With the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup less than a month to kick off, The Guardian looks at the possibilities in Nigeria’s Group D amidst the underdog status of the Super Eagles, who are rated lower than group opponents, Argentina, Croatia and Iceland.
It is 29 days to the kick off of the Russia 2018 World Cup and the pundits have started looking at the possibilities at the world’s greatest sports event.
There are 32 nations dreaming of doing well in Russia with only five countries with realistic chances of lifting the trophy on July 16. But nobody goes to war thinking of defeat and so most of the teams have high hopes of excellence in Russia.
Already, the pundits, especially European analysts, have started narrowing down the list from stage to stage, giving little mention of the African teams. All, bar none, believe Nigeria will be the whipping team of Group D.
One thing is certain, some teams will crash out at the first hurdle, with others holding more positive expectations of reaching the latter stages.
Going by the FIFA World Rankings, Germany and Brazil are the favourites for the final match. There are some of other teams, like Spain, France and Argentina, which possess in-form players that have been stealing the headlines in top domestic leagues worldwide.
Writing for Sky Bet, Tom Carnduff believes no team in Group D can stand Argentina’s might, not with the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Icardi, Mascherano and Sergio Romero going into the competition knowing its their last chance of winning the trophy.
He said, “they should have no problems winning Group D, where they will meet a team like Australia in the round of 16. That could set up a fantastic clash against Spain, which Argentina will have enough in them to win.
“Brazil would be waiting in the semi-final. An all-South American clash will be highly entertaining, but I’d look at the team in yellow to be the ones who make the final.
“It is incredibly open for who could come second to Argentina in this group.
Croatia will be strong contenders, and the likes of Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic will be key players for them in Russia. Their final game against Iceland could prove to be the game which decides who goes through, and I think Iceland will once again exceed their ‘underdogs’ tag here.
“I fancy Iceland to live up to their Euro 2016 status and cause a few surprises, that includes progressing from Group D.
They have gone up to 22nd in the FIFA World Rankings and beat Croatia to top spot in UEFA Group I in qualifying.
For me, I think they can once again beat Croatia, and a clash with France in the round of 16 stage would end their World Cup adventure.”
On Nigeria, he said, “Iceland could steal second in this group, meaning Croatia and Nigeria battle it out for bottom spot. I will back Croatia to beat Nigeria when the two meet in Kaliningrad on June 16 meaning that Nigeria would need victories over the top two to leap Croatia.
“Backing Nigeria at 11/8 to finish bottom of the group seems decent enough value in this scenario.”
Sportinglife’s Rory Smith rates Group D as probably the most delicately balanced, most interesting, and most competitive of all the groups.
“Argentina only just qualified, Croatia has an abundance of individual talent, Iceland a tremendous collective strength and Nigeria was, possibly, the toughest fourth seed to draw. Argentina will not be happy at all.”
Like Carnduff, Smith tips Argentina to win the group with Iceland and Croatia battling for the second spot. But he admits that the World Cup can be unpredictable, which makes it the exciting game that it is.
“I love the mystery of the World Cup draw. We are saturated with soccer now. We can watch all of the world’s best players every week. Only at the World Cup do players from nowhere suddenly burst to life, and teams — Tunisia, Iran, even Russia itself — from isolated soccer cultures join the party. It is an adventure into the unknown.”
Recently, a study by the CIES Football Observatory research group rated the Super Eagles as no hopers in the race to the 2018 FIFA World Cup title. This came as a shock to many Nigerian supporters, who believe the Super Eagles will progress beyond the round of 16.
The prestigious research agency did not include the Super Eagles among the teams expected to lift the trophy in July. Out of the 32 teams that will compete in Russia, the research group ranked Nigeria 22nd favourite to win the trophy.
The CIES used the 2018 qualification stage matches and the clubs in which the country’ s players represent as the basis for the rankings of the 32 World Cup bound teams.
Among the five teams to represent Africa at the World Cup, the Super Eagles are ranked third, 22nd overall behind Senegal (18th) and Morocco (19th) but are ahead of Tunisia and Mohammed Salah’s Egypt.
Super Eagles group D opponents, Argentina is ranked seventh overall, Croatia eighth, while Iceland are behind the Super Eagles, ranked 23rd.
Despite the CIES publication, Nigerians are of the opinion that Russia 2018 presents the Eagles their best chance to qualify for the quarterfinals.
Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) President, Amaju Pinnick, and indeed most members of the board, believe the country is one of the teams to fear in Russia.
Pinnick told a gathering of sports editors recently that the more rated teams in Russia would be shocked by the performance of the Super Eagles.
“The underdog status suits us because now the focus would be on other teams. We were rated as the lowest team in our group during the qualifying series, yet we were the first team to qualify in Africa.
“We have a team of young players hungry for glory and a coach who knows how to get the best out of them.”
Pinnick revealed that the NFF is leaving no stone unturned to ensure Nigeria excelled in Russia. Some of the measures include ensuring that the players are paid all their allowances on time, and getting a serene environment as their base camp in Russia.
He said the players stand the chance of pocketing 24 million dollars if they played in the final in Russia, adding, the money was part of the agreement reached with the players to share 50-50, whatever would accrues to the country if they get to the final and lift the trophy.
“I don’t put players under pressure. Pressure can be put on them unconsciously because we are creating enabling environment for them.
If for example we don’t have money to prepare them, they can now relax but now, we have given them everything upfront and they should deliver.
If today they get to the final, the World Cup money will be shared 50-50 between the team and the NFF.
“Winning the final is 48 million dollars, it means the team will get 24 million dollars and the football house will take the remaining 24 million dollars,” Pinnick said.
He also said the adequate preparation including grade A friendly matches have been secured with England and Czech Republic to ensure the team do well at the World Cup.
“We are ready to play against England on June 2 in London in an international friendly. We had a conclusive meeting with the England FA.
“After the England match, we will play Czech Republic and from there we move to Russia. As it is everything is going on very well.
“For the World Cup, I don’t think we have any problem. I am in touch with the technical committee. It is the desire of every Nigerian to see the Super Eagles do well at the World Cup.”
While he agreed that Nigeria could shock the world in Russia, former Super Eagles goalkeeper, Ike Shorunmu said money alone cannot lead the team to success in Russia.
The former Super Eagles’ goalkeeper said paying the Eagles their allowances and settling all the logistic problems that could hamper the team’s chances of getting to the finals of the World Cup will only motivate the players to give their best and be more committed during the competition, but cannot put the ball in the net if there were no formidable squad to do the job.
He opines that the level of support and encouragement given to the Nigerian side is enough to raise the anxiety of the players to give their best in Russia.
“Paying the players their allowances as at when due can propel the players to give their best at the World Cup. But the aspect of raising a quality team for the Mundial should not be over looked.
I think the Eagles are facing some challenges in some departments, which the coaches are fighting hard to correct. I cannot dictate for the Eagles handlers because they are close to the players.
“The Eagles coach should work hard to manage the players available. We should realise that the Nigerian team is no longer in the era when they had abundant talents like Austin Eguaveon, Samson Siasia, Austin Okocha, Victor Ikpeba, Kanu Nwankwo and others.
“Money cannot improve the technical efficiency of a player or team. The coach needs to manage the players available to get the best out of them. From the defence, midfield, striking force to goalkeeping positions, the Eagles need the full attention of their coaches,” he said.
While Shorunmu hinges Super Eagles’ performance on the technical ability of the coach, lawyer/players’ agent, Sabinus Ikewuaku said given the right environment Nigeria will excel in Russia.
He draws from the 1994 experience, where the Super Eagles defied all odds to top a group comprising Argentina, Bulgaria and Greece.
According to Ikewuaku, “now that the team is going to the World Cup as a united unit, the world would see the Nigerian spirit at play.
“I remember that in 1994 we had a bunch of players who were unknown outside Africa. Some of them like Mike Emenalo, Austin Eguavoen, Peter Rufai, Thompson Oliha, Emeka Ezeugo and Mutiu Adepogu either had no club or were playing for lowly rated sides. But at the end of the day Nigeria came out of the tournament as the most exciting side in world football.
“Everybody knew Nigeria and all wanted to play friendlies with the Eagles. We got up to number five in FIFA ranking.
“Here we are again, 24 years after, rated as an underdog. We are going into the World Cup with a youthful side made of players, who want to make names for themselves. The world should watch out for Nigeria.”
The World Cup kicks off June 14, with Russia’s first game, in Moscow. It concludes there on July 15. Germany is the defending champion. No team has repeated as world champion since Brazil, in 1958 and 1962.