In local football parlance, when a football team constantly thrashes another soccer squad at every given chance, the one on the receiving end is often referred to as the ‘wife’ of the all conquering side. If viewed from this perspective, Nigeria’s senior national soccer team, the Super of Eagles, is without doubt the pere nial soccer ‘wife’ of the Albicelestes of Argentina.
Since the Super Eagles made its debut in the World Cup in USA 1994, the Albicelestes of Argentina have been a constant thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian national team. In USA 94, the Super Eagles enjoyed a rare scintillating debut, whipping Bulgaria 3-0 in a match that saw the late Rashidi Yekini scored the country’s first ever World Cup goal. Not a few Nigerian soccer fans would easily forget gangling Yekini’s famous animated chants after scoring that memorable goal.
It was a most glorious moment in the country’s soccer anal. The whole country resonated in wild in jubilation. At last, the Eagles have landed on the big world stage! So we thought. But then, the Albicelestes of Argentina had other ideas. In our second match against the Argentines, the Super Eagles were quickly brought back to earth as the game was briskly settled in the first 29 minutes.
Ironically, it was the Super Eagles that shot the first salvo with a clinical Samson Siasia 8th minute goal. Not quite long after that, the Diego Maradona inspired Argentine side quickly responded with a Claudio Caniggia 22nd and 29th minute brace. And that ended the contest at Argentina 2, Nigeria 1. Thus began the Super Eagles series of miseries in the hand of the Argentines. At the Japan-Korea 2002 World Cup, the Super Eagles again had the misfortune of squaring it up with their nemesis, the Argentines. Though, the Coach Adegboye Onigbinde tutored side was able to lessen the tally to just a solitary Gabriel Bastituta’s 63rd minute header via a corner kick, the Argentines were actually the better team on the day. But for the resolute Super Eagles defence ably marshaled by Taribo West and Goalkeeper Ike Shorounmu’s countless heroic saves, the result could have been more scandalous.
At the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa, the Super Eagles also had the ill-fated fortune of facing the Argentines. As it was in 2002, the Super Eagles fell to a lone Gabriel Heinze 6th minute goal, crashing out of the championship in the group stage.
As if there is a conspiracy by FIFA to persistently compound Super Eagles’ World Cup woe, the team was once again pitched in same group as the Albicelestes in Brazil 2014. In the ensuing match, the Super Eagles fought gallantly to put up a better show, coming behind twice to hold the Argentines, thanks to an Ahmed Musa brace. But then, as it is often said in football lexicon, form is temporary while class is permanent. The Argentines eventually outclassed the Super Eagles through a classy Lionel Messi’s genius that ended the match 3-2 in favour of the Albicelestes. The latest painful loss of the Super Eagles to Argentina at the ongoing Russia 2018 World Cup makes is the fifth time in 24 years that the South American team would stand in the way of the Super Eagles’ progression at the global soccer championship. Now that broken soccer fans’ hearts are being healed, it is important to dissect the Super Eagles’ 24 years of bashing in the hand of the Argentines.
Looking at the successive World Cup defeats the Super Eagles had suffered in the hand of the Argentines, it is obvious that the gap between the two teams is not really so wide. Rather, what is essentially observable is that the Eagles seem to have so much respect for the Albicelestes. In, at least, three of the encounters, 2010, 2014 and 2002, the Argentines were not really too fantastic against the Eagles and could have been taken to the cleaners if only the latter had a better mental fortitude.
So, the Eagles’ flawed mental resilience is basically an issue in almost all the defeats. In the last defeat especially, the Super Eagles were obviously needlessly awed by Messi and his colleagues. In the first three matches so far played by the Albicelestes in the current World Cup, it is evident that there is really nothing extraordinary about them. The Iceland and Croatia national teams have shown that with the right metal approach, the Albicelestes could easily be
caged. Up till the time it squared up with the Eagles, the Argentines have only managed to score one goal in 180 minutes of football. The team’s defence and midfield were seriously defective. The Croatians noticed this and duly exploited it.
Lack of concentration particularly cost the Eagles dearly in the latest loss as the team was just few minutes away from holding the Argentines. The way the Eagles defence allowed Marco Rojo to sneak in the winner for the Argentines simply reinforces this. In bigger soccer stages such as the World Cup, the stakes are higher and so every second counts. You can’t afford to let off your guard at anytime, not for any reason. If you do, you must be ready to pay dearly for it. As it is often said in soccer, it is not over until it is over. Hopefully, the Eagles and their handlers had learnt this, albeit in a bitter manner.
Also, clumsiness in front of goals especially cost the Eagles greatly in the last match. In crucial matches, like the one we played against Argentina where result is everything, experienced teams take their opportunities because chances are always hard to come by. The Croatian demonstrated this against the Argentines when they punished them with two goals resulting from their goalkeeper’s school boy’s errors. Sadly, the Eagles couldn’t display such decisiveness in front of goal. The manner in which Odion Ighalo and other strikers flopped the few chances that came their way clearly reflects this.
Except there is a remarkable change in their mental attitude when playing against seemingly bigger teams such as Argentina and others, the Super Eagles and, indeed, other African national teams would never be able to either match or surpass the Cameroonians record of qualifying for the quarter final of the World Cup which was set by the Lions in 1990. With the abundance of soccer talents in the country, it is shameful that the Super Eagles and the other four African representatives at the Mundial couldn’t make it to the second round of the ongoing World Cup.
Hopefully, our soccer administrators and the Super Eagles’ handlers would do the needful so the team could leverage on this painful experience to become much better in future competitions.
Ogunbiyi writes from Lagos