Nigeria players and officials acknowledge the public as they celebrate after the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying football match between Nigeria and Zambia in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, on October 7, 2017. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP
The euphoria of Nigeria’s qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup continues to hang in the air, but for those high up in the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), it is time already for them to clear their heads. The buzz of celebratory champagne, after all, can only last so long: that the World Cup has begun is a fact that must not escape anyone if the Super Eagles are to make a proper fist of things in Russia.
Alex Iwobi’s goal in Uyo neatly wrapped up a qualifying campaign that has seen Gernot Rohr’s young charges exceed expectations. To qualify in a group considered the tightest, and to do so in such emphatic fashion, has raised the hopes of a nation. In terms of results, Nigeria has never had it this easy in World Cup qualifying; the question now is: how far can this team go at the main event next year?
On three of its previous five appearances at the finals, Nigeria has advanced past the Group stage. This includes its first and second tries, in 1994 and 1998. Those were hailed as respectable showings, even though the manners of elimination could hardly have been more different.
In 2014, the late great Stephen Keshi repeated the feat. You get the idea – the novelty of it has worn off. Only Cameroon have made more appearances at a World Cup from Africa, yet they are one of three African sides to progress to a World Cup Quarterfinal. You feel, if Nigeria is ever going to join this elite group, now is the time.
And why not? Against France in Brasilia three years ago, the game was very even; the Super Eagles caused them problems, and it took the departure of Ogenyi Onazi – his foot trod on by Blaise Matuidi – to turn the tide of the game. Roberto Baggio’s late, heart-rending double 20 years earlier, was a cruel blow having led for so long; and while Denmark crushed Nigeria in 1998, Bora Milutinovic’s side actually came into the game as heavy favourites.
The common denominator to all these eliminations, the thread that runs right through, is the thorny issue of match bonuses and allowances. As a result of Ghana’s John Boye kissing a wad of cash and subsequently becoming the image of Africa’s financial problems at the last World Cup in Brazil (Cameroon similarly had issues), it was a lot less publicized that the Nigerian team also had to deal with monetary agitation. The team refused to train on the eve of the game against France, demanding their bonuses be paid. As ideal preparation for a crunch World Cup knockout game goes, this was the equivalent of shooting oneself in the head.
Unpaid bonuses, similarly derailed the 1994 and 1998 vintages, and there was a noticeable lack of cohesive focus to the performance of the former in that loss to Italy. This is a pitfall that must be avoided this time around.
I spoke to the NFF first vice-president Seyi Akinwunmi about this, and how the Federation would seek to curtail another fiasco at the Mundial. The approach of the Glass House with this crop so far has been one of candour: there are no untenable promises made, no half-truths told. This atmosphere of trust and openness, he said, relaxes the mood and reassures the players that they will get their due, and that nothing that is rightly theirs is being wilfully held back.
It is an admirable strategy, but one wonders how effective it will be in the long run. It is one thing to seek to put aside all distraction and just qualify, but how will that approach hold up in the high-pressured environment of the World Cup? It is worth remembering that, with this same board in charge, there was quite an embarrassing row over allowances and bonuses, at last year’s Olympic Games in Rio. If indeed the NFF is serious about its target of a semi-final place, then these are the sort of things that should be seen to out of sight, without kicking up a fuss, or creating a scene.
The mistakes of the past have to be learnt from if the Super Eagles are to kick on. To those who say the target is unreasonable, what then is the point of being at the World Cup if you’re not going to compete? Participation is simply not enough anymore – it is time for Nigeria to finally punch above her weight in world football.