2018: Great Expectations for Nigeria Sports

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Super Eagles will begin formal training ahead the clash with Zambia on Saturday

Nigeria’s sport was a mixed bag of fortunes in 2017. While taking us through most of the events that defined 2017, DURO IKHAZUAGBE here believes the New Year holds much promise for Nigeria

2017 was a year like no other in recent time for Nigerian sportsmen and women. It was a year of mixed bag of fortunes in almost all sectors. It therefore was not surprising that Nigerians entered the year with so much pessimism. But this New Year appears a different ball game given the manner it crept in with so much hope.

Over the years, it is no surprise that success or failure in football has become the yardstick of gauging the overall performance of Nigeria in sports. With Super Eagles failure to make the cut to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, the second time back-to-back even as defending champions of the 2013 edition, Nigerians didn’t expect much to happen. The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon roared to the AFCON 2017 trophy to give the signal of another miserable year for Eagles.

But with one foot ahead of the pack in the Group B of the 2018 World Cup qualification pairing that included, Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia, that initial victory for Nigeria against the Chipolopolo in Ndola in October of 2016 set the stage for the eventual easy cruising to the Mundial for Super Eagles. They even did that with the last trip to Algeria as a dead rubber affair having secured the lone ticket at stake. That singular feat wiped away the tears of missing out of AFCON 2015 and 2017. Suddenly, Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) chief, Amaju Pinnick and his board members at the Glass House became the toasts of football crazy Nigerians. Everyone is now commending the wisdom of hiring Franco-German gaffer, Gernot Rohr and his crew.

In other competitions, the Home-based Eagles qualified for the African Nations Championship (CHAN) starting in Morocco and; the Under-20 and Under-17 girls swept aside opposition to reach the final round of qualification for their respective FIFA Women’s World Cup finals taking place in 2018. 2017 was indeed a good year for Nigeria qualifying for global football competitions taking place in this New Year. Will 2018 be year of harvest for Nigeria? Can the John Mikel Obi led Eagles go to Russia to write fresh chapter in Nigeria’s football history in summer? The second round feat Stephen Keshi and his generation achieved at the maiden outing at USA in 1994 remains the best performance by Nigeria at the World Cup. We matched that again at France ’98 and at Brazil 2014. Anything short of going beyond the second round will be seen as failure by Nigerians who are hungry for success at the senior level after conquering the world at the cadet stage on five occasions! Qualifying rounds for the AFCON 2019 are also taking place this year. Another failure here will make it three times in a row that Eagles will not be represented at Africa’s football showpiece. That will certainly not be a good testament for Pinnick who is hoping to leave a legacy of excellence in Nigeria football. The series of sponsorships he has attracted to the Glass House like the AITEO partnership (for the payment of the foreign coaches and the Federation Cup) are positives that even his ardent critics have acknowledged as worthy for plaudits.

Also of note is the great improvement in the domestic professional league. The League Management Company has continued to build on the progress made when in took charge of running the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL). The good running of the league which resulted in Plateau United winning the trophy for the first time can be sustained in the new season starting next weekend. This is the only thing that can build confidence in the teams and administrators that days when clubs win the league through boardroom points are gone for good from this clime.

In basketball, Nigeria’s D’Tigers as defending champions finished as runners-up to hosts Tunisia in the FIBA Afrobasket 2017. Despite crashing to Tunisia in that epic Final, Ike Diogu’s impact and value were recognised as he was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Earlier in August, D’Tigress conquered the continent for the first time in 12 years at the women’s version of the 2017 FIBA Afrobasket in Bamako, Mali.

The Nigerian side defeated Senegal 65-48 to become the new African champions and also qualified for World Cup in Spain. Already, D’Tigress’ American Coach, Sam Vincent, is looking forward to a successful 2018.

Now, the country’s men are equaling looking to emulate the ladies by qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 scheduled to hold in China.

In February, Nigeria will go up against Uganda, Mali, and Rwanda in Group B of the first round of the African Qualifiers. If they finish in the top three, they will advance to the 12-team second round of the qualifiers before any hope of grabbing one of the available tickets to the World Cup.

