At the blast of the referee’s final whistle on Saturday, some half-a-dozen Super Eagles players were spotted locked in an embrace with Gernot Rohr, their coach. Afterwards, they grabbed the fragile German, threw him up, and caught him mid-air. Over and over they repeated the process to the adulation of fans at the packed Godswil Akpabio Stadium in Uyo. Everyone in or connected to Nigeria’s football fraternity was delirious, save one man — that man who could have been falling mid-air into the waiting arms of Captain Mikel Obi and co. Paul Le Guen!
HE WHO LAUGHS LAST LAUGHS BEST
In July 2016, Le Guen was offered the Super Eagles job — following the unceremonious exit of Sunday Oliseh, who lasted a little more than six months in the role. Without doing its home work well, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) rushed to announce Le Guen as the new Technical Adviser of the Super Eagles. The Frenchman would astonishingly reject the offer; and to save face, the NFF embarrassingly claimed that its Technical and Development Committee merely “recommended” — not appointed — him. Le Guen didn’t want to live in Nigeria, and he didn’t want to be given the specific target of qualifying for Russia. But all these matter no more! Gernot Rohr accepted the job, accepted the target and in fact added thereafter: “I’m not afraid of failure; if I fail, I pack my bags and I go back to my country.”
Talking about contrasting fortunes, while a Rohr-managed Nigeria is heading to Russia, Le Guen finds himself managing a Turkish Super Liga side only five points adrift of the relegation zone in one of Europe’s football backwaters. A current 10th position for Le Guen’s Bursaspor looks not that worrisome on the surface; but in an 18-team league, that’s a placing only better than that of five non-relegation candidates. And to put it in grim context, six of the nine teams ahead of Bursaspor are Kayerispor, Göztepe S.K., İstanbul Başakşehir F.K., Akhisar Belediyespor, Alanyaspor, Trabzonspor — all lacking or deficient in pedigree outside the south-eastern European country. Hopefully, Amaju Pinnick, the NFF President, will be humble enough in victory by refusing the temptation to text Le Guen; and let’s hope, too, that Le Guen can return that favour by congratulating William Troost-Ekong, his Bursaspor defender who is definitely boarding Nigeria’s plane to Russia.
QUALIFYING WITHOUT A CALCULATOR
Enough of Le Guen; the Frenchman doesn’t even qualify as a footnote in Nigeria’s 2018 World Cup qualification story. The real story is that for the first time in at least two decades, the Super Eagles prosecuted a World Cup qualifying series without turning Nigerians to emergency mathematicians; not for a moment did we need our calculators.
During the France ’98 qualification series, it took only two rounds of matches for Nigerians to begin punching their calculators. Blessed with the core of the ’94 continental title-winning team, and placed in a group comprising lightweights Guinea, Kenya and Burkina Faso, Nigeria was expected to boss the group from start to the end. But after an opening-day victory over Burkina Faso courtesy of a Daniel ‘The Bull’ Amikachi brace, Nigeria laboured to a 1-1 draw with Kenya in Nairobi. Guinea, meanwhile, followed up a 3-1 victory over Kenya in Conakry with a 2-0 away spanking of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou. With six points, two more than Nigeria’s, Guinea looked pretty comfortable atop the group. The Super Eagles’ next game was against the Guineans, so Nigerians grabbed a calculator: we would climb to seven points if we defeated Guinea; if we could win the next away match, beat Kenya at home and avoid defeat in Conakry on the last match day, we were France-bound. Thankfully, Amokachi netted another brace to down the Syli Nationale (National Elephants), and Nigerians dispensed with their calculators. We beat Guinea to the ticket in the end.
A similar scenario played out ahead of the Korea/Japan World Cup. After ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha and Benedict Akwuegbu helped Nigeria to a 2-0 victory over Sierra Leone on the opening day in Lagos, the Super Eagles fell 2-1 to Liberia in Monrovia. At the end of Matchday 3, Nigeria and Liberia were tied on six points. Liberia took solitary control of the group on Matchday 4, beating Sierra Leone by a lone goal while Nigeria could only hold Ghana to a scoreless draw in Accra. Liberia had nine points while Nigeria had seven. Both countries won their next round of matches: Liberia 12 points, Nigeria 10. Like in 1997, Nigeria only gained control of the group after playing Liberia in Lagos, the legendary Kanu Nwankwo and Hansa Rostock striker Victor Agali delivering the goals that nailed the Lone Stars.
