Football: Super Eagles and lowered expectations in Russia

- in World News


The FIFA World Cup, with its special charm, is here once more.

It is the culmination of four years of toil and sweat, the release being a month-long festival of football.

For a nation like Nigeria, it is more than simply a footballing event.

There is the tacit understanding that, while the sport can throw up the improbable, the Super Eagles are not going to win the tournament.

As such, it has to be about much more than simply what happens on the pitch.

This is why the recent excitement surrounding the kits to be worn by the team is so welcome, as is the team’s willingness to champion the indubitable Nigerian spirit. According to the English media, when it comes to fashion, Nigeria has already won the World Cup.

The feel-good factor has managed to, in some way; divert attention from a preparation that, while thorough, has not exactly set the pulse racing.

One win in five in 2018[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]– and that an unconvincing victory over Poland – is a worrying return, whichever way one looks at it.

The calibre of opposition too; England (and maybe Poland) aside, the likes of Serbia and the Czech Republic are, one would think, the sort of teams that Nigeria should be beating to have a prayer in a difficult group.

Yet, as things considered, those losses might be a good thing.

Under Gernot Rohr, the Nigeria national side is young and relatively inexperienced at this level.

Of the 23 named in the squad, it has five from the 2014 finals, with one remaining from South Africa 2010 when Nigeria exit the tournament in the group stages.

The quintet of captain John Mikel Obi, Ogenyi Onazi, Kenneth Omeruo, Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa played in Brazil, while Elderson Echiejile was in South Africa.

In spite of their youth though, they ripped through teams in qualifying, and stormed to a rousing 4-2 win over Argentina in November.

At that point, it looked like they could do no wrong. To come into the World Cup itself in that frame (or similar) may have given them an inordinate sense of their own abilities relative to the other teams in a quite arduous group. To stand still is to go backwards.

If for nothing else, the results have forced Rohr to return to his drawing board: he has toyed with the idea of a different shape, giving the team a different tactical option.

It has also raised questions regarding the places of certain players within the team, and where it seemed previously like the German’s strict loyalty would be his undoing, there is now a sense that he is willing to do what is required.

It is worth noting that, for Rohr as well, this is a stage he has never had.

His coaching career has seen him bounce around a handful of African teams, but with Nigeria he has been given a chance, at 64, to make a name for himself beyond the typical Africa-based European coach.

It probably means more to him than we might be able to guess.

There is not so much wrong with failing, so long as it is done early, and you win at the end.

Far better to lose now, and find out the ways in which things cannot work, than to go on a roll, only to fall short in the final reckoning.

Brazil went into the World Cup in 2006 oozing confidence, and World Cup-winning pedigree Carlos Alberto Pereira on the bench.

So confident, in fact, that they named their starting eleven months in advance.

Thrashing Argentina at the Confederation Cup a year before had further strengthened their belief in their own infallibility.

By the time the tournament itself kicked off, it was clear something was seriously amiss.

Heavily tipped to retain the title they won in 2002, and with a squad many considered superior, they went out with a whimper against France.

This side is, of course, nowhere near as talented, neither is it tipped for much of anything.

Still, if they are to pull off what seems improbable, they will do so with their feet firmly planted.

Nigeria’s record in warm-up friendlies is well documented.

Most famously, in 1998, the Super Eagles lurched from disarray to disaster:[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]1-0,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]3-0 and 5-1 against Germany, Yugoslavia and the Netherlands respectively.

Through gritted teeth and covered eyes, Nigerians saw different performance when the tournament itself kicked off.

It will require a similar sort of turnaround to make history in Russia this summer.

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