WHEN Nigeria qualified for the World Cup, for the first time in 1994, it was in the midst of the crisis that attended the June 12 presidential election of the previous year. Street protests were building up; the country was torn in shreds along belief and unbelief.
The only thing that appeared intact was the Nigerian team that harboured players across the various divides that were contending for power. The picture is slightly distorted 20 years after.
The crisis in the North East might not be of the dimensions of June 12, the protests may be more peaceful, but the contentions for power, maybe positions, are as strong as they were 20 years ago.
Like in 1994, as the Eagles make their fifth World Cup outing in 20 years, they appear to be the unifying factor again. Crowds are taking up their places in viewing centres to cheer the national team, to hold on to the shreds of hope that it could have its best World Cup ever.
Unlike in 1994, viewing centres may be deserted this year. The fear of the unknown has made them places to avoid in Nigeria’s current crisis. Away from the fears of crisis are the trepidations about the chances of the Nigerian team.
They have persisted through the years. A new cloud is called match-fixing; it was unassociated with the Nigerian until now.
Let us stick to the exciting beginning of our World Cup sojourn. Strongman Sani Abacha was in power in 1994. Players as well as officials dreaded the possibilities of annoying him by not doing well.
The 1994 Africa Nations Cup was in the kitty; Abacha’s ambitions grew, though he did not redeem promises he made to the team for winning the Nations Cup. The decent performance in 1994 was against the background of the un-illustrious record of African champions at the World Cup.
Zaire, African champions 40 years ago, took a 9-1 bashing from Yugoslavia at the World Cup in Germany, partially blamed on the Zairean coach being Yugoslav. African champions 1978 (Ghana), 1982 (Ghana), 1986 (Egypt), 1990 (Algeria), did not qualify for the World Cup in those years.
Eagles, the next World Cup-bound African champions since Zaire’s debacle, were minutes away from glory against Italian when the tables turned. Like South Korea’s coach Lee said after his team’s 2-0 loss to Belgium at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, “If not for those two goals, it would have been a draw”.
The circumstances in 1998 were drearier. The Eagles were winging into France when news of Abacha’s death started seeping out of Abuja. The uncertainties were obvious.
A new government that the players did not know was coming to terms with running Nigeria. Days after, Moshood Abiola died; he was a known motivator to the team. He had helped most of the players personally. A celebrated victory over Spain was the highlight of the outing. The Eagles could not beat the second round bogie.
Korea in 2002 marked the beginning of collapsing performances. No game won, signaling the decline that culminated in the team not qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. There was no political crisis, but the Nigeria Football Association threw out the coach who qualified the team.
South Africa 2010 met the Eagles at their worst. They almost did not qualify and two years earlier, they posted their worst Nations Cup record since 1982, when they were ejected in the earlier rounds in Libya. It was little surprise that they did not win any game. The team was in transition.
The Eagles today do not have the cohesion of 1994. They manage to win games. All they need to excel at the World Cup is to win games; few would remember how they played if they bring the trophy home.
A key factor is coach Stephen Okechukwu Keshi whose future is tied to Brazil 2014. His cognomen, Big Boss, says it all. He has won as player and coach in Africa, against odds, particularly as a coach.
His relevance in post-2014 football depends on Brazil 2014. He has generated hope for Nigerian football fans, but these are fans whose appetite for more almost bothers on greed.
Keshi can push his rejuvenation of the Eagles to new heights, if he realises that he is the one to blame if things go wrong. The applauds would be entirely his, if he wins, as we saw at the 2013 Nations Cup.
Nigerians have a right to hope for good results, even the Cup. As they say in Zimbabwe, football is a round object; it could go in any direction.