By Bolaji Douglas
After several years of missing out of the World Cup tournament, perhaps the closest to qualifying prior to her first outing at the World Cup being the 1978 edition, The Nigeria’s Super Eagles finally qualified for her first World Cup outing with the 1994 edition hosted by the USA. The year 1994 would remain a memorable one in the annals of Nigerian football history, it was the year her footballing potentials at the senior level was eventually unleashed and the world made to acknowledge her as a formidable adversary.
The Super Eagles also won the African Cup 0f Nations in that year, her second after winning the first in 1980. And in the run up to the World Cup tournament in the summer of 1994, she attained her highest ever FIFA ranking, she was ranked 12th that year.
Expectations were quite high, the whole nation was caught up in the euphoria of the World Cup, for a country that had adopted Brazil as her footballing country and representative in the past editions, the 1994 edition was definitely going to be different, Nigeria would have her own team and with players she can relate with in the tournament. For the first time her flag would be raised and her anthem rendered at the World Cup, her many years of waiting to join the World Soccer elites had finally come to an end.
The 1994 squad was a solid squad, comprising of good mix of battle tested players like the late Stephen Keshi, Peter Rufai, the also late Rashidi Yekini, Chidi Nwanu, Augustin Eguavoen, Thompson Oliha (rip), Sunday Oliseh, Ben Iroha, Mike Emenalo, Samson SiaSia, Willy Agbonibare and Alloy Agu, all of whom have between 6-10 years’ experience with the national team. Then you have a good blend of younger players such as Mutiu Adepoju, Uche Okechukwu, Finidi George, Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amuneke and JayJay Okocha. The team’s trainer was Clemens Westerhoff, a Dutch citizen who had spent almost 5 years putting the team together.
The team found itself in a group D made up of Greece, Bulgaria , who at the time had the dreaded Barcelona striker Hristo Stoichkov, and Argentina with the best player in the world at the time Diego Maradona. With no previous experience at this level, the fans were not sure what to expect. The team however swept Bulgaria aside with a 3-0 thumping with goals coming from Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi and Emmanuel Amuneke. The team lost its second match to Argentina 1-2 after taking the lead through Samson Siasia, but two quick goals from Cannigia cancelled out what was looking like the biggest upset of the tournament in the making. The team went on to beat Greece, another country making its first appearance at the World Cup. The team qualified from the group together with Argentina, becoming the first African country to debut and make it out of it’s group.
The team bowed out in the second round, losing to an Italian side that had the likes of Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta, Baggio, Zola to mention a few, in a keenly contested match that dragged into the extra time and one that saw the Italians coming from the rear to edge the Super Eagles out 2 goals to 1. The highlight of the Super Eagles performance at the 1994 World Cup was the brand of football the team played, the team was named one of the most entertaining attacking team. This brought respect to Nigerian football.
Nigeria made it back for her second World Cup tournament by qualifying for the 1998 edition hosted by France with most of the star players of the previous tournament still around. The 1998 team had players like Daniel Amokachi, Kanu Nwankwo, JayJay Okocha, Finidi George, Mutiu Adepoju, Uche Okafor(rip), Uche Okechukwu, Celestine Babayaro, Garba Lawal, Victor Ikpeba, Taribo West, Tijani Babangida, Sunny Oliseh, Rashidi Yekini(rip) and Peter Rufai in goal. The team that came for the 1998 edition of the World Cup was not in the best shape as a result several problems she was faced with. There was division in the team, coupled with the fact that the team was also ageing, players like Rashidi Yekini, Rufai were really on their last legs. In addition, one or two key players were not fully fit, notably Daniel Amokachi who was nursing a knee injury. Rufai it was gathered was recalled from retirement because of the goalkeeping crises the team was faced with when the team lost the first team keeper Dosu Joseph to injuries he sustained from auto crash. The injuries were so severe not only did it prevent him from going to the World Cup, sadly it also ended his career. The team was managed by Bora Milutinović who took over from the French man Philippe Trousier the coach who handled the team during the African qualifier phase.
The team found itself in a group D again, but this time around it was made up of Spain, Bulgaria and Paraguay, the first match against Spain was a thrilling encounter. The Super Eagles continued from where it let off in 1994 she defeated a very strong Spanish side by 3-2, the highlight of the match was the spectacular strike from about 40 yards by Sunday Oliseh which flew past the Spanish goalkeeper Zubizareta. The goal was one of the highlights of the tournament. The team met Bulgaria again and only managed to beat her by a lone goal, before going on to lose to Paraguay 1-3. But with 6 points already in the bag, the Super Eagles once again qualified for the second round by topping the group and was drawn to meet Denmark in the second round. But again, the team could not progress beyond the second round as she was soundly beaten 4 – 1 by a sleek Danish team that featured the Laudrup brothers.
