By Patrick Omorodion
Twice the CarthageÂ Eagles of TunisiaÂ have denied the Super Eagles a berth in the World Cup, first in 1977 and again in 1985. In 1977, after a draw in Tunis, the Eagles just needed a 1-0 win at the National Stadium in Lagos, but an own goal off Godwin Odiyeâ€™s header ended that dream of appearing at the World Cup hosted by Argentina in 1978.
Seven years after, the same scenario repeated itself, the first leg was in Tunis and the return leg was in Lagos. The Tunisians managed a slim 1-0 win and the Eagles hoped for a better second leg in Lagos.
Before noon fans had started trooping to the stadium to secure vantage positions to see how the Eagles were going to crush the Tunisian side and make their first appearance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Again the dream was scuttled by a 0-2 home loss that shocked Nigerians who were watching itÂ live at the stadium or watching on television.
After those two sad episodes, both sides never came across each other on the same road to the World Cup, including the 1990 edition in Italy which Cameroonâ€™s Indomitable Lions stopped the Eagles from going.
The 1990 loss may have been caused by the transition from Paul Hamilton to Dutchman Clemens Westerhof, who was just introduced into the coaching crew, albeit too late into the qualifiers.
From the pieces of the 1990 loss, Westerhof built a team which became the envy of all in the continent and beyond, winning the Africa Nations Cup on an away soil in Tunisia in 1994, after near misses in 1990 and 1992 in Algeria and Senegal respectively.
For the first time in the history of Nigeriaâ€™s football, the Eagles qualified for the World Cup in the United States in 1994 and astounded the worldÂ with their sassy display of soccer artistry.
Westerhof left after that triumphant appearance at the World Cup but the foundation he laid enabled the Eagles to qualify for the 1998 edition held in France. The performance this time was not as glorious as in 1994 even though they still made it to the second round.
May be because of the two consecutive appearances, the team as well as the managers of the countryâ€™s football took it for granted that the Eagles would pick the 2002 ticket on a platter of gold. Qualification became hellish as another Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere was given the boot to allow Shaibu Amodu, Stephen Keshi and Joe Erico pilot the team to Korea/Japan 2002.
The trio were like Moses who took the Israelites out of Egypt but did not see the Promised Land. They got cut in bureaucratic squabbles and were booted out for a caretaker coach, Chief Adegboye Onigbinde to continue from where they stopped. Nothing good came out of the attempt as the Eagles failed to proceed after the first round.
The decline continued and in an attempt to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it, the top shots of the Sports Ministry in 2006 did not co-operate with the NFA under Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima and helped scuttle the World Cup campaign in order to get rid of the Kano-born administrator they perceived as â€˜stubbornâ€™ and would not allow them dip their hands into the NFA till.
After the Galadima board was sent packing, those who took over seem not to have answers to the very problem they accused Galadima of. The Eagles fumbled at the Ghana 2008 Africa Nations Cup and the so-called â€˜world classâ€™ coach the federations â€˜wiseâ€™ men contracted to tinker the Eagles, Berti Vogts, threw in the towel when pressure mounted on him.
The 2010 World Cup campaign with a local coach, Shaibu Amodu began on a winning note and the NFF officials shouted eureka, that they are beginning to get it right. Football faithful in the country were not deceived by this thought as they warned that the victories recorded were against weaklings, that the second stanza would be difficult.
These patriotic Nigerians were labeled â€˜jestersâ€™ and â€˜mischief makersâ€™ but their fears are beginning to come to light as after only the first game against Mozambique in Maputo, Nigerians started their permutation game on how the ticket could be won.
The Federal Government was not comfortable with the performance of the NFF board and subsequently, President Umaru Musa Yarâ€™Adua set up a 12-man Task Force to support the countryâ€™s World Cup campaign.
The Eagles beat the Harambee Stars of Kenya 3-0 in Abuja a fortnight ago but some Nigerians were not convinced the display was good enough to assure that the ticket, still firmly in the hands of the Tunisians, could be retrieved.
They argued that despite the early goal by Ikechukwu Uche, the Eagles lost control of the game to the Kenyans whose undoing was that they lacked the finishing power that could have enabled them embarrass the Eagles right their at the Abuja National Stadium, even with the record turn out of fans.
AsÂ the Eagles battle Tunisia today, the thoughts of 1977 and 1985 have started running through the minds of most Nigerians, who are praying the north Africans do not repeat the sadÂ episodes of those years.
Former coach of the team, Chief Onigbinde believes the Eagles fate depends on coach Amodu and the pattern he decides to play at the Rades stadium where the Tunisians have proved impregnable. The Eagles lost the 2004 Nations Cup semi final to the same team on that pitch and the memories are still fresh.
Another former coach and one time Green Eagles goalkeeper, Joe Erico says it is not going to be a piece of cake for either team because â€œthe Tunisians fear us as we fear them too.â€
He however warned that the coaches should not use the performance against Kenya to judge todayâ€™s game because â€œTunisia play European style of football while the Kenyans play typical African style. If they give the Tunisians the kind of chances the Kenyans got, they will pay for it.â€
Former Vice Chairman of the NFA, Barrister Richard Obienu is not as optimistic as Onigbinde and Erico. He believes the Eagles have not got the character to beat Tunisia and qualify for the World Cup.
â€œI donâ€™t see how this team can beat Tunisia in Tunis. If it happens then it must be a miracle. The Kenyans would have beaten us silly if they had good finishers. As a Nigerian though, I pray they win or at least pull a draw,â€ he said.