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Twenty years after Nigeria’s historic World Cup debut ended in the  second round at USA ’94,  the current  Super Eagles team is expected to use the ongoing soccer fiesta in Brazil to prove to the world that the Nigerian football has come of age.  Can the Super Eagles, at least, hit the elusive Quarter-finals berth in Brazil? That’s the question in the minds of soccer loving Nigerians and football fans across the globe as the African champions makes its fifth appearance in the epic football tournament this June, writes Olisemeka Obeche.

USA 94 memories

Soccer-loving fans may not easily forgot the June 21,1994 (early hours of June 22, Nigerian time) when the Super Eagles made its debut against Bulgaria in the FIFA World Cup inside the Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, in the United States of America.

The relatively unknown Nigerian side with bunch of home-grown players took on the star-studded Bulgarian side boosted by their legendary striker, Hristo Stoichkov, starring for FC Barcelona of Spain then, among other established stars.

Contrary to the predictions by many, the late Nigerian team took the game to their opponents; and in the 21st minute, Rashidi Yekini scored the country’s ever world cup goal and celebrated with aplomb inside the Bulgarian goal post. Two additional goals from Daniel Amokachi and Emmanuel Amuneke in the 43rd and 55th minutes respectively provided the Clemence Westerhof-led team three points and three goals in its maiden appearance.

Nigeria’s second Group D game against Argentina, runners up of the 1990 World Cup, on June 25 became a litmus test for the underdog. Having beaten Greece by 4-0 in its first group match, with its legendary striker, Diego Maradonna looking hungary to outscore his striking partner, Gabriel Batistuta, it was widely feared that the Super Eagles would be mauled by the Albiceleste.

However, fans inside the Foxboro Stadium and across the world were stunned when Nigeria’s Samson Siasia struck in the 8th munite to give the Super Eagles the lead. Although, a momentary lost of concentration and tactical trickery ensured that Argentine’s Claudio Caniggia cancelled the goal deficit in the 21st and subsequently scored the winner in the 28th minutes, the team had proven its mettle to the world.

And so, it was not surprising to many that its final group game against Greece on June 30 ended in a 2 – 0 victory, to ensure its passage to the second round as the group winner followed by Bulgaria, with Argentina eventually qualifying as one of the best third-placed teams. However, going head to head against the highly rated and tactically superior Italian team in the second round of USA 94 World Cup proved to be too handful for the Nigerian side. The Azzuris parading the most compact squad of the tournament was destined to emerge the winner, but not on a platter of gold.

Those who thought the cookies of the inexperienced African champions would crumble in the second stage of the tournament as they squared up against Italy were forced into a quick rethink as soon as the game kicked-off that fateful Tuesday afternoon of July 6, 1994. The Super Eagles had seemed determined to upstage their Italian opponent and cause the biggest upset in football history when it took a 1-0 lead in the 26th minute through Emmanuel Amuneke’s tap-in; and frustrated Italy until Roberto Baggio struck in the 89th minute to tie the score, then made a penalty kick in the 102nd minute to deny Nigeria a sure-real quarter-final berth.

American sports analyst, Elliot Almond had sensationally described the outcome of the match as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. “It happened so quickly that Nigeria, the African champion, was left reeling, wondering how it had lost”, he wrote.

Finidi George, whose sublime corner kick resulted in Amuneke’s goal also recalled with nostalgia, the last minute goal that ended the team’s fairy tale world cup quest. “(We) had it in our hands (qualifying for the quarter-finals)… It’s something I’m going to remember the rest of my life,” declared Mr. George.

 

Brazil W/Cup expectations

Twenty years down the line, the expectations of football fans in Nigeria and across the globe is that the Super Eagles should, at least, hit the elusive Quarter-finals berth in Brazil. And to surpass the previous second round records of US 94 and France 98 respectively, the Stephen Okechukwu Keshi-led team would have to emerge from Group F after squaring up with Iran, Bosnia Herzegovina and Argentina and beat its second round opponent.

That, according to some football analysts, would not be a stroll in the pack for the reigning African champions; despite the Super Eagle’s impressive records under Keshi thus far. However in Nigeria’s first match in the 2014 world cup, the Super Eagles played a goalless draw with their Iranian counterparts. Soccer pundits are wondering whether it is an indication that Nigeria is improving in football or degenerating. Or did Nigeria underrate Iran? “FIFA World Cup is the highest football tournament and where no opponent, however lowly rated, should be underrated”, Mr. Eric Ishola, a football analyst said.

“What, therefore, makes the difference is the quality and commitment of team players; and the ability of the technical crew to design effective strategy and tactical formation that can enable it beat opponents”, he added.

