James I. Mogbo
Being a soccer lover, patriotism towards the national team always flows naturally in me whenever they are participating in any major competition. Since Nigeria qualified for the 2018 World Cup, as the competition drew nearer, I cannot remember how many times I asked my children; when again is the world cup starting? And they will always answer, Daddy, June 14. When is Nigeria’s first match? Daddy, June 16th, against Croatia! After the last time I asked and resolved never to ask again, I suddenly started reflecting on a very crucial question on which my ability to enjoy the world cup depends so much, and that is if Nigeria had a team that would last the distance into the world cup, so that I will have the urge to continue to watch. And that is one nagging question which, try as I could to have the answer end in the positive, it always ended in the negative. How prepared are the Super Eagles for this world cup? My answer to myself has always been: not prepared.
Penultimate Monday morning, I had to stop by at DHL on my way to work, to make some inquiries. I was already done and about to enter my car when I saw a man pass who was wearing one of these beautiful and trendy Super Eagles t-shirts (their jersey look-alike) which was produced in commercial quantity by the Super Eagles official world cup kit designer for interested fans all over the world to buy, wear and advertise the national team either in Russia or world-over during the championship(s). These t-shirts have sold out everywhere, in Nigeria, UK, Europe, Canada. I have a close relation in Dallas, USA, who bought for my children, saying he was only just able to make the buy before it all sold out. I pondered over the current craze and scramble for the t-shirts as the man passed and the security personnel hailed him, “up super eagles”, “up Nigeria” and he waved back to them in concurrence.
I looked at the security personnel and told them as calmly as I could, “t-shirts don’t win world cup matches, goals do, and your team didn’t even score much in their warm up friendly matches. Is that how they are going to go far in the world cup? You people will be shocked when the Super Eagles will be booted out in the first round” Was I being unpatriotic? Maybe, but I was actually just being a realist. I really do hope I will be proved wrong.
As I entered my car, it dawned on me that I had just voiced out a statement which underscores my apparent lack of enthusiasm in our team’s participation in this particular Mundial. I didn’t realise how long I sat in the car, reflecting on what I have just said. As I pulled out of the parking lot, one of the security men stepped close to my car window and whispered, “keep faith oga, they will do well, they will try their best”. In amusement, I answered him, okay…o…o. We will see. Just mark this date and you will remember I told you this, when it happens.
On the way to the office, I continued wondering why our citizens are so enthusiastic about a team I watched a few of their warm-up matches and didn’t see much to jubilate about. If I recall correctly, they played five warm-up matches with DR Congo, Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia and England, and they only won one, drew one and lost three with their lackadaisical approach, in an over-all lack-lustre performance which didn’t depict the team as one that realises that the entire nation’s expectation of them is to go to Russia and win the world cup and not just participate for the sake of “making up the number of participant nations”. World Cup is war in the soccer pitch, not a tea party. Does our team realise this? Being patriotic, therefore, didn’t becloud my mind to ignore the nagging question about the team’s lack of preparedness and determination to prosecute this “war”. So much for preambles.
Do we have a capable team, a team which by their composition and the quality of players is capable of performing well, if they can develop the right spirit? Yes, we definitely have. what is lacking is sheer determination and the will to rise above ordinary performance and attain the required level of hunger and yearning to win laurels. Casting my mind back to 1994, after the Tunisia ‘94 African Cup of Nations, the renowned world undisputed soccer legend, Arantes Do Nascimento, ‘Pele’ predicted that the Nigerian team would be a team to watch, a team to behold during the World Cup that same year. True to his prediction, we went ahead to shock the world in the opening rounds of the tournament with the performances our team posted against our group opponents, but due to lack of concentration and proper focus on the ultimate prize of the tournament, could not advance beyond the first round. It was a big shocker for world soccer pundits as Africa’s biggest hope to snatch the World Cup that year were sent home earlier than expected.
However, in Atlanta 96, a spill-over of that team with some new and younger entrants who also possessed mesmerising skills, caused the stir that the world missed in 1994 by beating Brazil in the semi final en-route a final showdown with Argentina when Nigeria won the 1996 Olympic soccer gold and cup. Since then, Nigeria has participated in a good number of times in the World Cup without much to show for it. The question must, therefore, be asked, are we not tired of participating in the World Cup just for the sake of it? Can we not, for once, be determined this time that we are going to the World Cup to strive to win it. Why can’t we take this World Cup as a do-or-die affair (to borrow that age-long cliché)? Several years after Atlanta ‘96 and winning some FIFA Global Youth Championships, Nigeria cannot be content anymore with participating in the World Cup just for the sake of it. Back to the question if we have quality players in our present team as composed, of course, yes.
Of the twenty four or so members of our world cup squad, one can count as many as twelve of them who have been around for a while plying their trade in the Premier League in the UK, and the Serie A league of other parts of Europe, and I therefore cannot understand why they cannot rise up to the occasion and make the country proud. After all, the captain, John Mikel Obi, was a discovery in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup of 2005 in the Netherlands, just like Lionel Messi whose Argentina went ahead to win the Gold while Nigeria took Silver. Following his wonderful performance, I recall Jose Mourinho describing John Mikel Obi’s qualities as ‘pure gold’ and do remember vividly that thereafter, he fought assiduously to ensure that Mikel Obi did not sign for any other club but Chelsea. But while Lionel Messi went ahead to develop into a five-time number one, Mikel who was originally an attacking midfielder has not grown beyond his role at Chelsea.
He hasn’t even won African Player of the Year for once. Likewise, Kelechi Iheanacho was a very hot commodity at the 2013 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in the UAE and thereafter was grabbed into the Manchester City Youth club where he honed his skills before debuting for the senior team.
Mogbo writes from Lagos