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Nigeria loses control

June 17, 2010
Bradley By Jeff Bradley
ESPN The Magazine

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- As soon as referee Oscar Ruiz pulled the red card out of his pocket, tears began to fall from the eyes of Nigeria's Sani Kaita. The Super Eagles midfielder pulled his green shirt over his head in disgrace and slowly began to leave the field, surely realizing he'd not only hurt his team's chances of winning the game, but also of getting to the second round of the World Cup and bringing soccer pride to his nation … and the continent.

A day after host nation South Africa was humiliated 3-0 by Uruguay, Nigeria became the second African nation to see its hopes of advancement take a hit. Hosting the World Cup was supposed to make this tournament a showcase for African soccer and provide a chance for the continent to get more than one team through to the second round for the first time ever.

Ghana, Algeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast can still take care of that business, but only Ghana entered its second game with three points, and only Ivory Coast has looked the part of a team that can go a long way in this competition. Some have speculated that the African teams have placed too much pressure on themselves to win here. That may well have been the case today and may explain Kaita's irresponsible reaction.

Nigeria knew coming into this match that three points would put it in excellent shape to advance. Now the team is sitting on zero, needing to beat South Korea in its final game and hope that Argentina (already through with six points) puts a big loss on Greece. That very well may be too much to ask for, and the Super Eagles know it was Kaita's one second of stupidity that cost them.

With Nigeria holding a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute of this match at Free State Stadium there was a mild clash on the sideline between Kaita and Greece midfielder Vasilis Torosidis. Kaita objected to Torosidis pushing the ball into his midsection, raised the studs of his right boot and planted them on Torosidis' right thigh. The Greek player did not hesitate in getting theatrical, immediately hitting the ground and writhing in pain. The red came out. Tears rolled from Kaita's eyes.

The game never looked the same for Nigeria.

For the first half-hour, it appeared the Super Eagles would take care of the ultra-defensive Greek team. A 16th-minute free-kick goal by Kalu Uche gave the Super Eagles the lead, and most figured one goal would be plenty to win the game. Greece came into the match having never scored a World Cup goal in its four previous games. It was utterly punchless in a 2-0 loss to South Korea and is a team notorious for conservative tactics.

Come from behind against a Nigerian team that needed three points in this game? Not likely.

In fact, it looked far more likely that Nigeria would build on its lead. Uche was getting forward with frequency, and striker Peter Odemwingie was looking dangerous as well. Coming off a strong second-half performance in its 1-0 loss to Argentina, Nigeria seemed to be gaining confidence by the minute.

Until the Super Eagles saw red.

Nigeria's Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, who was hired before the Cup and charged with instilling more discipline in the team, wanted to blame Torosidis for playacting, but several Nigerian players who had seen the replay had the same reaction.

"You can't do that," defender Danny Shittu said. "And [Kaita] knows that. We can't dwell on it, but it changed the whole game. We went from in control to seeing it slip away."

Credit the Greeks for seizing the opportunity. Coach Otto Rehagel immediately inserted Glasgow Celtic striker Georgios Samaras for defensive midfielder Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and the Greeks suddenly began to attack with confidence.

Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama -- who turned in the goalkeeping performance of the Cup so far in holding Argentina to 1-0 -- looked briefly as if he might have another heroic performance in him. In the 40th minute, he made a great kick save on striker Dimitrios Salpingidis, who was sprung in alone on net. But Greece kept coming.

In the 41st minute, Samaras' right-footed flick was cleared off the line by defender Lukman Haruna, but three minutes later, Nigeria was not so fortunate. A ball was played into the box to Kostas Katsouranis, who had his back to the goal. He laid a pass back to an onrushing Salpingidis, who let rip with a shot that ticked off the right foot of Haruna, past a helpless Enyeama.

The goal gave the Greeks confidence to attack and left Nigeria reeling. While it would be hard to throw any blame on Enyeama, who was under fire, he played a hand in Greece's winning goal when he spilled a long shot by Alexandros Tziolis and couldn't recover in time to keep Torosidis from toe-poking the ball past him for what would be the winner.

"We are professional players," Shittu said as he walked away from the stadium. "We have no choice but to win the next game. There's nothing left to be said."

Unfortunately for Kaita, there's surely a lot more to be said about the one second when he lost his cool and perhaps cost his country a chance at World Cup glory.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.