Thank you Uyo, Super Eagles and the rest

It was a very nervy encounter with the Eagles not even playing really well, but in the end it was Alex Iwobi’s goal that ensued Nigeria would not have to wait until the trip to Algeria to qualify for the World Cup.

Nigeria on Saturday, became the first African country to qualify for the World Cup. Though Egypt followed a day later, we are talking about Nigeria in this piece.

The scenes in Uyo reminded me of Port Harcourt in 2001 when against all odds, Nigeria won 3-0 against Ghana to qualify for the World Cup in 2002.

Against all odds, not because beating the Ghanaian side would have been insurmountable on the day, but because a few match days earlier, it didn’t seem like Nigeria stood a chance of qualifying for the World Cup.

After beating Eritrea 4-0 on aggregate, Nigeria was placed in a group that had Ghana, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Liberia but things were not easy as Bonfrere Jo just could not get his charges to win games.

Nigeria started with a 2-0 home win in Lagos over Sierra Leone, Austin Okocha and Ben Akwuegbu scoring before losing on the road to Liberia 2-1.

Home games were moved to Port Harcourt and a 3-0 home win against Sudan was followed by 0-0 in Accra against Ghana and then a 1-0 loss to Sierra Leone leading to the sack of Bonfrere Jo on April 26, 2001.

Shuaibu Amodu was brought in, assisted by Stephen Keshi and Jo Erico and Nigeria got wins over Liberia in Port Harcourt (2-0), against Sudan in Omdurman (0-4) and against Ghana in Port Harcourt (3-0).

Nigeria had qualified for its 3rd consecutive World Cup and the people of Port Harcourt were to to thank for their support and all.

Move the hands of the clock forward by sixteen years and the Eagles were in Uyo to qualify for their 6th World Cup and it seemed an easier ride.

Nigeria had won the first three games 2-1 against Zambia in Ndola, 3-1 against Algeria in Uyo and then 4-0 against Cameroon in Uyo, giving the Akwa Ibom State capital the sobriquet, “Lucky ground” that Port Harcourt was named some years back.

Forget about the 2-0 loss to South Africa, people still thought Uyo was a lucky ground for the team.

After a draw in Yaounde against Cameroon (1-1) it was a nervy game against Zambia but Nigeria finally made it to the World Cup.

Gernot Rohr

Coach of the side, Gernot Rohr almost messed up his good works with that loss to South Africa in Uyo, destroying a 25 year record against the Bafana Bafana, but like we say in football, “there will always be days like those.”

If he was a Nigerian coach, he may have been sacked by the morning after the game, but I digress.

Against the Zambians he acted like every coach would do, holding up high the mantra, “You do not change a winning team” but it was obvious the Zambians were sleeker, faster and obviously had more energy that the Eagles on the day.

Then again the frailties in our team were out there for all to see- Elderson Echiejile, William Troost Ekong and later on in the game, Mikel Agu. Also the fact that Victor Moses has just refused to be a team player was glaring on the day.

Certainly, some players in the team too should be counting their days but that would be a decision he (Rohr) has to make, and I digress again.

I remember the Rohr signing almost a year ago and the mandate given to him was to qualify for the World Cup before an extension would be discussed.

He is there, but let somebody tell him that he hasn't really done anything special by qualifying for the World Cup- Clemense Westerhof did it in ‘93, Phillipe Troussier in ‘97 and Shuaibu twice in 2001 and 2009 before Stephen Keshi did it in 2013.

The point is that Nigeria have qualified for five World Cups before now and the joy at being in one more would be a fraction of what happens if the country makes it past the 2nd round in Russia next year. Gernot Rohr has a job on his hands. Nigeria need to play in the World Cup quarter finals.

The Mikel Obi and Victor Moses factor

I remember chatting with John Mikel Obi at the departure lounge of the airport in Calabar after that game that ended 2-2 against South Africa, ensuring we did not qualify for the AFCON in 2015.

At that point a lot of Nigerians (I was not one. In fact that was the basis of our talk) believed he was not doing enough for the country when he played and a lot wanted him out of the team for “younger players” who they thought would be “more committed” and bring in more energy.

However, between then and now, Vincent Enyeama left the team and after Ahmed Musa, John Mikel Obi was named substantive captain and his dedication to the cause has known no bounds.

The way he has led the much younger players around him and how he is revered by the rest of the group show he is a great leader.

His commanding presence in the center of midfield also cannot be overemphasized.

Victor Moses was also at some point at the receiving end of the Nigerian stick as it was thought that he feigned injuries to avoid playing for the country, but during the World Cup qualifiers he proved a great asset to the team.

One revelation, though has to be the former Kano Pillars boy, Shehu Abdulahi who seems to have sequestered the Right Back role in the team to himself. Winning the Man of the Match Award in the game against Zambia was just icing on the cake.

The new boys who decided against all odds to play for Nigeria instead of their adopted countries would now be thinking they made the right choices.

Thank you Akwa Ibom

Just like Rivers State in 2002, the story of Nigeria in Russia 2018 cannot be told without mentioning Akwa Ibom State and Uyo.

Yes, the pitch was not in tip top shape, like before the game against South Africa when home side, Akwa United was stopped from playing there to give it a make over.

And even during the game against Zambia the balding and uneven patches of brown were clearly noticeable, but the Godswill Akpabio Stadium seems the best the country has currently for the national team, asides the Abuja National Stadium.

Without hungry fans who patiently cheer you to victory, you will be a stranger in your own home game.

Without the state government lending their support in terms of logistics and other places they took charge, just maybe, the Super Eagles’ adventure in Uyo would have been a monumental failure.

Certainly there were mistakes along the way in terms of over zealous security, crowd control, poor handling of the fans and the media as well as lots others mentioned in another piece, but the Akwa Ibom State government gets a pass mark for hosting the Eagles to success.

The NFF

Amaju Pinnick 
When the current Nigeria Football Federation leadership under Amaju Pinnick got in, sometime in 2014, their first year and some months was a complete disaster.

They failed to qualify for almost every tournament the country went for, biggest of all being the AFCON in 2015 and in 2017.

But Nigerians will now forgive them, the World Cup being the cheery on the cake.

Though a lot of followers of the Nigerian league will voice their displeasure over its neglect by the Federation, Pinnick can beat his chest now and say the decision to cap some “foreign” Nigerians like William Troost Ekong, Alex Iwobi and Leon Balogun is eventually paying off.

Maybe, Pinnick and his board will be able to convince more Nigerians born in diaspora to play for the Super Eagles.

The point of this piece is to share that qualifying for the World Cup was a joint effort by the players, coaches, NFF, people of Uyo, people of Nigeria, the Akwa Ibom State government and the media.

Nigeria will play in another World Cup. That is what the fans want.

Welcome to Russia, but there is still a lot of work to be done.



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