The saying goes that a team is only as good as its last result. However, the obvious fallacy of this statement is apparent when one zooms out and takes Tuesday’s friendly loss to Serbia in the right context.
That context is this: that match in Barnet was Nigeria’s third friendly game since securing qualification for the FIFA World Cup in June this year, and there will be three more before Nigeria kick off against Croatia in Kaliningrad.
That ticket was itself punched with relative ease in a group that seemed anything but easy, and this feat was achieved at enough of a canter that the forfeiture of the final qualifier posed no worries.The Super Eagles will go to Russia with, on average, the youngest side in the competition, and have developed a stern exterior under German boss Gernot Rohr. There is a stable harmony within the squad, a jocular atmosphere marked by enthusiastic song and dance videos on social media.
Even more remarkably, there are no murmurs or wranglings over allowances and bonuses for players, or salaries for coaching staff.Whisper it quietly, but there is a sense that the football authorities have a clear idea of what they are working at.
This state of affairs was not always the case, of course. Poor tournament preparation has been the bane of Nigerian sports in general, not just football; when there were friendlies arranged, there seemed little design to them other than simple convenience.Rumours of cliques and deep schisms dogged the Super Eagles squads at the nation’s first two World Cup appearances: in 1994 and 1998. The 2002 and 2010 editions were a disaster, marked by wholesale personnel and managerial changes that meant whatever limited chances of advancement there were quickly vanished. In 2014, we had the unfortunate strike on the eve of a crucial Second Round match against France, with money needing to be flown all the way to Brazil.
Qualification for those previous Mundials were also not as straightforward. Slogs to the death featuring such colorful adversaries as Liberia, Tunisia and Ethiopia were the hallmark of many a sojourn.In light of these, one can perhaps understand and also forgive some of the over-the-top optimism around the Super Eagles ahead of the World Cup. In a nation that offers precious little to look forward to, it is through the national football team that most live vicariously. They are the vehicle of hope that a comatose government could never be.
There has even been talk of a run to the semi-final stage, the like of which has never been seen or experienced by an African nation.When this team turned around a 2-1 deficit to stun Argentina 4-2 in Krasnodar, it exemplified the never-say-die character many like to associate with.Wishes are, of course, not horses. While there is much to be excited about in this group, it is best to lower expectations drastically. By virtue of its youth, this team is very much a work in progress. Coach Gernot Rohr has, time and again, made a point of reminding everyone that this team does not have quite as much individual quality as previous iterations.
There remain question marks over the goalkeeping department of the team, with Francis Uzoho presently in possession, but not convincing to any great degree. Rohr has also reportedly been seeking solutions to the team’s striking options, preferring a more robust, direct option.
Also, in a way, we have been here before. While 2002 ultimately proved disastrous, the build-up to the tournament was marked by a sprinkling of encouraging friendly results, notably against Scotland and Paraguay, which got most hoping that there was something about that young, disheveled selection that could spring a surprise.
There is also, loath as we are to read too much into it, the chastening defeat against Serbia. If it is useful for anything, it is to remind us of just where we are, and what we can expect. This is a team in the making, and while the early results are heartwarming, we are playing the long game here.To see us go about it so concertedly, though, and with a clearly defined framework, can only mean good things for Nigerian football going forward.