Nigeria and England go toe-to-toe in what promises to be a thrilling Russia 2018 World Cup dress rehearsal for both teams at the Wembley Stadium in London on Saturday.
England hosted and won the FIFA World Cup in 1966, but have only gone as far as the semi finals since then, when Bobby Robson steered a squad including Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne to the last four in Italy 28 years ago.
Just like the Three Lions, the Eagles are dreaming of big things to come in Russia, despite both teams being ‘blessed’ differently with intricate opposition in the group stage.
Nigeria must negotiate the obstacles offered by two-time world champions and reigning world vice champions Argentina, hard-as-nails eastern Europeans Croatia and an Iceland squad that stunned England and world football in the Round of 16 at the 2016 European Championship in France. England must sort matters out with strong African opponents Senegal, Japan and Panama.
They have never won the FIFA World Cup, have never even managed to proceed beyond the Round of 16 at the quadrennial tournament, but the Three Lions must beware of a supremely motivated Nigerian squad aiming for the heights in Russia.
A proactive, diligent and equally ambitious NFF leadership signed a landmark agreement with the team on FIFA World Cup funds as far back as November last year, and the process is on to credit the account of the players with what is due to them, more than two weeks before their first match against Croatia in Kaliningrad.
“The most important thing about the World Cup is not the money. But I must admit that the fact that the money is there and we know is there gives us extra energy, extra motivation in the preparations,” forward Kelechi Iheanacho said before Eagles departed Abuja for London on Wednesday afternoon.
Defensive stalwart Kenneth Omeruo, midfielders Ogenyi Onazi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi and forward Odion Ighalo also admitted this much in separate interviews with thenff.com.
On Tuesday night, at a brief event at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja, Senate President Bukola Saraki spurred the team on with a cash gift of $50,000, and with a pledge of ‘special package’ for every un-replied goal at the World Cup finals in Russia.
On Wednesday morning, the contingent met with President Muhammadu Buhari at the Federal Council Chambers, and his words that they should go and fight with their spirit as the whole nation is behind them, are still ringing in the players’ ears.
After bidding President Buhari farewell, the delegation flew to London aboard a luxury jet and is expected to train for the big match at the Wembley between 5pm and 6pm this evening.
Captain of the team, John Mikel Obi said: “We are in England, a terrain most of us know too well. I was here and won several trophies with Chelsea, including the Champions League. It will be an interesting encounter on Saturday.”
In truth, a high percentage of the travelling Nigeria party are familiar with the United Kingdom.
Wingback Victor Moses recently won the FA Cup with Chelsea FC, the west London club where Mikel achieved great things; Wilfred Ndidi is revered at another side Leicester City where he won the Young Player of the Year for the second successive season; Iheanacho is also at Leicester City; Alex Iwobi is with north Londoners Arsenal FC; Olaloluwa Aina is with Hull City; Ahmed Musa only recently left Leicester City; Odion Ighalo was a star at Watford FC before leaving for China last year and; Kenneth Omeruo is officially with Chelsea even though he has been on loan in Turkey.
Iheanacho said simply: “England’s players know us and we know them. It will be a good match.”