FT World Cup 2018: Nigeria's Tournament in Review
“I think like the President said, this is the first time we are going into a tournament like this without any issue of money, bonuses or anything like that. I think everything is sorted now for us and all we have to do as players is go out there and make this country proud and we hope with your support as the father and the leader of this great nation, we will go out there, give our best and make sure we come back with the trophy.” - John Obi Mikel, Captain of Nigeria
These were the words of the former Chelsea man as the Super Eagles took flight for Russia as one of the five teams to represent the continent of Africa at the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals. As you can probably tell from Mikel’s speech above to the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, they were ready. For the first time ever, they had probably ticked all the boxes in terms of preparations for a highly organized campaign. Even their trendy Nike kits and elegant African dresses told the story of Eagles ready to reach new heights. In a group with Argentina, Croatia and Iceland, was the success going to be a certainty? Did they actually have enough wind in their sails?
The Croatia Fiasco
In all honesty and truth, that word summarises Nigeria’s first fixture against Croatia, fiasco (a complete failure). As we had anticipated in FirstTouch’s Group D overview of the World Cup, Gernot Rohr used the 4-3-3 system with the exception that he chose Etebo for Onazi and Idowu instead of Echiejile in the back four. In fairness, the team actually made sense, it seemed to be the strongest possible from the 23-man squad. However, when the 90-minutes were up, all the positivity and hype had disappeared into thin air, Africa and Nigeria were stunned by the 2-0 loss to the organized Croats. A team that had only registered two shots on target for the entire match. It’s not like Nigeria had more. The entire match was a boring affair pitting the Super Eagles who seemed to be lacking desire, strolling the pitch and passing sideways with no sense of urgency. When going forward, a chance created that would be created would just fizzle out as a result of not having a clear attacking plan. The Croats, who were not actually great on the day, revealed more intent and purpose, and left the game with all three points.
A much more re-invigorated Nigerian side melted the Icelanders
Matchday Two arrived and we were all thrown into a frenzy. The social network communities came to a standstill as the African community, ring-led by the 180 million Nigerians flooded Instagram and Twitter notably crowning Ahmed Musa as a ‘governor.’ The CSKA Moscow forward had struck twice in the Iceland fixture to deny the “Vikings” a fairytale campaign, blowing Group D open and giving Argentina some hope of reaching the knockout stages after they had succumbed 3-0 to Croatia in a “tactics gone wrong” scary movie showing by Jorge Sampaoli. A much more disciplined and hungry Super Eagles team could be attributed to the positive result against Iceland. A switch of the formation to a 3-5-2 introducing Chelsea’s Omeruo as part of the back three offered more defensive stability and attacking prowess as Victor Moses was shifted to a more familiar right wing-back role and Ahmed Musa partnered with Kelechi Iheanacho upfront to deliver the goals in place of Ighalo. We started seeing the Nigerian side we had all hoped for; youthful, talented and passionate, and with one game to go in the group stages, the Super Eagles had put themselves in prime position to qualify for the knockout phase as they now sat in a second place ahead of Argentina and Iceland, who both had a point each.
A familiar tango with Albiceleste had a familiar end
The final fixture shaped up to be the most important one. With Nigeria needing only a point to book a spot in the Round of 16 and Argentina counting on some complex permutations coupled with a victory over the Super Eagles, Nigeria had it all to do heading into this last fixture. Gernot Rohr named an unchanged line-up from the starting XI that faced Iceland and had to start on the back foot after Messi seized the first decisive moment of the match and put the South Americans in front with a sublime goal in the 14th minute. As the match progressed, we witnessed the birth of character, winning attitude and fighting spirit in the Nigerian squad as they came from being a goal-down to dominate the 2014 World Cup finalists and equalize from the penalty spot. They could have scored another goal to make it 2-1 but a penalty appeal was rejected after VAR consultation. Mighty Argentina was pushed to the brink by Nigeria, resembling more tactical awareness and skill than the acclaimed South Americans led by arguably the best player to have ever played the game of soccer, Lionel Messi. With the scores tied, Nigeria guaranteed qualification and with five minutes left on the clock, the dreaded lack experience manifested itself. Marcos Rojo latched onto a cross and fired the ball into the bottom corner. The Super Eagles had to succumb to another Argentina loss, a fifth in five World Cup meetings. This time, the loss was definitely not a tactical blunder or shortcomings in skill but that which I think is as a result of a lack of experience and the wherewithal needed to perform at the highest level. The collapse of concentration in the final moments of the match not only by Nigeria but by a host of other African teams could vindicate me on this assertion.
What now for the Super Eagles?
It is no secret that in terms of talent, Nigeria can boast and say “we own it.” A generation of brilliant midfielders in the form of the 21-year-old 2017/18 top English Premier League tackler, Wilfred Ndidi, the versatile Etebo, young forwards in Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi as well as the 19-year-old goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, exemplify the array of talent Nigeria possesses. Not to mention Arsenal’s Kelechi Nwakali and the likes, Moses Simon who didn’t make it to Russia, shows that Nigeria has the right mix of youth and experience - I think it’s all about blending it well. It is obviously easier said than done but here is my short letter to the Nigeria footballing community containing fast-five bulleted notes:
Hire a local head coach who builds the team from within the country not relying on foreign-based players who take longer to form team chemistry
Schedule a lot of international friendlies to gain exposure
Soccer is a team sport, build teams and do not bank on individual talents
Invest in the growth of local football systems by improving local leagues
If you have to use juju, please do if it will stimulate an ever ending desire and character to win.
Super Eagles, thank you for fighting as hard as you could. We wish you all the best in the future.