At last, the 2018 World Cup will start in about seven days from now.
All the 32 countries in the championship are in a race to play as many friendly matches as possible against opposition that looks like those they will be playing against when ‘hostilities’ begin on June 14.
These matches are to gauge and hone the teams, discover the best in-form players, work out tactics, unearth ‘hidden’ gems, build up confidence, and generally get the team to ‘blend’ and start to play cohesively as a unit, beyond the product of the usual quick-assembly of players a day or two before most of the qualifying matches that, often, never gives managers ample time to get the players to play with depth and discipline in tandem with his vision for their ultimate team.
These past two weeks have made national teams either more confident and raring to go to Russia, or very jittery and unsure of themselves as in the case of the Super Eagles following their spate of uninspiring performances.
The last three friendly matches played by the Eagles, once touted by Nigerians as the team to beat in Group D, have ended in losses that have left their supporters with more questions than answers.
This could not be the same Eagles that sailed through the qualifying rounds of the World Cup without a dent.
This could not be the team that deservedly trounced Argentina (without Lionel Messi though) only a few months ago.
This could not be the team that taught Serbia a lesson on how to win matches without playing well.
So confident did Nigerians become that last week, for the first time in their history, replica shirts of the national team sold like wild fire in the international market.
Three million Nike shirts were reportedly sold out within hours of release into the London market, with long winding queues of shoppers around entire blocks waiting on the sidewalks to buy them throughout that day.
That was an unprecedented scene, reflective of the status and expectations of fans of the Super Eagles.
Of course, amongst the smaller audience of international football analysts there have never been any lavish expectations.
Nigeria was never considered anywhere near favourites to win the most coveted football trophy in the world. Teams just do not wake up and think they can win the World Cup.
Statistically, only a few teams have ever won the prestigious trophy since inception in 1938. Of those teams only even fewer still have managed to win it two times or more.
Some teams have mastered the winning formula and applied it more than others to dominate the teams at the top during every World Cup.
Nothing beats the psychology of a previous winner. Outside of these, plus the teams that won using advantage of being hosts, teams just do not wake up and win the World Cup.
But trust the most passionate followers of football in the world, Nigerian supporters would always dream that their beloved Super Eagles, with prayers and fasting, would do the unthinkable, and win it.
Nigerians are unrepentantly optimistic. Even when they presented the weakest assemblies of players in Korea/Japan 2002 and South Africa 2010, even I recklessly joined in the wishful thinking.
You see, Nigerians have a good reason to hope for a miracle. It has happened to them at all other levels except at the World Cup.
It happened to them in 1985 in China with the Under-16 national team.
It happened during the ‘Damman Miracle’ in Saudi Arabia in 1989 at the Under-20 level when they got very close but did not win.
In 1996 it happened in Atlanta when they won the Olympic Gold at Under-23!
The belief is that the World Cup ‘miracle’ is close by.
In 1994, during their first appearance at the World Cup in America, they were rated after the championship as the most entertaining team with their unadulterated free-flowing attacking style of football, and fifth ranked in the world for their great run of victories that year.
Since 1996, the seed of the possibility of winning the World Cup was firmly planted in every Nigerian player and indeed, in every Nigerian.
That year they overcame the fear of impossibility. They became reckless in their optimism every time they qualify for the World Cup.
That’s the feeling still running in the veins of the players and their supporters as Russia 2018 approaches.
Unfortunately, these past two weeks have been a psychological dampener.
With how the team effortlessly lost their last two friendlies, in particular, the spirit of high expectations has been dampened, and morale is low and the songs of victory are now only in whimpers.
My rating of the Super Eagles
The Super Eagles have a ‘registered’ playing trade mark. Nigerian players are generally very physical, athletic and expressive on the ball. These make attacking football at a fast pace their forte and is very attractive when playing down the flanks at speed and with power.
General team play organization and discipline are often what lets them down at the highest level.
Nigerian players play more from instinct than through orchestrated team tactics. This is because of the limitation in their domestic home-grounding.
They depend on their exceptional individual skillful players in the team who can do individual magic with the ball and express themselves to the delight of any coach that appreciates and uses this as part of his team tactics.
Westerhof and Jo Bonfere, two former Dutch coaches of the team, were masters at this game of applying the natural strength of Nigerian players as a team tactic and getting the best out of the team without necessarily being over tactical.
This maybe what Genrot Rohr has not discovered and has not applied to the present Super Eagles from the last few matches against non-African teams that the team has played.
The team has been more European than any national team in our history.
For the first time the Super Eagles have more players that never played domestic football in Nigeria and are not honed in the typical Nigerian style of football in the Super Eagles.
These are not Nigerian players in the true sense of the word. They are foreign-Nigerian players, limited in the Nigerian style and, yet, not the best in their European foundation.
What we now have is a new kind of Super Eagles made up of a mix of good players (but average by European standards) and good home-grown players that are not exceptional, in a combination that has been playing well as a ‘team’.
That’s how they overcame their African challengers during qualifiers. But that’s what makes this present team suspiciously ‘weak’, and potential sitting ducks when the World Cup proper begins.
Unless the World Cup produces them when the competition starts, the present team lacks the outstanding individual player in the mold Muda Lawal, Haruna Ilerika, Finidi George, Kanu Nwankwo, Jay Jay Okocha and so on – very skillful and extravagantly expressive on the ball, who could turn defeat into victory with one moment, movement or pass of magic.