Taking part in the football World Cup every four years is a very big deal indeed. Countries can do virtually anything to be at the most followed and most lucrative event in the world. With an estimated cumulative global television audience of some five billion people during the last World Cup in Brazil, who would not want to be a part of it?
For the footballers also it is their ultimate ambition to play on the grandest stage in the world. For most countries just being a part of the fiesta is enough fulfillment of their dream. Only few countries aspire to win, and fewer still ever win it.
For Nigeria, before now, qualifying for the event was enough ambition. It was so lavishly celebrated whenever that happens that even when the team eventually was halted by one of the bigger teams during the championship, painful as every such defeat usually was, Nigerians took it in good faith, went back to their normal lives and started dreaming again of the next World Cup.
It has become a four yearly ritual.
With 5 countries representing the continent, a far cry from the days when Africa had a sole representative, it has become increasingly unacceptable that Nigeria is not one of the five. Some of us indeed, now believe that with the country’s strength in African football – its size, its population, number of professional players abroad, and its resources – going to the World Cup should be the country’s birthright. Nigeria should be to Africa what Brazil is to South America since the World Cup began.
Now, Russia 2018 beckons. Nigeria has never had it so good and so easy. The country seats comfortably atop Group B that includes Algeria, Cameroon, and Zambia.
Algeria and Cameroon are out of the race for the one spot available from the group.
With 3 points separating Nigeria from Zambia, and only two matches to go with the first of them taking place this weekend in Uyo, between Nigeria against Zambia, under normal conditions Nigerians should be celebrating their qualification even before the match is played.
The Super Eagles are favourites and are expected to win the match. To start with, Zambia has never beaten Nigeria on Nigerian soil, in all the matches they have played between them. They are still unlikely to do so given that the two teams met earlier in Ndola, Zambia, and Nigeria won by 2-1 in a first ever such feat.
But since that defeat the Zambia team has changed dramatically. It has won a few matches once thought to be improbable, including an all-important away victory against Algeria one of the most feared teams in Africa this decade. That victory, well deserved, plus the fact that South Africa came to Nigeria and inflicted a scandalous defeat of Nigeria in another competition, has given the Zambians the confidence and audacity to dream of doing the same thing to the Eagles in Nigeria.
The match is guaranteed to be a cracker considering the loquaciousness of the Zambian team and its officials. They boast they will upset the Eagles and win. These are obviously a psychological strategy to create pressure and tension for the Nigerian team whilst also psyching up their own players to a state where they can move a mountain.
The Super Eagles have responded to that shameful defeat by South Africa, by playing their next matches with a vengeance, lifting the spirit of all Nigerians and resurrecting the confidence that the people once had on them. The team’s trouncing of the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, the most dreaded team in Africa because of their overpowering physical play, was no fluke. It was well played and well earned. Today the team and the country are brimming with confidence.
That is the setting as the two teams prepare to do battle in Uyo. Every Nigerian hopes that the celebrations will start this weekend. A victory will make the rest of the matches in the series between all the other teams a formality – Nigeria goes to Russia! A draw would postpone the final decision until the last round of matches are played and Zambia defeats their final foe, Cameroon, by such a wide margin as to cancel out Nigeria’s present goals-difference advantage. That is unlikely to happen even if Nigeria loses its final match to Algeria.
Finally, what should not happen that can upturn the apple cart completely, is for Nigeria to lose out-rightly to Zambia in Uyo this weekend. That would be truly catastrophic.
The cost to Nigeria would be politically, psychologically and economically damaging to the country. The present climate of uncertainty, unrest, economic hardship and threats of internecine crisis will accentuate and more depression will set in all over the land.
That’s why I believe the Zambians have entered ‘one chance’ on this their trip to Nigeria. There is no way out for them.
Every football arsenal – audience support in the stadium, people’s support on the streets of every town in Nigeria, the prayers of 180 million Nigerians and a great team led by Mikel Obi – will be unleashed on Zambia.
The match that will be played more in the head than with the feet, is going to be a bruising psychological war between two teams that have suffered ‘bad’ home defeats, and have resurrected and are playing their best football at the moment.
Whereas Nigeria has to climb a molehill to get to the ‘promised land’, for Zambia it will take climbing Mount Everest!
One of the two teams will be blown away by the inevitable wind of defeat. What I know is the odds are in Nigeria’s favour!
The Players That Will Do It.
Nigeria has some outstanding players that will make the big difference in this match.
It is ironic that the players thought to be ageing and in need of replacement a few months ago have become the pillars of the team now.
Captain Mikel Obi is a good example. Even if he does not play all of the 90 minutes in a game these days, his presence in the team has been a great stabilizer. He is playing with the confidence of a grandmaster, deliberately, efficiently, economically and effectively. This is likely to be Mikel’s last World Cup and he is playing with the determination of a player that wants to end his career on a resounding note of glory.
Victor Moses is enjoying a new lease of life in ‘middle age’. He is enjoying the best period of his football career both in his club and in the national team. His experience shows every time he touches the ball, making every ball and move count. He is the key that unlocks Nigeria’s attack.
The centre of Nigeria’s defense is now a reinforced fortress with Ekong and Balogun forming a truly formidable partnership. Not since the days of Christian Chukwu and Godwin Odiye, Stephen Keshi and Uche Okechukwu have we seen a pair this strong and organized in central defense.
With Ezenwa in goal, the Eagles now have a goalkeeper with a big heart, brave, confident and very agile. He reminds me of Best Ogedegbe at his best, always playing with some degree of ‘arrogance’ as if the game belongs in his pocket.
I sat with members of The Sports Parliament on Thursday night and asked for their predictions.
Kweku Tandoh – All I know is that Nigeria will win. I was in Ndola for the first match and although the Eagles won, I could see that the Zambians had a very young but very good squad. They showed it in the second half when they started to play better and mounted pressure on the Nigerian team. They are organized and very fast up front. They will worry us, particularly because they have been playing better since then. Nigeria too are a lot better and will win. It is going to be close, 1-0 or 2-1.
Ene Udo Obong – It is going to be a very difficult match. I want Nigeria to win but I think the Zambians will score around the 77th minute and Nigeria will get a late equalizer. I see a 1-1 draw!
Godwin Dudu – Orumen – I have absolute confidence in the ability of Genrot Rohr. Against South Africa he gambled and lost. I notice he has learnt his lesson and will not make the same kind of mistake again. Nigeria will win. It is even possible by a wide margin. But no one should even consider a loss by Nigeria – never! I predict a 3-1 win for Nigeria.
Sola Akinwale – This is the opportunity every player lives for – to go to the World Cup. The players know this and they will do every thing possible to make it happen. The pressure may be on them but that is good for players with their experience. They need the pressure to make them play well. It will be an easy match, 3-1!