2019 Holds So Much Promise for Nigeria Football

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In this concluding part of the 2018 review, DURO IKHAZUAGBE insists here that Nigerians have so much to look forward to in this New Year

After a year in which there were more dramas and intrigues off the pitch than silverwares on the shelf, Nigeria football has so much to prove this New Year to regain the place of pride in the continent.

Of course, 2018 was not altogether a bad year for Nigeria in the Beautiful Game. A quick run down on the performance chart will show an ascending graph after a four-year period in the wilderness of continental football. After missing two editions of the African Cup of Nations back-to-back in 2015 and 2017, Super Eagles regained their winning aura, they topped their AFCON 2019 qualifying group with a game to spare. Come this summer, Coach Gernot Rohr and his wards will return to the African football showpiece and try to lift the trophy they won last in 2013 in South Africa.

Before picking the AFCON ticket, Eagles were at the World Cup in Russia as first African team to qualify for the Mundial. Inexperience and unfavorable Group D Eagles found themselves ensured the three-time African champions returned home at the group.

That Eagles even qualified for Russia 2018 was a miracle given the acrimonious distraction caused the Amaju Pinnick led board of the Nigeria Football Federation by Sports Minister Solomon Dalung and Chris Giwa who was laying claim to a mandate that did not exist.

It was therefore no surprise that the Super Eagles ended 2018 as the fourth best team in the continent and 44th globally.

The Super Sand Eagles was also a team to reckon with in the continent, getting to the final of the CAF African Beach Soccer Nations Cup in Egypt. Although they lost in the final to Senegal, they are one of the teams to represent Africa at the Beach Soccer World Cup this year in Paraguay.

Nigeria’s Falcons remained the super team of Africa, winning the AWCON for a record ninth time in Ghana. After a sluggish start, losing their opening game to South Africa, the glorious Nigerian ladies went all the way to the final to beat Banyana Banyana in penalty shoot out to claim the trophy once again.

They equally grabbed one of the two tickets as Africa’s representatives at the World Cup in France this 2019.

In between, other Nigerian age-grade male and female teams proved their worth with Flying Eagles and the Golden Eaglets booking their places in continental CAF competitions.

All these successes recorded by Nigeria in football were made possible largely through the sponsorship secured by the Pinnick-led board of the NFF. For the first time in the history of NFF, the Glass House succeeded in racking up sponsorship enough to fund between 65 to 70 per cent of its activities. With the backing of oil and gas giants Aiteo, Nigerian Breweries Plc, Cadbury, NIKE and several others, NFF succeeded in running its affairs without going cap in hand to the Federal Ministry of Sports for funds to prosecute some its crucial events. The most recent was Super Falcons campaign at the AWCON in Ghana.

Away from national teams, Enugu Rangers won the Aiteo Federation Cup for the first time in over three decades. They came back from a 3-0 down to claim the silverware against Kano Pillars at the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba. It was perhaps the biggest come-back in the history of the former Challenge Cup. And their fans celebrated like never before.

However, the same success recorded in the Federation Cup could not be repeated in the league. The Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) ended abruptly with leading team, Lobi Stars of Makurdi handed the CAF Champions League ticket after just 24 weeks of action.

Sadly, the second tier league, the NNL also could not finish its season with the programmed Super 8. The resulting confusion is the plan to promote all 8 teams to the NPFL. However, even that has fallen flat as the clubs rejected the plan. Attempts to coerce the teams to go to Aba for the play off has also failed. Now, both the NFF and the NNL are in quandary, looking for political solution to the self-inflicted mess. How they resolve this crisis will to a large extent decide what will happen to both the NPFL that did not relegate any team due to the inconclusive season.

In continental performance, both Lobi and Rangers who are representing Nigeria in the Champions League and the Confederation Cup respectively have not fared badly. Lobi have qualified for the group stage while Rangers are just a step a way from also hitting the group stage of the Confederation Cup. Although Lobi are paired with champions Mamelodi Sundowns, Wydad Casablanca and Asec Mimosas, nothing says the Naija Spirit cannot propel them to doing the seemingly impossible in that group.

And so, as Nigeria joined the rest of the world yesterday in celebrating the New Year’s day, there is so much to look forward to both at the club and the national levels.