By Nurudeen Obalola:
Photo by Ganiyu Yusuf:
The Super Eagles have absolutely dominated Bafana Bafana in their head-to-heads, winning eight of 12 meetings from 1992.
But, curiously, the Nigerians’ last victory over the South Africans was in 2014. Their last three meetings have all been draws, two of them damaging to the Super Eagles (both came in the qualifiers for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations).
Now, the Super Eagles have to once again reassert their superiority over the South Africans and there is no better opportunity than the one they have this Saturday in Uyo.
South Africa have never beaten Nigeria in a competitive international – their only victory was in the friendly Nelson Mandela Challenge in 2004 – but they came mighty close to breaking that hoodoo back in 2014. Incidentally, that ‘nearly’ match was in Uyo. And it was also an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier just like Saturday’s match.
I remember that 2014 match as if it was yesterday. I was at the beautiful Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo and watched utterly bemused, like the other 50,000 or so Nigerians in the ground, as the South Africans ran rings around the Super Eagles and took a thoroughly deserved 2-0 lead.
The boastful South Africans – coach Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba talked a good game – were on the verge of humiliating the Eagles right in the Nigerians’ backyard before a late brace by Sone Aluko rescued a point and restored some pride. However, even Aluko’s late heroics were not enough to save Nigeria from another ignominious failure to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, a competition they had won just the previous year. In South Africa!
Nigeria followed up that failure to qualify for the 2015 with inability to secure a ticket to the 2017 AFCON, making it three failures in the last four attempts to reach Africa’s most important tournament.
Before that horrid spell started, the Eagles had qualified for every single AFCON between 1988 and 2010 (they missed the 1996 edition, incidentally held in South Africa, due to a withdrawal on political grounds and were barred from the 1998 finals as punishment). They reached at least the semi-finals in all but one of the 10 AFCONs they participated in within that period, and reached four finals (1988, 1990, 1994, 2000), winning the trophy in 1994.
Those were the good old days when even winning bronze (2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010) was considered disappointing. The team got derisively nicknamed Bronze Eagles.
Now, Nigerians just want to see their team qualify. Let’s get there first before talking about targets.
South Africa are potentially the biggest obstacles standing between Nigeria and a return to the African elite. And only a win in Uyo on Saturday will start the process of removing that obstacle.
But are the present Super Eagles up to the challenge?
It would appear so, going by recent evidence. Under Gernot Rohr, the Super Eagles are unbeaten in seven matches and have a 100 per cent record in the World Cup qualifiers.
Nigeria usually struggle in qualifiers and often leave it late before desperately scrambling for ‘do-or-die’ points, but in the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup Rohr’s men have not only defeated the highly-rated Algeria, they also won away to Zambia. Away wins, especially so early in a qualifying campaign, are a rarity for the Super Eagles.
Significantly, Rohr has also got the Super Eagles playing with composure and confidence. When both Zambia and Algeria looked to be mounting comebacks in the Russia 2018 qualifiers, the Eagles held firm and refused to fold.
Perhaps for the first time since the latter stages of the 2013 AFCON when the late Stephen Keshi defied the odds to lead Nigeria to the title with some vibrant, irrestitible football, the Super Eagles are once again playing attractive but ruthlessly efficient football as exemplified by that 3-1 win over Algeria in Uyo last November.
The team have largely retained that form as Rohr continues to build a solid Super Eagles squad that should not be too reliant on the big stars.
Although the hero of the 3-1 win over Algeria, Victor Moses, is unavailable for Saturday’s clash due to an injury, the Eagles should be alright without the Chelsea star and Nigeria captain Mikel Obi.
First choice goalkeeper Carl Ikeme is also out, along with experienced strikers Odion Ighalo and Brown Ideye, but Rohr’s relatively young side have shown that they could get results with the 3-0 friendly win over Togo after a mostly experimental side had drawn with a Corsica XI.
Kelechi Iheanacho with his goals, Alex Iwobi with his vision and subtlety, Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo with their midfield nous and steel, as well as Wlliam Troost-Ekong with his heart and strength, plus Moses Simon with his pace and trickery form a young but accomplished spine for the Super Eagles that should prove too strong for the South Africans.
After all, Bafana Bafana are in a bit of disarray at the moment. What with a new coach in the returning Stuart Baxter and a squad who only started training together four days before the big match as opposed to the Eagles who have been in camp for more than two weeks, most of the players anyway, and have played two friendlies.
Also an advantage for Rohr and his men is the Uyo crowd. The people of Uyo love the Super Eagles and will cheer them on ceaselessly for 90 minutes. You can almost guarantee that the stands will be full and the fans will start arriving at the stadium hours before kick-off. I remember seeing long lines trying to get into the stadium four whole hours before the Algeria match was scheduled to kick off. There were hundreds turning up at the stadium just to watch the team train on the night before the match.
Uyo fans do not joke with their darling Super Eagles.
It’s obviously a tough call to defeat Bafana who have a quite remarkable record of not losing any of their last 17 matches.
But this is the big chance to bury the ghosts of that damaging 2-2 draw in Uyo and once again show who is the boss in this relationship.
Besides, the Eagles know failing to reach two straight AFCONs is bad enough, making it a ‘three-peat’ of failed qualifying campaigns is unthinkable.
Rohr and his men have to find a way to beat South Africa again. They simply cannot afford not to, especially as there is only one guaranteed ticket open to their qualifying group, and Libya and Seychelles are lurking.