South Africa 2010 will be Nigeria’s fourth World Cup appearance. They made their debut in 1994 in the USA, where they reached the second round by playing an attractive attacking style of football. They were only seconds away from the ’94 quarter-final before Italy clawed back to beat the Super Eagles 2-1. Four years later, they also got to the second round only to be thrashed 4-1 by a much organized Danish team. Nigeria disappointed at the 2002 finals in Korea and Japan as they crashed out in the group stage. Altogether, the continent’s most populous nation looks likely to be a dangerous dark horse with little to lose up against the world’s best.
Despite qualifying the Super Eagles for another FIFA World Cup, Shaibu Amodu was demoted after the team finished third at the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. He was replaced by former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback at the end of February. The 61-year-old led Sweden for over a decade – part of the time as co-manager with Tommy Soderberg – and took the side to the knockout rounds at Korea/Japan 2002 as well as Germany 2006. His teams also qualified for three consecutive European Championships. The Swede resigned after failing to take his own national team to South Africa, his first qualification failure at both continental and global level since taking the job in 2000. A steady rather than spectacular pair of hands, the affable European may just be what a fractious Nigerian team needs as it prepares for a first World Cup on African soil.
A surprising scoreless draw in their first match in the final round of CAF qualifying to Mozambique left Nigeria playing catch-up to Tunisia from the start, and consecutive draws with the Carthage Eagles had the West Africans staring elimination in the face. However, Tunisia lost 1-0 in Mozambique and Nigeria came from a goal behind twice to win 3-2 in Kenya. Striker Obafemi Martins was the hero of the day, coming on at half-time before scoring the first equalizer on the hour mark and the winner just nine minutes from time. The goal stamped Nigeria’s ticket to the next World Cup.
Attacking play has been the trademark of Nigerian football. The team is blessed with several top-rate strikers such as Yakubu (Everton), Obafemi Martins (Wolfsburg), Osaze Odemwingie (Locomotiv Moscow), Victor Obinna (Malaga), Chinedu Obasi (Hoffenheim) and Ikechukwu Uche (Real Zaragoza). They won’t be a soft touch behind that either, with Jon Obi Mikel anchoring the midfield. The defense, and more specifically the heart of the back line, has proved to be the Achilles’ heel of this team. The coaches have yet to find a fine combination in the middle of the back four. Everton’s Joseph Yobo has played alongside Danny Shittu, Dele Adeleye and Obinna Nwaneri, but there is no ideal pairing in sight yet. They have also struggled to play as a team and, as a result, have often relied heavily on individual brilliance to get by.
Group B will prove a tough test for Nigeria, facing off against familiar rivals and favorites to win the group, Argentina. Nigeria has explosive speed in attack, a sound midfield and a decent backline. South Korea and Greece will be tough tests for Nigeria but their blistering pace in attack will prove strong enough to get by both teams. The key to success for Nigeria will be the anchor in the midfield, Jon Obi Mikel. If he performs, Nigeria will perform. With that being said, I don’t believe Nigeria will get past the 2nd round.
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