The final route of Super Eagles of Nigeria and nine other African nations to the finals World Cup in Qatar would be decided this afternoon with draw ceremony scheduled to hold in Douala, Cameroon, Femi Solaja in this report takes a look at Nigeria’s likely opponent and the Super Eagles’ chances
In what looks like a little ‘distraction’ from the on-going African Cup of Nation in which Nigeria is already among the top contenders to win the tournament for the fourth time by the much awaited play-off draw to the Mundial is as important as the AFCON tournament, meaning the International Congress Hall in Doula will hug the limelight during the 30-minute session.
Having made it to the top-five African teams based on the FIFA ranking last November, Nigeria, is among the five countries seeded and the implication is that it will avoid playing against the other top ranked side and also enjoy the privilege to play the all-important return leg at home.
The other seeded nations which Super Eagles will not be pitched against are Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
However, that is not to say the other unseeded team in the playoff schedule are easy sides especially going by the performance of the teams at the on-going AFCON tournament. The Super Eagles are primed to face one of the following: Egypt, Ghana, Cameroon, Mali and DR Congo.
All the same, none of the five potential home-and-away opponents of Nigeria an easy take. They are all tricky sides.
Pharaohs of Egypt
The Pharaohs of Egypt belong to the class of super powers in the continent. Their record speaks clear. Currently ranked number 44 in the world and sixth in the continent, they are the most successful African sides in the African Cup of Nations, having won a record seven times.
However, their records in the World Cup is not a reflection of their strength on the continent. Despite being the first African country to feature in the World Cup, they have only featured three times in 21 editions.
They seem to be afflicted when it comes to the World Cup. They are yet to make a consecutive appearance at the tournament. They hold the record for the longest gap between two appearances and the oldest player to have ever played at the World Cup.
After their first appearance in 1934, they have to wait for 56 years before another appearance at Italia ’90. From Italia ’90, it took another 28 years before they qualified for Russia 2018. Will another 10 years elapse before another World Cup qualification?
Poor historical background may be their sole disadvantage. But the strength of the team with which Super Eagles opened their AFCON event with a lone goal strike off Kelechi Iheanacho in Group D centre in Garoua is still fresh. Another day reckons should their path cross one another in a two-leg affair.
Nigerian teams have traditionally been poor travellers to Egypt and have never defeated the country in their territory.
Now under Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz who led Portugal to defeat Nigeria at the U-20 World Cup in 1989, Egypt boast of key players like Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Elneny, Ahmed Hegazi and Mohamed El Shennawi.
If drawn against Egypt, the Super Eagles will do well to make the result a manageable one in the first leg with the hope of finishing up in Nigeria.
Both countries have met 20 times with Egypt winning eight times and Nigeria winning five and five draws.
Ghana Black Stars
A disastrous AFCON tournament is an indication of total overhauling of the squad. However, Ghana Black Stars have been long-time rivals of the Nigerian national sides even in the colonial era. Fixtures with Ghana, although lately latent, command high tension.
The Black Stars have been early football superpowers in Africa and were the first to win eternally, a trophy for the Africa Cup of Nations following their hat-trick achieved in the 1963, 1965 and the 1978 editions. They followed up with a fourth title in 1982.
But like Egypt, they have not had good runs in the qualification for the World Cup.
But they are perhaps the African side with the nearest opportunity of getting into a World Cup semi-finals before their dream run in the 2010 was punctuated by poor marksmanship from the penalty spot.
Currently ranked 52 in the world, seventh in Africa, they boast of top players like Andrew Ayew, Jordan Ayew and Thomas Partey.
Nigeria have played more matches with Ghana more than with any other country. The pendulum however skewed in favour of Ghana.
Eternal rivalry will play a key factor if the Super Eagles are drawn to play Ghana in the World Cup qualifying playoff.
They are the team against which Nigeria played their first ever World Cup qualifying match on 28 August 1960. Nigeria lost the match 4-1 in Accra. They have had to meet at the World Cup qualifying series for the 1970, 1974 and 2002 editions.
Indomitable Lions of Cameroon
The current host of AFCON tournament led by their inspirational captain, Vincent Aboubakar, has been improving from match to match just like the Super Eagles.
Interestingly, Aboubakar is still the highest goal scorer with five to his credit after Group phase matches.
Although in head-to-head confrontations, Nigeria have edge over Cameroon, no match-up with the Indomitable Lions is ever considered an easy one. Until the June 4, 2021 defeat of the Super Eagles in a friendly match, the Nigerian side had had a three-decade of not losing any match in regulation time to Cameroon. One of the biggest wins over Cameroon was in the qualifying series for the 2018 World Cup when the Indomitable Lions crumbled miserably in a 4-0 defeat in Uyo.
But the team had since regained their composure and are considered one of the most dreaded sides on the continent.
Besides, they were the first African sides to scale the group stage in the World Cup when they got to the quarter finals at Italia ‘90.
With seven appearances at the World Cup, they ranked among the most frequent African teams at the global event.
The Eagles of Mali
Among the 10 teams involved in the playoff for the World Cup qualification, the Eagles of Mali are the only sidewalk without any previous appearance at the World Cup.
They are however one of the tricky teams in West Africa that cannot be easily waved aside.
Despite being in the same subcontinent region with Nigeria, fixtures with Mali are rare. But when the National Stadium in Lagos was opened for sporting activities, the friendly match against Mali comes to mind. The then Green Eagles defeated Mali 3-0 on December 4, 1972. Yakubu Mabo scored the opening goal at the iconic stadium.
Nigeria and Mali have met only nine times. The Malians were the Super Eagles’ stepping stone into the final match of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations which the team won.
They were previously coached by Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi. Mali are number 54 in the world and ninth in Africa by the current FIFA ranking. Their star players include: Kalifa Coulibaly, Moussa Djenepo and Amadou Haidara.
Leopards of DR Congo
The Leopards of DR Congo are the only participants in the playoff that is not involved in the on-going AFCON tournament.
They are also outside of top 10 on the continent in the current FIFA ranking because they are 12th behind Burkina Faso and South Africa.
No nation in the continent has changed names more than DR Congo that had previously been called Congo Kinshasa, later Zaire and since 1996, DR Congo.
In the past, Congo DR have been ranked as high as 28th in the FIFA rankings. When they qualified for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, they became the first Sub-Saharan African team to feature at global event.
They are the African side with the most scandalous result when they crumbled 9-0 to the then Yugoslavia.
Should the Super Eagles be drawn against them, it will be a tricky Match-up and Nigeria won their first Africa Cup of Nations match beating the then Zaire 4-2 in a Group match at Ethiopia 1976.
Fixtures of Nigeria and DR Congo is rare. They have met just nine times. But results have always been in favour of Nigeria. The Congolese however broke the apparent myth surrounding Nigeria’s matches on October 8 when they beat the Super Eagles 2-0 in Belgium in 2016.
Before then, Nigeria never lost a game on October 8, date which is also the anniversary of Nigeria’s first international match and also, the first time the country qualified for the World Cup ( October 8, 1993).