After Nigeria’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was sewn up, the most important issue was hearing about the Super Eagles preparation. What friendlies would they be involved in? Where will the pre – World Cup camp be located? Have they settled their World Cup bonuses (only Africans will understand this point)?
However, the news that broke was of an epic fail by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), which mercifully turned out not to be a catastrophe. Nigeria had fielded an ineligible player for the final game of World Cup qualification. Shehu Abdullahi picked up 2 yellow cards in previous matches and should have been suspended for the game against Algeria but he played. Fortunately, the Super Eagles had already qualified with that one game to spare and even though FIFA docked the 3 points from the Super Eagles, it was of no consequence.
In spite of that final summation, heads should roll. How could the NFF be careless with something as crucial as qualifying for the World Cup? Technicalities like this shouldn’t be a problem for the NFF to keep track of especially as this is the second time this is happening in Nigerian football this year alone. The U20 Women World Cup qualification was thrown into a panic earlier in the year when Glory Ogbonna, with the sceptre of a red card hanging over her, featured for the team against Tanzania.
This is a travesty and I hope to see some disciplinary action by the NFF on its technical committee. Having established the above, the Super Eagles are going to Russia, drawn in the same group with Argentina, Iceland and Croatia and these are three suggestions that will ensure we will not botch this trip.
CROATIA: This is the first match Nigeria plays at the 2018 World Cup and is, therefore, the most important. Get 3 points here and Nigeria is well on her way to qualifying for the next round. The Super Eagles have a friendly against Poland in March 2018 and this would best prepare them for the Croats as both countries play almost similar styles. Both teams have traditional strikers that play on the shoulder of the last defender, have a physical presence and are good aerially. There is no real difference between the Croat duo of Juventus point man Mario Mandzukic and Inter’s Ivan Perisic and Bayern’s Polish frontman Robert Lewandowski. The strength of Croatia though is a well-structured and organised midfield that is hard to break down, fluid on the counter-attack and has one of the best active passers of the ball in Real Madrid’s Luka Modric. The Super Eagles will do well not to give space to this maestro to play his game. Croatia does not have the fastest pace so a bit more tempo could take them out of their rhythm. Physicality would be a plus for us but ultimately, it will come down to winning the midfield battle.
ICELAND: Definitely the trickiest of the three matches for us. Iceland doesn’t have a particular style of play, they just make it hard for teams to break them down and hit on the counter. Also, they take advantage of set pieces which means that Nigeria must sort out its vulnerability in this area during their practice sessions for this game. Iceland plays with spirit and is very physical which is how a small country of about 300,000 people had an impressive outing at the Euros and also qualified for the World Cup with an automatic ticket. Again a little pace, especially on the wings would give the Super Eagles an advantage here. The games against Cameroon should have been adequate preparation for Iceland and it is only really tricky because they are a country that if disregarded can hurt you, as England rudely found out last summer.
ARGENTINA: This match may be of no consequence if we win the first two but we have to make a statement and go for results in all our matches. Argentina will be out to get one over us after the 4-2 defeat in Russia in early November. The Argentines have not been in the best of form. They qualified only in their last match after a disappointing qualifying campaign through a heroic effort by Lionel Messi. However, form is a transient thing and they may be on the bounce by June 2018 and the Super Eagles may well be squaring up against a more lethal team. At the last World Cup though, the Super Eagles had already substantially closed the gap between the two teams losing 3-2 after a good performance. I don’t think that there is much to say about this fixture but to copy and paste the second half of the friendly against the South Americans from the Russia friendly.
Critically, the NFF Technical Committee and the coaching crew do not overlook the technical niceties of the game this time and qualify the Super Eagles from this favourable group because this year, the Eagles have a good team and they deserve the opportunity to have a great outing and create lasting memories for country thirsty for football of the highest quality on the grandest of stages.