Some insights into Nigeria’s poor World Cup campaign

World Cup 2018 By: Lolade Adewuyi | 02/07/2018

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Everything was put in place for the Super Eagles to excel at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. Gone was the acrimony of the past that meant players would stay away from training in order to protest the payment of their appearance fees by the Nigeria Football Federation. This year, everything had been concluded on time, from the allocation of qualification funds to bonuses.

The Super Eagles also had a seamless lead up to the competition where they camped in a quiet Austrian village, the same place where the Austrian national team was camped for its friendly matches. The players spoke about having the best of facilities and a cordial atmosphere to prepare for the World Cup.

They went to the World Cup as one of the most popular teams due to the global interest in their hit new Nike kits. They flew to Russia in a natty white dress with green embroideries that made lifestyle magazine Vogue declare them the fashion winners of the World Cup.

Yet, when it came to delivering on the field, the Super Eagles just did not have enough to push them over the line in a Group D that included Croatia, Argentina and Iceland. The World Cup is no child’s play and teams are punished for small mistakes at this level. It was no surprise that despite being a well-drilled side, Nigeria, and the other African teams, failed on the big stage.

The quality of African opposition

Nigeria’s failure to qualify from the group stages, like the other African teams, needs to be couched in the bigger context of the poor state of African football. Nigeria waltzed through their qualification campaign by defeating Zambia (home and away), African champions Cameroon (a win and a draw) and Algeria (a win and a boardroom defeat). The seeming ease of the qualifying run handed false confidence to the entire country that they had a team ready to take on the world. Alas, this team that had failed to qualify for the last two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments did not have it in them. Was it due to the low-quality opposition that they faced? Is this a general malaise of African football? None of the African teams pulled through to the knock out stage, it means a lot needs to improve on the continent.

Lack of scorers

At the last three World Cups, Nigeria have scored three goals each. Apart from Brazil 2014 where it was enough to see them through to the Round of 16, they have failed to qualify from the group twice with that poor number. Nigeria have struggled to find consistent scorers for a long time. Despite getting some good numbers during the qualification process, the World Cup has shown that the quality of marksmanship we have at the moment is not good enough. We did create some good chances in the second half against Argentina but failed to convert them. You cannot be on the big stage and not make use of your scoring opportunities, and we were duly punished for it. Are we on the verge of unearthing top striking talent? There is no major talent on the horizon that looks to fill that gaping hole.

The dearth of creative play

Nigeria did not have a creative midfielder to work the middle and free up the attackers during their short-lived World Cup campaign. While Mikel had done that to some effect during the qualifiers, he was found wanting when they came up against Croatia in Kaliningrad. The change of personnel against Iceland meant that Oghenekaro Etebo moved forward as Mikel returned to the defensive position. Still, the team lacked that player that could move around with the ball and pick out the runs of his forwards with ease. For all of Etebo’s successful dribbles, he was unable to create the kind of top passes to trouble the opposing defence.

The lack of the 12th man

Though Nigerians claim they love football, when it comes to supporting the national team in large number at major tournaments they fall short. Nigerians were highly outnumbered at all the games played in Russia which made the Super Eagles matches look like away games. For what it’s worth, Nigerians have failed to back their passion with travelling to support the team. One can put it down to the poor economic conditions at home that has denied many people the financial security to be able to undertake these expensive trips to the World Cup.  The FIFA rule that banned drum and wind instruments inside the stadium also meant that the small band of supporters were unable to create the atmosphere that Nigerian fans are used to. Perhaps it is time to rethink our supporter style.

Gernot Rohr’s decision making

While the game against Argentina rolled into its final 10 minutes, Rohr watched from the sideline as the Argentina coach made his attacking changes. Yet, he did not try to hold out for a draw by bringing on some defensive cover. He was caught out by the late goal of Marcos Rojo before the frantic deployment of Alex Iwobi and Simeon Nwankwo. That decision is one he will live with and it could cost him his job. Rohr had become adept at making great second half decisions but failed when it was really needed. However, praise must go to him for ensuring that Nigeria played a more disciplined game during this competition. One hopes he gets the chance to make the needed corrections as the AFCON qualifiers re-start in September.