonition is in order. We should not be contented with just adding to the statistics of participating nations. That appears to have been the case in our 5 previous qualifications. This time we must up our game to be reckoned as realistic winners of the World Cup. To achieve this, the NFF must get over its perennial bickering over money and build a squad that will do the nation and Africa proud. No African country has won the World Cup in its long history.