The road to the 2026 FIFA World Cup has been mapped out, and Nigeria find themselves in Group C alongside Benin Republic, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Lesotho.
After missing out on the 2022 edition in Qatar, the Super Eagles are eager to make their mark and secure a seventh World Cup appearance.
However, their journey will not be without challenges, as their opponents pose varying degrees of threat and ambition.
South Africa, ranked 62nd by FIFA, are a formidable rival in Group C.
They are three-time participants at the World Cup, reaching the group stage in 1998, 2002, and 2010.
Under the guidance of Belgian coach Hugo Broos, who led Cameroon to victory in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, South Africa will aim to put up a strong fight.
While most of their key players compete domestically, the presence of Percy Tau, who plays for Al Ahly, adds an international spark to their lineup.
Nigeria must be cautious of his threat as Tau has netted an impressive 14 goals in 39 games for his country.
However, history is in Nigeria’s favour, as South Africa have never defeated the Super Eagles in a World Cup qualifying match and has only won once in their twelve competitive encounters.
Benin, led by former Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr, presents an intriguing challenge. With a FIFA ranking of 93, they have yet to make a World Cup appearance.
However, Benin boast the talent of old warhorse Stéphane Sessègnon, who holds the record for the most caps and goals in the country’s history.
The team’s other influential players include captain Khaled Adénon, goalkeeper Saturnin Allagbé, and forward Steve Mounié.
Moreover, Rohr’s intimate knowledge of the Nigerian squad could prove advantageous for the Cheetahs.
Nonetheless, Nigeria have never lost to Benin, and their biggest victory over them, a resounding 10-1 win, remains etched in the annals of international football.
Zimbabwe, ranked 124th by FIFA, will also dream of making their World Cup debut.
Led by experienced coach Shepherd Murape, Zimbabwe will rely on defensive solidity and the attacking prowess of players like Admiral Muskwe (Luton Town), Tino Kadewere (Mallorca), and David Moyo (Barnet).
Although they lost their influential striker Knowledge Musona to retirement, Zimbabwe could still pose a challenge if they maintain a strong defensive line.
However, their record against Nigeria is less encouraging, losing four out of five previous encounters.
Rwanda, led by Spanish coach Carlos Alós, will look to defy the odds and secure their first-ever World Cup qualification.
Ranked 139th by FIFA, Rwanda’s Wasps have struggled in previous World Cup campaigns.
They will heavily rely on the talents of Lille wonderkid Hakim Sahabo, veteran defender Fitina Omborenga, and top striker Meddie Kagere.
With a record of eight wins, ten draws, and 26 losses in World Cup 44 qualifying matches, Rwanda face an uphill battle.
Nigeria have the upper hand in previous encounters, having emerged victorious in all four meetings with Les Amavubi.
Lesotho, ranked 152nd by FIFA, enters Group C as the underdog.
Never having qualified for a World Cup or even reached the Africa Cup of Nations, their primary aim will be to avoid being the group’s whipping boys.
Lesotho’s record against Zimbabwe and South Africa has been discouraging, with multiple defeats.
In their four previous encounters with Nigeria, Lesotho have failed to find the back of the net in three matches.
Group C prediction
In predicting the final Group C standings, it is expected to be a straightforward battle between Nigeria and South Africa for the top spot.
Nigeria’s depth of talent, coupled with their historical dominance over South Africa, gives them a significant advantage.
Benin, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Lesotho will likely fight for the remaining positions, with Benin’s familiarity with the Nigerian squad potentially giving them an edge over the others.
However, surprises are not uncommon in football, and the unpredictable nature of the game could provide some interesting twists in Group C.
Predicted group standing
2. South Africa