Nigeria’s opponents for the 2023 African Cup of Nations qualifiers were drawn on Tuesday in South Africa
Against all odds, the Super Eagles had conquered the continent for the third time in South Africa in 2013.
It was an unprecedented triumph especially considering the sloppy start the Stephen Keshi-led team had to overcome.
Sunday Mba’s brave winner was the difference on that night against Burkina Faso. It created memories that’d be difficult to erase especially considering a good number of members of the squad were home based.
The 2014 World Cup came and the Super Eagles again sloppily made it past the group stage, equaling the greatest feat of any other Nigerian team at the World Cup. Keshi had done it all, and at that point, he could be like Spartacus in the popular movie asking, “is there no one else?”
Sadly, there was one thing else left to be defeated – bad decision.
Quitting when ovation is loudest is a practice globally accepted. In Keshi’s case, he overstayed his time.
After the World Cup, the lapses of the team were there for all to see and it was difficult repeating the tricks of old. Home-based players were present, others also joined but the team found it difficult to motivate itself beyond that point.
A group comprising South Africa, Congo Brazzaville and Sudan saw Nigeria finish third, with 8 points from a possible 18 and missed out on the 2015 AFCON. It was a repeat of the 2012 low and a testament to the fact that the Super Eagles bounce back rather wobbly and sloppily. When mishandled, it could be borderline catastrophic.
By 2017, the team had hardly found a way out of its quagmire and again missed out on another AFCON, the third out of four editions.
The 2021 AFCON in Cameroon saw Nigeria get booted out in the round of 16 and there’d be more to wail about. As the referee blasted the final whistle in Abuja, it dawned that Nigerian football and the Super Eagles were back to the abyss.
The Super Eagles are not historically known as a team that recovers smoothly after a major blip. After missing out on the 2006 World Cup, the 2008 AFCON in Ghana and Angola 2010 saw the team hardly gel. The national team never had a semblance of structure until 2013 and it lasted too short to spark enough hope for the future.
Being drawn alongside Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and São Tomé and Principe/Mauritius is easy on paper but if African football left any instruction at the last AFCON, it’s that every team aims to take a flesh.
At the mention of Nigeria, every African team turns up with their A game and it will take a good performance to overcome them. Nigeria have failed in similar circumstances in the past and must take critical lessons from it.
In the last one year, Nigeria has relinquished a 4-0 lead at home against Sierra Leone and failed to defeat the Leone Stars over two legs and lost at home to the Central African Republic. It’s an indictment and an indication of the dipping level of the team. This is even more ironic when the quality of players in the team is taken into consideration and that poses questions on what the problem is.
To many fans, coaching is a major challenge. It cost Nigeria an impressive outing at the last AFCON and a World Cup ticket. To correct this conspicuous anomaly, the NFF is reported to be weighing the option of a foreign coach, perceptively better than what the team had before.
It’s hoped that whoever gets the nod understands African football, Nigerian players and builds a team that’ll be mentally strong enough to bounce back from the failures of the past.
Should Nigeria feign a slight condescension and give an inkling of complacency, Cote D’Ivoire 2023 may be a ticket in hand, yet one untouched. It has all the shine one may imagine, yet not be the fine material Nigerians would love to have a piece of. It’s a slippery slope.