Nigeria made it 3 in a row by qualifying for the 2002 edition jointly hosted by South Korean and Japan. Once again, she came to the tournament with a team that was in crisis. The Nigerian FA and the team had a serious falling out from the 2002 African Cup of Nations which took place a couple of months before the World Cup. The Manager who qualified the team for the World Cup, the late Shuaibu Amodu was sacked, Sunday Oliseh who was the team captain and Finidi George his assistant, were both dropped from the team for insubordination. Also, Victor Agali who was the main striker of the team also dropped out of the team in solidarity with the team leaders due to what he saw as injustice the way they were treated by the FA.
The FA on their part disbanded the team and appointed a new Team Manager in Chief Festus Onigbinde who was saddled with the task of raising a new team within 3 monthsfor the World Cup. The team that showed up in Japan had Ike Shorounmu, Victor Enyeama, Joseph Yobo, Justice Christopher, Julius Aghahowa, Pius Ikedia, Femi Opabunmi, Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Stanley Okoronkwo, JayJay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Ogbeche Bartholomew, Joseph Utaka, Ifeanyi Udeze, Efe Sodje to mention just a few of the notable players. This was new team save for a couple of the old faces. The team also had a young 16-year-old in the fold, Femi Opabunmi.
The team was placed in group F along with Argentina, Sweden and England. However, the team could not overcome its problems and it showed by the results, the team lost 0-1 to Argentina in the first match, lost again to Sweden by 1-2 and only managed a 0-0 draw with England in what was a meaningless match. The team came last in the group and rightfully so in the light of the difficulties that trailed her to the tournament. There was nothing worthy of note from this tournament from the Nigerian team, save perhaps the lesson to avoid self-inflicted injury. Disbanding the team 3 months before the world cup and losing three key players and leaders of the team is not the best way to prepare for the World Cup.
Nigeria was unable to qualify for the 2006 edition hosted by Germany, but she made it back for 2010 edition hosted by South Africa. Once again, the team’s preparation and concentration was blighted by internal wrangling coming again this time, on the back of the 2010 African Cup of Nations results which the FA officials once again felt were not good enough, the team having won the bronze. Once again Shuaibu Amodu, the man who qualified the team again for the World Cup was cruelly sacked making it the second time he would be so treated. This time the FA opted for a foreign Coach, a Swede by name Lars Largerbark, he was brought in with three months to the World Cup to coach the team.
Some of the players in the team included the following Vincent Enyeama, Joseph Yobo, Danny Shittu, Chinedu Obasi, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Afolabi Rabiu, Osaze Odemwingie, Taye Taiwo, Obinna Nsofor, Kanu Nwankwo, Sanni Kaita, Obafemi Martins, Elderson Echijelie, Mikel John Obi, Yusuf Ayila, Chidi Ordiah, Haruna Lukman and Dickson Etuhu.
This time around, Nigeria was placed in group B together with Argentina, South Korea and Greece, and once again the team could not overcome the difficulties that trailed it to the tournament. She came last again in her group losing to Argentina 1-0, and again to Greece 2-1, while she managed to hold South Korea to a 2-2 draw. The highlight of the campaign was how the managers of a team can refuse to learn from their past mistakes of shooting themselves in the foot.
In what would be her 5th appearance at the World Cup, the team qualified for the 2014 edition hosted by Brazil. The team was managed by the late Stephen Keshi and some of the players on the team include the following: Vincent Enyeama, Mikel Obi, Osaze Odemwingie, Musa Ahmed, Victor Moses, Joseph Yobo, Kenneth Omeruo, Elderson Echijelie, Godfrey Oboabona, Emmanuel Emenike, Juwon Oshaniwa, Shola Ameobi, Michael Babatunde, Michael Uchebo, Efe Ambrose, Ogenyi Onazi, Ruben Gabriel.
The team found itself in group F comprising of Argentina, Iran and Bosnia & Herzegovina. She started slowly with a 0-0 draw with a Iran in a match she was widely tipped to win. She went on to defeat Dzeko led Bosnia and Herzegovina by a lone goal scored by Peter Odemwingie. Her last match with Argentina was a cracker of a match which ended 3-2 in favour of Argentina. The Super Eagles did enough to qualify for the second round behind Argentina from the group. She was paired with France in the second round in another cracker of a match which saw the Super Eagles hold the former World Champion to a stalemate for a long stretch of the game, before finally going down 2- 0 to goals scored by Paul Pogba and an own goal by Joseph Yobo.
The matches with Argentina and France were perhaps the highlight of the tournament for the Super Eagles. And worthy of mention is the matching of Nigeria’s best World Cup appearance record, the second round qualification, this time the team it was achieved under a local manager in the person of Stephen.
The 2018 edition of the World Cup will kick off in Russia in a couple of days, this would be the 6th occasion Nigeria would be participating, she has made it past the first group stage on three of the 5 previous editions in which she participated. The fans will be expecting more this time around, one can only hope that the Super Eagles will give the fans all they are saying…to go for the quarter finals.