Qualification for the 2006 World Cup was a photocopy of the previous two, but this time, we failed to beat the troublesome team when we faced them at home. We won the opening game as usual, courtesy of Obafemi Martins’ second-half brace. But we lost the second match away to Angola. After just two matches, Nigeria was trailing minnows Angola. It was pretty too early but Nigerians were already punching their calculators, because that year, the head-to-head rule took precedence over goals difference. Therefore, we needed to beat Angola by two clear goals on Matchday 8, which we didn’t do. Instead, Jay Jay’s goal was cancelled out by Paulo Figueiredo. Everything else we did — including a 5-1 home drubbing of Rwanda and a 5-2 away mauling of Algeria — counted for nothing. On the final day, our calculators told us we needed Rwanda, playing at home, to avoid defeat against Angola; a draw of any score would have sent Nigeria through. The game looked destined for a goalless draw until Fabrice Alcebiades Maieco, better known as Akwá, broke Nigerian hearts with a goal just 11 minutes from time. Despite mauling Zimbabwe in Abuja and tying with Angola on 21points, Nigeria was ruled out of the Germany 2006 World Cup by the head-to-head rule.
For the 2010 World Cup, Nigeria was behind from Matchday 1, drawing away with Mozambique while Tunisia defeated Kenya in Nairobi. From then on till Matchday 6, we punched calculators. On the final qualification day, we needed to beat Kenya away, and we also needed Mozambique to help us defeat Tunisia in Maputo. Ten minutes to the end of both matches, we were playing a 2-2 draw in Nairobi, while Mozambique and Tunisia were stalemated. If either match ended that way, the World Cup dream was over. After Martins scored nine minutes from time, most Nigerians stopped watching the match and tuned to Mozambique, because a draw in that other match would still have handed Tunisia the ticket. Dário Monteiro eventually scored for Mozambique — and Nigeria — to bring to a happy ending what was arguably Nigeria’s most hypertensive World Cup qualifying campaign ever.
CREDIT TO ROHR BUT MORE WORK NEEDED FOR WORLD CUP
Even in 2013, when we recorded two pretty straightforward victories over Ethiopia in the final round to qualify for the Brazil 2014 World Cup, there were problems in the penultimate group-phase round.
Therefore, credit must go to Rohr for the calmness and clear-headedness with which he has led the Eagles, blending the youth of the likes of Alex Iwobi, Moses Simon, and Kelechi Iheanacho with the experience of the Ogenyi Onazis, Mikel Obis and Ahmed Musas of this world, and ensuring his boys underrated no opponent.
But, as the German himself admitted after booking the Russia ticket, the work has only just begun. If Nigeria must break its World Cup second-round jinx, there are problems to be fixed. First, this team is in a shambles without Mikel and Moses, as we discovered when South Africa thrashed us in an AFCON qualifier in Uyo, in June; should either player sustain an injury before or suspension during the World Cup, we’re unlikely to even scale the group-phase hurdle.
For Mikel, especially, Rohr must find a replacement before Russia. No one should mention Mikel Agu; his place in the team is questionable. The midfield collapsed in Yaounde after he came on to replace the original Mikel; against Zambia, fouls were his only contributions.
Also, Nigeria needs a better striker. Odion Ighalo is inconsistent and wasteful; Kelechi Iheanacho often disappears in games, offering no more than a poacher’s finish when offered game time. Elderson Echiejile is solid at the back, but all his good defence work is undone by poor decision making and bad crossing when bombing forward.
Hope we haven’t forgotten that we still have an unresolved goalkeeping dilemma. Ikechukwu Ezenwa is grossly underconfident, evinced by how passionately he kisses the ball after every simple save; he surely can’t face a Lionel Messi or a Kylian Mbappe at the World Cup. Is Vincent Enyeama returning to the Eagles, as some NFF sources are suggesting? Will Carl Ikeme recover from cancer in time to be back in goal? The questions are far too numerous to be laid down in a single piece. But for now, thank you, Gernot Rohr, for keeping our calculators very far away from us for the entirety of this World Cup campaign!
Soyombo, Editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo