Let us face the facts, at this point in the development of African football, Nigeria, is not a country that should miss out on any edition of the African Cup of Nations. As giants of Africa in many facets of life, football should not be an exception.
Indeed, in football Nigeria should be to Africa what Brazil is to South America, an invaluable asset to the bi-annual continental championship without who the competition is never really the same!
Take away administrative ineptitude, Nigeria has everything else needed to make the country a global super power in football – talent, population, economic power, a proud people, and the ‘can do’ spirit of champions.
That’s why every time the country misses out on any football championship in Africa, or fails to be a representative of the African continent in the World Cup, it is counted as a catastrophe in the country, and a huge loss to the football fiesta in terms of added colour, flamboyance, organized supporters of drummers and singers, the total unpredictability of the Super Eagles (a team that can swing from brilliance to naivety at will), and charismatic travelling army of the largest concentration of Black people on earth with their infectious friendship, boisterous loudness, lavish celebrations, effervescent confidence and a typical brashness and boldness. These are the elements that Nigeria takes to every football party.
Failing to qualify for the championships any time means some heads rolling, some tenures and careers terminating, and the entire country going through a painful period of spiritual cleansing to gather strength again for the next time.
In the days when only eight nations in the continent participated in AFCON, and only one represented the continent in the World Cup, it was understandable if Nigeria, despite its numerous strengths and advantages, failed to qualify for the championships. But with the numbers increasing to 16 and five respectively, there is now no acceptable excuse whatsoever for failure to qualify for both major international championships.
That is the new benchmark the Nigerian people have set for themselves. They now accept qualifying for every Afcon and the World Cup as their birthright.
To have missed out and sat through the last two AFCON editions has been one of the most painful periods in the history of Nigerian football second only to when the country failed at the final hurdles in 1977 and 1981 to qualify for the World Cup finals when only one country represented the continent.
Not to qualify these days is one experience no Nigerian wants to go through again.
That’s why I feel sorry for South Africa as their date with the Eagles approaches. In the battle of Uyo, they have entered One Chance and, any way which way, they will be beaten.
This AFCON 2018 qualifier is one match Nigeria must win and win well. It is an essential tonic the national team must take to restore it to its previous winning ways and truly make the Eagles deserve a place at the apex of African football. So, all hands are on the plough to ensure a comfortable win and a great display.
Unfortunately, any technical preview of the match, and particularly of the Eagles, will fall short simply because of the amorphous state of the team in these days of rebuilding. There are a lot of emerging, untested, young new players on the periphery of the team, and until Gerhard Rohr releases his line-up on the night of the match very few can read his mind and select the players that will form the Super Eagles to take on the Bafana Bafana.
The match will not be decided by any advanced team tactics but by the quality of individual performances and how disciplined the players are in playing to a simple strategy and how well they take their chances when they come. Mr. Rohr appears to be a master at getting these quick results. I am not so sure but I think since he took over Nigeria’s national team, they are yet to lose a major international match.
The Super Eagles are a team in progress. The team will come together fully in 2018 approaching both the African Cup of Nations and the World Cup in Russia.
Finally, gauging the mood in Nigeria at the moment one can only feel sorry for the Bafana Bafana as there is no escape from the claws of the Eagles. Forget about the most recent history of performances between the two countries when the Bafana Bafana have managed to break away from the seeming stranglehold of the Super Eagles and shattered the myth of their invincibility and supremacy in matches between them since 1993 when South Africa returned to African football after decades in the doldrums due to Apartheid.
If I recall correctly, the South Africans have only ever beaten the Eagles twice in 24 years despite the innumerable confrontations between them. Under normal temperature and pressure, the Super Eagles have the South Africans’ number and, psychologically, would have them for breakfast any day, anytime.
So, next Saturday, inside the magnificent stadium of Uyo, that confident feeling is flooding back into the psyche of Nigerians. South Africa will fall heavily!
Sir Walter Winter-Bottom’s words is also ringing in my head as I write this – football is much more than life and death. It is so true for Nigerians now. It is consuming them.
So, the pressure, both ways, is on. South Africa has become a high mountain that Nigeria must climb and conquer in order to move forward. Nigerians relish this kind of challenge.
South Africa may have been a tough opponent in the past two years but the pendulum has now shifted back Nigeria’s way and, surely, the Bafana Bafana honeymoon with victory over Nigeria is over.
One can sense it all over the country that in this electrifying tension the support for the Eagles will be overwhelming. The turf of the magnificent stadium in Uyo I hear has been fixed to allow for the game to flow. Those are the only motivation the Super Eagles need to ‘do or die’ with South Africa next weekend!
What a great match in prospect!