Ahead of Nigeria’s make or mar match against Liberia, Super Eagles assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpala beams with optimism. Kunle Adewale recounts the encounter
When the Super Eagles take to the pitch at the UJ Usuene Stadium, Calabar, Saturday against the Lone Star of Liberia in the last leg of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations billed for South Africa in January, one memory that will fill the minds of soccer loving Nigerians is the unpleasant ouster of the country from the 2012 edition jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea by the Syli Stars of Guinea at the Abuja National Stadium, in the last leg of the qualifier after playing 2-2.
“Our chances against Liberia are very bright, in spite of the fact that they are a very good side. No matter what has been said of the Liberian side, what I saw of them in the first leg showed that they are a very tough opponent. Liberia has always been a team to be reckoned with when it comes to African football. However, we will beat them on Saturday and hoist our flag in South Africa,” Super Eagles assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpala, said.
Reacting to the dissatisfaction shown by Nigerians after the first leg draw in which Eagles created so many chances but could only convert two of them as against their host that had only two opportunities and converted both, Okpala said: “People have the right to show their dissatisfaction and their reaction depend on which area they are coming from. The coaches and players too are not satisfied most especially because we conceded the second goal at the last minute of the game when we ought to have held on to the lead and win the game by 2-1.
“But the important thing was that Nigeria created more chances while Liberia had only a chance throughout the duration of the match. We had the opportunity to win the game as much as 7-1 but unfortunately we squandered them. However, people should stop referring to Liberia as if they are not a footballing nation when records have it that Nigeria has never beaten them at home. Considering the fact that we are just building a team yet still put up a performance like that is commendable. Even in 2001 when this country had all the big names in football we lost to them 2-1 in their home.
“So what I really want fans to understand is that Liberia is not a country that could just be discarded like that because they are a football nation as far as African football is concern. Aside from George Weah, they have produced other notable footballers. Nevertheless, what matters most at the end of the day is, who qualifies for South Africa, which of course will be Nigeria and from there we build up the team. I’m therefore appealing to Nigerians to be patient with us, because we are building a team which Nigerians will be proud of and after we’ve qualified for the Nations Cup we will have ample time to train with the players and try to build a reputable team. Before now we’ve just been having two to three days training except with the home grown players,” he noted.
Asked if the coaches are under pressure ahead of the second leg game against the Lone Stars, the former Green Eagles captain said: “It’s normal to be under pressure before every game no matter the opposition and that does not only apply to Nigeria alone but even in Europe and other great footballing nations because the demand is huge. Fans care so much about their national team and want to know what is going on in the camp, about their preparation and want to win at all time. Therefore, they have the right to their opinion, but it’s just for the coaches to know what they are doing and what they really wanted and at the end everybody will have reason to smile for.”
However, the Stephen Keshi’s led technical crew will not be measured by booking a ticket to South Africa but for performing well at the Nations Cup and Quick Silver, as Okpala is fondly called during his playing days, reacted thus: “We the members of the technical crew have been very pleased with our performance so far considering that we started from the scratch with the home-based of which we will continue. But in most cases when building a team you lose matches both competitive and friendly matches. But so far we have not been losing in competitive matches and we will continue to build on that.
“We are not going to South Africa to add to the numbers of participating team, we are very much aware of the task ahead of us. We are going there to put up a good performance after which even if we don’t return with the trophy people will appreciate that we put up a formidable performance. We are aware that we need to improve on our performance and we are not relenting on our efforts.”
On what the coaching crew intends to do differently, the 1980 African Cup of Nations winner who will not want to be dragged into any comparison with any of his predecessors said building a home-based team to be proud of within a short period of time is one of their major achievements.
“It’s not easy to build a home-grown team within a short period of time and some of them are beating their foreign counterparts to the national team’s shirt already. About seven or eight of them have played competitive matches and justified their inclusion at the expense of foreign professionals, which is commendable and we are very proud of that.
“We’ve discovered a lot of players and we will continue to discover more players both at home and abroad to inject into the team. And when you considered that there has never been any point in time that we’ve had enough time to prepare the team for matches and then we still have achieved a lot. All the same, come October 13 (today) in Calabar, we are going to beat Liberia convincingly and book our ticket to South Africa,” he emphasized.