Thankfully, Keshi’s world cup squad is believed to be vastly blessed with the best emerging talents Nigeria could boast at this point in time. Although, the gaffer’s decision to drop certain in-form players like Ike Uche, Sunday Mba, EjikeUzoenyi and Nosa Igiebor raised eye-brows in some quarters, there is general belief that all the players that made the 23-man-squad merited their inclusion. And that they have enough incentives to fly the country’s flag.

Analysts are also confident that Keshi’s factor could play a significant role in the team’s world cup success. Emeka Enyadike, a football analyst, said the “Big-boss,” as Keshi is fondly called, has been able to revolutionalize the Super Eagles style of play and ability to dismantle high-profile opponents. According to him, Keshi’s effective utlisation of the 4-3-3 formation has brought back the offensive panache that made 94 Eagles deadly and most dreaded then.

“If ever there was a Nigerian style of play, Keshi would know, and he has finally got the Super Eagles playing with some of the flair and directness that was the hallmark of the golden generation who qualified for the USA 1994 World Cup with Keshi as captain and under the Dutch coach, Clemence Westerhof”, he said.

Keshi had likened the current Super Eagles to that all-conquering 1994 squad prior to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations triumph in South Africa. “Many Nigerians don’t know how good this team is. I see great potentials in them and they can go places,” Keshi had predicted at the team’s camp in Faro, Portugal.

Although, not many shared his sentiments at that time, the team’s subsequent exploits have convinced many doubting Thomases of veracity of his claims. But some analysts insist the only way to prove the assertion valid is for the Super Eagles to reach quarter-finals in Brazil, thus surpassing the achievements of the 1994 sets. “The truth is that the present Super Eagles has similar characteristics with the 1994 sets and is going to the World Cup as African champions, just like the 94 Eagles. But, for them to be rated equal or higher, they must reach quarter-finals in Brazil”, Bernard Kings, a football fan said.

Enyadike agreed: “This time, anything less than the quarter-finals won’t be accepted by many Super Eagles fans”. He however predicts that if the team qualifies from Group F, “Nigeria will be very difficult to stop”.

 

Learning from the past

To most football fans, the fact that the Super Eagles have never won a world cup match since beating Bulgaria in the group games at France 98, 16 years ago remains a big dent on the nation’s image. It’s an anathema that must be purged in Brazil, said Kayode Ogunsola, a Super Eagles fan.“Certainly, it’s a big scandal that in the last two appearances at the World Cup we have not been able to beat any of our opponents. That’s not acceptable any more”, he declared.

For Super Eagles to make the desired progress at the World Cup, the team handlers and FA must learn from past mistakes and design new strategies. “Apart from the problem of poor preparations to World Cups including issues of match bonuses and warm-up matches, Super Eagles world cup campaigns have been marred by coaching deficiencies, lack of commitment and indiscipline amongst players”, said Miss Flora Okoye, a soccer fan.

Although, the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) had taken necessary measures to ensure the team was adequately motivated to give their best, in addition to the reforms enunciated by the technical crew to transform the team into a world-class squad, observers say all that is needed is for the team and its handlers to up their game.

“I think there is need for the players to pay attention to those tiny details like disciplines, tactical switches and how to utilize dead-ball opportunities because in a high-profile tournaments like this, such things could determine the outcome of the match”, noted Mr. Paulinus Offozor, a football analyst.

According to him, Nigeria could have beaten Italy in USA 94 if not for those cutting-egde pitfalls. “While some people attributed Italy’s defeat of Nigeria in that match to some questionable refereeing decisions and injury blow, I blamed the defeat on some tactical blunders committed by the Westerhof-led crew during the match.

“Super Eagles were not able to use their speed to throw Italy off stride and even Daniel Amokachi was injured in the 35th minute, the coach replaced him with Mutiu Adepoju, a midfielder instead of another striker. All those tiny details are very important and Keshi and his boys must not repeat them if they want to reach quarter-finals,” he added.

As far as Emeka Ezeugo, former Super Eagles defender is concerned, the Achilles heels of the team is its lack of quality and depth in defense.”We lack world-class players in the defence. The players in that department are good in their own class, but world-class? No, never and you can’t win the World Cup with an unreliable and poor defence,” he said.

However, former Super Eagles captain and coach, Austin Eguavoen, thinks Keshi has built a squad capable of reaching the quarter-finals in Brazil. “I believe that the Eagles will not only qualify from the group stage but will reach the quarter final of the tournament. Our group is not too tough compare to some groups. I look at the opponents, the Eagles will meet in the round of 16, I think Nigeria has a good chance of reaching the quarter final,” he predicts.

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