As we continue our journey among the finalists of Brazil 2014, this time we take a stop in the west of the African continent to take a close look at the reigning African Champions Nigeria, or the “Super Green Eagles” as they are famously named, a team that always enters the World Cup with great expectations & hopes, but never achieved what was expected of it. A team that captivated the heart & soul of every football fan with some memorable performances in the past, so will 2014 be Nigeria’s tournament?
It’s the 5th appearance for Nigeria in the grand stage, they qualified for 1994, 1998, 2002 & 2010 World Cups. Their first & most memorable appearance was in USA back in 1994, where they managed to top a group containing Semifinalists Bulgaria, Argentina & Greece, who can’t remember the late Rashidi Yekini’s famous celebration when he scored against Bulgaria in the opening game! They were eliminated afterwards by Italy in a game were they almost won, and took a magical Roberto Baggio to earn his team an extra time win.
In the 1998 World Cup in France they also topped their group with Paraguay, Bulgaria & Spain, whom they defeated 3-2 with Sunday Oliseh screamer, they faced the Denmark in the 2nd round & lost 4-1 despite high hopes of going far in the tournament.
In the 2002 & 2010 they failed to go through the group stage, in Korea & Japan they were drawn with England, Argentina & Sweden, and only managed a scoreless draw with England, while in 2010 they were with Argentina yet again, Greece & South Korea, and they also managed a draw only with South Korea and were eliminated.
The current Nigeria squad maybe doesn’t possess names like Okocha, Babangida, Yekini, Martins and Oliseh like the previous squads, but they have a very united and compact group that Stephen Kichi has managed to put together. They play as one unit and not dependent on a single name or star as in the past, this was so obvious in the last CAN that they won in South Africa. They grew as group as the tournament developed, and Kichi knew how to get the best out of players like Emenike & Ahmed Musa to lead them to the title. In the Confederations last summer they looked like a solid team that can trouble the big names, especially that many of the names that were stars in the CAN moved to bigger names like Victor Moses & Sunday Mba for example, but they failed to reach the 2nd round after losing to Uruguay 1-2 & 0-3 to Spain, despite their big win against Tahiti.
The young age of most of the squad members called in the provisional list is quite positive, most of them will be playing their first World Cup and will be hungry to prove themselves on the grand stage, adding to those young names the experienced players like Obi Mikel, Odemwingie, Yobo & Enyeama & Kichi’s experience you get quite an impressive mix that can make the Nigerians & the whole African continent dream.
The Nigerians always suffered from excessive & over confidence in the big tournaments, something that cost them a lot before, the talent they always had never was an excuse for such arrogance they showed, an example of this was in the 1998 World Cup in France where to meet the Danish in the round of 16 and the players came out stating that they were getting ready to play Brazil in the quarter finals & not the Denmark, the result was a 4-1 hammering by the Danish!
But Stephen Keshi looks like he has overcame the problem he & teammates were accused of before, stating that he teaches his players to play with humility & respect to all opponents, something that was evident in the qualifying path & African Cup of Nations.
Another problem for the “Green Eagles” is the lack of the super striker in the current squad, names like Eminike & Brown aren’t on the same quality as we used to see in the Nigeria frontline before, they are highly wasteful & the Tahiti game in the Confederations comes to mind, where despite they won by six goals, they missed dozens of chances more. Also the decline of form of Victor Moses & Peter Odemwingie is worrying, the first doesn’t get much playing time in Liverpool & the 2nd isn’t the form he was when he was in West Bromwich Albion, and both of them are key players for this team.
Stephen Keshi is one of the historic players in Nigeria’s history, he was part of the team that won the African Cup of Nations in 1994 & featuring the World Cup afterwards. Originally as a defender, Kichi shifted to the coaching career, taking the helm of Togo and leading the small African nation to their first ever World Cup in 2006, strangely he was fired before the tournament and Otto Pfister took his position!
He then took helm of the Mali team & took them to the 2010 CAN before being sacked after failing to go through the group stage. He took the hot seat of the Nigeria team back in 2011, applying a great change to the squad, as he decided to drop most of the old names and rely on the young players that succeeded in the U-21 world cup back then, he also gave the chance to the home based players, something that rarely happened before in most of the African big teams like Nigeria. His hard work came to light when he lead the team to the 2013 CAN after a long absence, and followed it with qualification to the 2014 World Cup after defeating Ethiopia 4-1 on aggregate.
He’s known to be a strict character on both tactical and personal level, yet, he has the support & backing of his players & the Nigeria’s association due to the excellent rapport he has with the players, whom they consider more of a friend than a coach, but most importantly, it’s the results he provided in the last three years that gives him all this support all over the country.
John Obi Mikel is the key man of the “Green Eagles”, the Chelsea man plays much a bigger role in the National team than he does in Chelsea, Stephen Kichi deploys him in a central role with not just the defending responsibilities, but attacking ones too, given his experience & great vision of the game.
Keep an eye too on CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa, the highly paced winger played a vital role in the 2013 CAN & The Confederations, his speed reminds you of Tijani Babangida, and he has been a key member too in the Russian team’s crowing with the Russian league & Cup.
Nigeria got a rather balanced group, where they have the advantage of Cup experience over both Bosnia & Iran, and they will be facing Argentina for the 4th time in the World Cup too, although they never managed to get the result with the Albiceleste. But a qualification to the 2nd round seems in hand for the African nation, and with Group E teams in their path (France, Ecuador, Switzerland & Honduras), a spot in the quarter finals can be a possibility, given that they show more maturity & growth than the showing and the Confederations, maybe we will get to see an African surprise!