Category: Archive

Talented Nigeria hope to overcome distractions

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jay Mwamba


Group F

A late coaching change, squabbles over money and charges of Mafia-like cliques in the team. Such distractions may spell doom for any team ahead of the World Cup, but for Nigeria’s Super Eagles, veritable members of the “Group of Death,” this is only par for the field.

For the third time in a row, the squad now dubbed by the Nigerian media as the “Super-Egos” is headed for the finals amid a swirl of controversy following a disappointing third-place finish in the recent African Nations Cup.

Nigeria’s failure to capture the African title in Mali cost Shaibu Amodu his job as national coach. It may have also signaled the end of several international careers, after allegations in the post-Mali inquisition of a group of senior players controlling team selection.

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Amodu’s successor, Festus Adegboye Onigbinde, a 64-year-old former school teacher and FIFA coaching instructor, has promised to shake up the Eagles and instill a new code of conduct. He has just under three months to do that, starting with the friendly against Paraguay in London next Tuesday (March 26), one of several warm ups — Ireland included — lined up for the Nigerians before Japan/Korea ’02.

There’s little doubt that if successful in refocusing and healing the Eagles’ collective psyche, Onigbinde could have a formidable team at his disposal, and one that should be more than able to hold its own in the “Group of Fear.”

Talent-wise, Nigeria rank up there with some of the top teams in the world. Africa’s most populous nation, with more than 100 million people, they have more than 200 professionals plying their skills in league’s around the globe.

Despite omitting Borussia Dortmund midfielder Sunday Oliseh and Ipswich Town striker Finidi George, both veterans of USA ’94 and France ’98, from his provisional squad for Japan/Korea ’02, Onigbinde has kept faith with several other top-notch players who should form the backbone of his final contingent.

They include the flamboyant Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha, spindly Arsenal striker Nwankwo Kanu, Chelsea fullback Celestine Babayaro, the talismanic Ukraine-based forward Julius Aghahowa, and hard tackling center half Taribo West from Kaiserslautern in the Bundesliga.

A huge crowd favorite in France four years ago and the Eagles’ main star for more than eight years now, much is expected from Okocha, a squat midfielder currently on the books of Paris St. Germain.

Okocha has enthralled fans at the last two World Cups with his repertoire of dribbling moves and much is expected from him on his likely swan song at Japan/Korea ’02.

Not far behind Okocha in ball skills is Kanu, the 6-foot-6 finesse artist who captained Nigeria to the 1996 Olympic gold medal in Atlanta with a stunning 3-2 victory over Argentina.

Perhaps to invoke the memories of that historic come-from-behind victory over much of the same Argentine side they will face in the Group F in Ibaraki on June 2, Onigbinde has selected Kanu to skipper Nigeria again against the South Americans.

And while defenders Babayaro and West both cut their teeth at France ’98 where they were outstanding in the Eagles’ run to the second round, several World Cup newcomers should boost Nigeria’s chances considerably in the Far East.

Kanu aside, Onigbinde could be spoiled for riches upfront, where the acrobatic Aghahowa, who celebrates each goal with backflips, has been Nigeria’s most potent weapon in the last couple of years.

There’s also Paris St. Germain’s sensation Bartholomew Ogbeche, a powerful forward with a delicate touch who, to former coach Amodu’s woe, was omitted from the Nations Cup squad, and teenage marksman Femi Opabunmi, the Golden Boot winner at the last Under-17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago.

And in terms of pure pace alone, the African representatives may be able to call on one of the fastest players in soccer in young Ajax Amsterdam winger Pius Ikedia. The little speed merchant follows in the footsteps of other great Nigerian wingers at Ajax, namely Finidi George and Tijani Babangida.

At any rate, a deep and talented squad is not the only advantage the Eagles could have over some of their Group F opponents in the Far East. Their familiarity to the hot and humid weather expected during the finals is another.

Nigeria could also have a psychological edge over Argentina in their opener.

The core of Marcelo Bielsa’s high-rated squad — players like skipper Diego Simone, Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, Javier Zanetti and Matias Alymeda were on the team that lost to pretty much the same Eagles side in Atlanta six years ago.

This means that the Africans are unlikely to lose any sleep ahead of their June 2 encounter with the two-time winners on account of Argentina’s lofty reputation.

In their first meeting, at USA ’94, Argentina, led by Diego Maradona, eked out a 2-1 victory after falling a goal behind. After the game, Maradona tested positive for banned substances and was thrown out of the World Cup.

Yet even while capable of beating the best on any day with their fast, skillful and incisive game, Nigeria’s notorious Jekyll and Hyde personality has sometimes been their undoing in major tournaments.

They have at times proven incapable of stringing together two good performances and can be lackadaisical and prone to monumental mental lapses on their worst days.

Still, given the Africans’ impressive World Cup record — which includes victories over Spain, Bulgaria, Greece and the narrowest of defeats to Italy — Argentina, Sweden and England can only underrate the Super Eagles at their own peril.

(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist or finalists. The teams profiles to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Turkey, the United States, South Korea, Portugal and Poland.)

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