After Nigeria booked its place for the 2018 World Cup with a game to spare from a group that has Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, many soccer loving Nigerians are optimistic that Super Eagles will do well in the Mundial. However, dismal performances against Serbia, England and Czech Republic have reduced that optimism. As Nigeria starts its World Cup campaign today against Croatia in the second Group D game, Kunle Adewale asks whether these crop of Super Eagles players will give us the desired result at the World Cup
The President of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick, had said severally that Nigeria has what it takes to go all the way and win the World Cup. â€œThe dream of every father for his children is to excel in everything they do and for me, my dream is for the Super Eagles to win the World Cup and we are motivating the players very well for them to give their best at the World Cup in Russia,â€ Pinnick said.
â€œI have been interfacing with the Minister of Sports and we agreed that setting target may not be the best, but I have constantly said that my target for the team is to win the World Cup trophy. The good thing about the current team is that it is very well equipped with sophisticated training equipment. We are very much scientifically equipped. We know the target we set for them but we donâ€™t want to put pressure on them consciously,â€ the NFF boss added.
However, a more cautious manager of the team, Gernot Rohr said qualifying from the group stages was what was paramount for now.
â€œMy target is to qualify from our group. That is my first target. I pray we can beat Croatia, one of the most technically sound teams in Europe, Iceland play like us, we hope to beat them as well and Argentina who we beat last time in a friendly may not come cheap because they have known us and may want to revenge that defeat. It is not going to be easy,â€ Rohr said.
In a chat with THISDAY, former Nigerian international, Friday Ekpo said the attitude of the players towards the games was crucial just as he said the Super Eagles cannot afford to lose the first game against Croatia.
â€œWinning the first game against Croatia is very important to the psyche of the team or else we would have to go back to permutations and be condemned to winning other matches, which means playing under serious pressure and that is something the team should try and avoid,â€ Ekpo said.
The former international however admitted that the Croatians have more quality players in their fold than Nigeria and as such surmounting them would be an uphill task.
â€œThere is no doubt about the quality of their players. They have one of the best midfielders (Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic) in the world today and considering the fact that most matches are won in the midfield, there is the temptation to want to concede defeat to them, but football could be unpredictable. As a team Nigeria could rise up to the occasion,â€ the former Shell of Gabon player said.
Asked if he sincerely thinks Nigeria can qualify from the group, he reacted thus, â€œIâ€™m not expecting the team to qualify from the group based on the quality of players at our disposal compared to that of our opponents (Croatia and Argentina). But like I said earlier, anything can happen in football.â€
Observers are also of the opinion that for a team to do well at the world stage, it must have one distinguished player that could propel it. While Egypt and Senegal boast of Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane respectively, Nigeria does not have that singular player that could win a game for them.
Meanwhile, Rohr has admitted that he had total respect for Croatia but claimed his young team would not be overrun by them when both teams meet in their Group D clash today at the Kaliningrad Stadium.
â€œWe admire this team (Croatia) but we do not plan to watch them when we play against them, we hope to fight. They are all wonderful players, playing in biggest teams in Europe. On paper with their names, they are much better than us,â€ Rohr stated while addressing reporters on Wednesday at his teamâ€™s training base in Essentuki.
â€œBut sometimes on the pitch, it could be different. We donâ€™t have their big stars, but we try to play collectively with our young team,â€ he said.
In its sixth attempt, Nigeria is looking to finally fulfill the enormous promise that took root in the 1990s.
Nigeria was knocked out in the second round on three occasions, US â€™94, France â€™98 and Brazil 2014, while the Super Eagles failed to qualify from the group stages in the 2002 and 2010 editions in Japan/Korea and South Africa respectively.
Africaâ€™s best at the Mundial remains the quarter finals place performance of Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.
Twenty years ago, in their first World Cup as an independent nation, the Croatians finished third. Since then, they’ve been a bust, winning two matches in nine attempts during three group-stage exits. The midfield and front-line personnel is individually stellar: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic.
Meanwhile, four years after finishing second, the Argentines are the favorites in the foursome but not definitively after a rickety qualifying campaign came down to the final day. A 6-1 fiasco against Spain in a friendly march did not inspire confidence, and questions have lingered about what Jorge Sampaoli’s lineup will look like.
The thing is, Messi could shroud Argentina’s problems by himself. He is extraordinary. Still, he will need a stable supporting cast to draw attention from him. Capable contributors are abundant: Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, 24, who has scored 52 goals in three seasons with Juventus.
Messi’s strength and endurance will be tested by what is sure to be tight marking and physical challenges. Knock Messi off his game and knock down Argentina. That’s the theory, anyway. He might have other ideas.
Iceland is the feel-good story of the tournament, but don’t let the thermal baths and quaint fishing villages fool you. This team barely missed out on the 2014 World Cup, then made the most of its first European Championship visit by going unbeaten in group play and upsetting England in the round of 16.
In qualifying for this World Cup, Iceland finished ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Size and strength are top qualities, making it particularly dangerous on set pieces. Possession will come in short supply against technically superior foes.