Just last weekend, the basketball federation (NBBF) under the watch of Ahmadu Musa Kida invited 20 male players to camp ahead of the basketball event of the XXI Commonwealth Games, 2018 scheduled to hold between April 4 and 15 in Gold Coast, Australia. The performance of the baskeball teams in these global competitions will go to a large extent in the determination of the success or otherwise of the game in the year.

However, the protracted leadership crisis that erupted from the two different elections that ushered in two executives for the NBBF remains the sore point in the positives recorded last year. How the matter is resolved may also be the highpoint of whatever gains to be made in 2018.

In Track & Field, there is nothing to count as gain in the just ended year. There was a lull in athletic activities. Nigeria’s outing at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London was dismal with none of the country’s representatives able to make it to final of any of the events talk-less of podium placement. With the expiration of the second term tenure of Chief Solomon Ogba as Athletics Federation of Nigeria president, Nigerian athletes were literarily like a ship with no captain. Instead of the new board led by Ibrahim Gusau to begin to look for ways of bailing the sport from its present state of decay, they have engage in mindless power struggle on who occupies what position in the standing committees set up. With Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor almost in her peak and already knocking on door leading to retirement, our lie of being a one-nation-athlete is about to end for the worse. 2018 is going to define the direction track & field will take. That will come even before the end of the first quarter at the Commonwealth Games where Nigeria used to be a power-house. I however have my fears if Nigeria can ever bring back the memories of those good old times at the Games in Gold Coast!

After what looked like a fairy-tale run the previous year, culminating in Aruna Quadri emerging as one of the sought-after table tennis player in the world, the game recorded a slight lull. Even Aruna could not repeat some of the things that stood him out. Though he still ended 2017 as the best-ranked African player on ITTF standing, Nigerians want to see the fire in him again in 2018. He has to start with the Commonwealth Games by going for the gold in Australia. He won a bronze medal at the Glasgow Games four years ago. Although Ishaku Tikom who replaced Enitan Wahid Oshodi as NTTF president is striving to make his mark, it will take him time to match the standard created by the former Lagos State sports commissioner in the game locally.

Despite the uncertainty that surrounded Nigeria’s participation at the World Wrestling Championship in Paris, France last August, Odunayo Adekuoroye, became the first African woman to win a silver medal at the competition. Adekuoroye was beaten to the gold medal by Japan’s Haruna Okuno who won the 55kg final match in a nail-biting 5-4 result. Both Blessing Oborodudu and Aminat Adeniyi narrowly missed podium placements. Since he took over the affairs of the Nigerian Wrestling Federation, Dr. Daniel Igali has given hope to the sport and its ardent followers. Igali believes 2018 will definitely be a year to lift the sport out of lesser sports rankings. Starting with the African Championship scheduled to hold in Port Harcourt early in the year and the Commonwealth Games in Australia.

In boxing, except for the global recognition the feat of Sagamu-born British boxer, Anthony Oluwafemi Joshua brought to his quiet town in Ogun State last April nothing of note really happened in this sport. Joshua defeated Wladimir Klitschko to become the IBF and WBA world heavyweight boxing champion. In the local front here, poor funding that has stunted the growth of sports in the country remained the bane of the sweet science. However, GOtv Boxing Tournament became the rallying point for boxers. The competition has helped to give hope to Nigerian boxers. Apart from giving them the chance to get out of rustiness, they equally earned good money there.

Tennis players in the country had couple of outings with nothing tangible to show. The only consolation is the growth of junior players like Mary Love-Edwards, Angel McCloed and others who have continuously began to give the senior players a run for their monies. With good harnessing of their potentials, Nigeria could be on the way up in ITF reckoning again. Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) Tennis League and Lagos Governor’s Cup Tennis kept the players busy almost all through the year. However, the sad tale of most Nigerian players crashing out of the Governor’s Cup tennis repeated in 2017 and there is no hope in sight of any major improvement this year.