Nairobi/Lagos, Nov 28 (DPA) If Nigeria want to make any kind of impact in South Africa, they will have to improve dramatically after a shambolic qualifying campaign.
The Super Eagles floundered in a group where they were favourites to win, drawing three of their matches – two against Tunisia and one against Mozambique.
Their stuttering form meant their fate was out of their hands on the last day of qualification: a victory against Kenya in Nairobi would have meant nothing if Mozambique had not beaten group leaders Tunisia.
Somehow it all came together: a 3-2 victory in Nairobi matched by a surprise 1-0 win for Mozambique sending them through at the expense of the Tunisians.
The laboured performances were a far cry from the heyday of the mid-nineties.
In 1994, the Super Eagles came within a few minutes of qualifying for the quarter finals of the World Cup, denied only by a last-gasp equaliser and extra-time penalty from Italy’s Roberto Baggio.
The same year Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations for the second time, then in 1996 they scooped Olympic Gold at the Atlanta games.
In 1998, Nigeria again reached the last 16 at the World Cup, beating Spain 3-2 in a pulsating match and Bulgaria 1-0 to top the group. However, their defensive frailties were exposed in 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Denmark in the knockout stages.
Since then, the West Africans have declined. They finished bottom of their group in the 2002 finals with one point and then failed to qualify in 2006.
During this period, they finished third in the Africa Cup of Nations three times – in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
There is little optimism in Africa’s most populous nation that their team – a major source of national pride – will repeat past glories.
However, much of the criticism for the poor qualifying campaign was directed at coach Shaibu Amodu, and if the rumours prove correct he will be replaced by a foreign coach, possibly even before January’s Africa Cup of Nations.
With a host of English Premier League players at their disposal – albeit mainly plying their trade at smaller clubs – the Nigerians can call on some decent footballers.
John Obi Mikel, 22, deputised for an injured Michael Essien for much of last season at Chelsea, and while he is not in the same class as the Ghana star he is a capable defensive anchor.
Veteran striker and Nigerian captain Nwankwo Kanu, 33, may play at lowly Portsmouth, but he is still a threat, while Joseph Yobo, 29, and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, 32, (both Everton) and Danny Shittu, 29, (Bolton) are solid professionals.
However, Wolfsburg frontman Obafemi Martins, 25 – a fast, direct and powerful striker with a nose for goal – is most likely to be the team’s star man.
If whoever leads Nigeria to South Africa can marshal these players, the Super Eagles could still prove a force to be reckoned with.
Shaibu Amodu, 51, is in his fourth stint as Nigeria coach, but he may not be in charge next summer. Amodu took over in April 2008 with the mandate of getting Nigeria to the finals, which he did by the skin of his teeth.
The Nigerian Football Federation is now reportedly searching for a foreign coach. It could be an unwelcome case of deja vu for Amodu, who led Nigeria to qualification in 2002 only to be find himself dumped before the finals.
Obafemi Martins, 25, missed a good chunk of Nigeria’s qualifying matches through injury, but he showed his importance by coming off the bench and bagging two goals in the 3-2 victory over Kenya that booked Nigeria’s slot in South Africa.
Martins, a schoolboy sprint champion who has lost none of his speed, has scored 15 goals for Nigeria in 24 games. Now with Wolfsburg, and boasting past stints at Inter Milan and Newcastle, Martins will be hungry to make an impact at his first World Cup finals.
Nickname: Super Eagles
FIFA affiliation: 1960
Highest FIFA ranking: 5 – April 1994
Lowest FIFA ranking: 82 – November 1999
Previous World Cup appearances: 3 (1994, 1998, 2002)
Best World Cup performance: Round of last 16 (1994, 1998)
Date qualified for finals: Nov 14, 2009