Nigeria survive to fight again

January 30, 2008
By Andrew Hush

As World Cups go, the 1994 tournament doesn't conjure up many pleasant memories. The first final to be decided by a penalty shootout brought the curtain down on an event that featured spasmodic play but which will forever be remembered as the one at which Diego Maradona tarnished a magnificent career by failing a drugs test.

GettyImagesNigeria celebrate making it through to the next round.

Of course, there were some outstanding highlights, including Roberto Baggio single-handedly dragging Italy into the final. Meanwhile, the development of eastern European footballing nations such as Romania and Bulgaria were showcased on the world stage, as was the continued progress made by countries from the African continent.

Four years after Cameroon shook the established order, Nigeria took its turn to feast at the world's top table. Having won the African Cup of Nations earlier that year (a success it has not since repeated), the Super Eagles announced their presence by stunning Bulgaria 3-0, before narrowly losing a match against Argentina in which they had taken the lead. Victory over Greece set up a second round match against Italy, which they led until the 88th minute, only for Baggio to intervene twice.

The abiding recollection of Nigeria's campaign might have come as early as the 21st minute against Bulgaria in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Though the goal may have been a simple tap-in for Rashidi Yekini, the passion with which the forward celebrated, as he grabbed the very net he had disturbed just seconds before, indicated just what playing in their first World Cup meant to Nigeria.

Fourteen years later, the raw emotional delight shown by Yekini and his pals on that sunny day in Texas has been replaced by feelings of anguish and pain. A team in steady decline since the halcyon days of the mid-1990s, the Super Eagles are finding it increasingly hard to justify their once-proud nickname.

The 1998 World Cup saw Nigeria win group games against Spain and Bulgaria before they were thumped 4-1 by Denmark in the last sixteen. Four years later, Nigeria went out with just one goal and one point from a 'Group of Death' also featuring England, Argentina and Sweden and they did not feature at the 2006 event at all.

Nigeria's Cup of Nations record is little better in recent times. Two years after Yekini, Finidi George, Daniel Amokachi and company hoisted the 'Trophy of African Unity' in 1994, Nigeria withdrew from their defence at the last minute, an act that was punished by a ban from the following tournament.

Defeat to Cameroon in the 2000 final was followed by three straight third-place finishes; not acceptable to a nation that was among the first from Africa to develop large-scale playing talent, in which the top Europeans clubs became interested.

Nigeria entered the 2008 tournament in chaotic circumstances. Berti Vogts, the German coach who last year was given a contract through to the 2010 World Cup, spoke publicly of his frustration at the way the game was being run in the West African country. From paying salaries on time, to organisational issues that hindered a team he felt could be unbeatable, Vogts confessed that he was already questioning his own future.

On the bright side, at least it seemed that things were looking good on the field. The Super Eagles cruised through qualifying, dropping just three points out of eighteen, and made the trip to Ghana as, in terms of pure ability, one of the favourites to claim their third Cup of Nations crown. However, within a week of the tournament kicking off, Vogts had a crisis on his hands.

Two dismal displays resulted in defeat to the Ivory Coast and a 0-0 draw with Mali, leaving Nigeria on the brink of the unthinkable. To avoid first round elimination and set up a quarter-final match-up with the host nation, the Super Eagles began their final group match against Benin knowing their fate was no longer in their own hands.

Advancement to the last eight would come only if a Nigerian win was combined with a defeat for Mali. Thanks to the Ivory Coast, the former box was ticked early but, despite that apparent incentive, it seemed that nothing could arouse the sleeping giants in Sekondi.

Vogts' pre-tournament outburst may have been a calculated way to shift any ensuing blame for failure away from himself and into the offices of the Nigerian Football Association but, as he spoke to his side at half-time of their final group game, the man who led Germany to glory at Euro '96 must have heard the knives sharpening.

This time, what Vogts said had a positive effect. Featuring a different forward line for the third straight game, Nigeria had failed to get a shot on target in the first half, but everything changed after the break. Two of the side's stars came up trumps just when their nation needed them, with one in particular finally backing up his words with equivalent deeds.

Mikel John Obi has packed a good deal of controversy into his young career. The midfielder first leapt into most people's eyes when he was the prize in a transfer tug-of-war between Chelsea and Manchester United that involved numerous agents, as well as the police and FIFA.

To cut a long and protracted story short, the closest Mikel came to wearing United colours was when he was pictured holding a United shirt shortly after he had 'signed' for them. In June 2006, over a year after the saga began, Mikel was a Chelsea player. Meanwhile, despite him never having called Old Trafford home, United were £12million better off.

GettyImages / LarsBaronJohn Obi Mikel: Transfer saga.

Mikel's international career has been no less colourful. Having shone for Nigeria's youth teams, his graduation to the senior side was inevitable and not unspectacular. As a substitute at the 2006 Cup of Nations, he contributed a goal and an assist against Zimbabwe to make a starting place his own. By the summer of the following year, however, he had been suspended by the NFA after failing to report for a Cup of Nations qualifier.

After Nigeria slumped to defeat against Ivory Coast, Mikel hit the headlines again when he publicly criticised his teammates. He changed his tune a little after the goalless draw with Mali - this time blaming the slump on bad luck - before, in the absence of any great support, taking matters into his hands against Benin.

After 233 minutes of scoreless football, Mikel was in the right place to nod home a short-range header that would mean so much to the Super Eagles. Minutes before the final whistle, qualification was secured as his defence-splitting pass was converted by the hitherto anonymous Yakubu. The loud voices began again, but this time their tone was celebratory.

And so the most addictive soap opera in the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations will have at least one episode, although a happy ending for Nigeria still seems some way off, based on their overall performance so far and the impending showdown with an in-form Ghana side.

However, having survived their flirtation with disaster, perhaps this game will be seen as a bonus by Vogts' men. With the pressure off in some ways, the Super Eagles have a platform on which they can perform. All they have to do is to remind the watching world of what it was that captivated its attention more than a decade previously.

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