Duro Ikhazuagbe in Ndola, Zambia and Demola Ojo
Nigeria’s Super Eagle kick-off their quest to qualifier for a third successive World Cup – and sixth overall – as they take on their Zambian counterparts today in Ndola. The Eagles are in what is arguably the ‘Group of Death’. All four teams in the group – Algeria and Cameroun being the other two – have been African champions at some point in the past.
The projected temperature of the match taking place at 2:30pm local time (1:30pm Nigerian time) is about 35 degrees Celsius which could be to the Eagles disadvantage, with majority of them plying their trade in Europe.
The Nigerian delegation arrived at the Simon Kapwepwe Airport in Ndola, Zambia midday yesterday after close to four and half hour flight from Abuja.
The delegation of about 145 was made up of 23 players, technical crew, president and board members of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), League Management Company, Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung and top sports ministry officials and representatives of the National Assembly.
They were received by Nigeria’s High Commissioner in Zambia and a handful of singing and dancing banner-waving Nigerians resident in the southern African nation. Officials of the host country were equally on ground to receive the Nigerian contingent.
Zambia’s football loving President Edgar Chagwa Lungu is expected to be present when the Eagles take on the Copper Bullets at the Levy Nwanawasa Stadium in sleepy Ndola.
The Eagles got a feel of the pitch at the stadium in Ndola yesterday evening despite the searing heat. Coach Gernot Rohr herded his players to the stadium three hours after arrival in Ndola and they sweated it out for two hours after which they went back to their Protea Hotel Lodge, confident that the harsh weather will not stop them from notching a win against the home side who boast 14 home-based players.
Meanwhile, for the first time, the Super Eagles are in Zambia without their world-famous supporters known for their melodious tunes during Nigeria’s matches.
The Nigeria Football Supporters Club is enmeshed in a power struggle and were dropped from the party to Zambia by the NFF leadership when both factional groups led by Rafiu Ladipo and Albert Okumagba respectively, could not reach common ground on the authentic list of members to be accommodated on the chartered Arik Airline aircraft at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja on Friday night.
THISDAY learnt that the two warring groups prepared separate lists of their members to be included in the Nigerian delegation to the match but to avoid being accused of taking sides with any of the parties in the dispute, NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, was reported to have ordered that the two groups be dropped from the trip.
President General of the supporters club, Ladipo, however remained adamant that Okumagba had been impeached from his post as national chairman of the cheer group and so has no justification to forward any list of members to the NFF concerning the trip to Zambia.
Despite the lack of adequate support base for the Eagles, they are still confident of getting a good result. Assistant captain of the team, Ahmed Musa, remains hopeful of Nigeria leaving Ndola with maximum points.
“We are ready and hoping for the best in Sunday’s (today) match here against Zambia. We pray everything works according to our game plan,” the Leicester City forward said.
Meanwhile feelers from the camp suggest Gent of Belgium forward Moses Simon is set for his first Super Eagles start under Rohr, and he has already promised his wife victory in Zambia. Simon has recovered in time from injury and he is expected to earn a place in the starting line-up. He was a second half substitute in last month’s AFCON qualifier against Tanzania in Uyo.
“If I start the match, I have to justify my inclusion, and it would be my first start under the new coach,” he said in Ndola. “Irrespective of the harsh weather, we have made up our mind to win the match. And I have told my wife I am coming back with the three points.”
Rohr is also optimistic about getting a result. ‘’We are prepared for whatever gimmick they come up with. We are here for business and hopefully, we shall do our talking on the field,” said Rohr, who recalled bringing Niger to Zambia.
“My boys are mentally and physically ready for the game. We are ready, no injury, and highly motivated for the game.’’
Rohr believes the Zambians will be fired up for today’s clash following their failure to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon. “They want to win. They missed Afcon. The same motivation with our motivation but our motivation can be bigger because I feel that the team wants absolutely to win the game.
“We must be careful. When you want to win the game away, sometimes you forget to defend well. We must be careful and don’t make this mistake,” he explained.
Rohr will have several stars playing their first competitive game under him for the first time. One of those expected to see action and probably start is Arsenal forward, Alex Iwobi, who has already been capped six times.
Rohr says as many as three new players could be handed starts while revealing that his tactics from the win against Tanzania in Uyo in September will be repeated in Ndola.
“We have six new players and three will perhaps start the game. You know that a player like Iwobi was injured last time but we all know that he is a good player and I hope his integration in the team will produce a good result.
“The training has been good and we try to help and bring him into the team; he knows how we played in Uyo and we cannot change tactically because the time is short. We have other strategies but similar with what we did in Uyo, and I count on Iwobi to help us win the game in Ndola.
“We must avoid the mistake in Uyo where we had 27 shots on goal but converted only one and this means that we must have a good attack and players who can score,” he said.