June 20, 2009

Tunisia -Twice Thrashed, Thrice Terrified

By Ikeddy Isiguzo, Chairman, Editorial Board
THE Super Eagles are being asked to work a miracle   in Rades today. It is been awhile since they  performed a wonder, any notable wonder. Over the years with the Eagles unpredictable flights, any victory, any good result has become something to clutch to, waiting for the big one, the waiting continues.



Special memories of Tunisia exist. Any Nigerian who has followed the Eagles World Cup ambitions would remember two of these incidents, both with painful endings.

Until 1970 when Africa was allocated a World Cup spot, the road to qualification was a long journey that commenced with emerging the African champion then engaging in play-offs against a team in Europe. When the single slot came, under the eight-team format of the World Cup, getting Africa’s single ticket entailed the toughest continental encounters with the football bosses in Cairo manipulating the rules as they desired. FIFA’s firm control of the qualifications never existed then.

CAF on its part experimented with some qualification methods including allowing the Africa Cup of Nations champion to be the winner of the ticket for 1974. Zaire’s scandalous results, including the 9-0 loss to Yugoslavia, caused in a change of that format.

Tunisia has been to the World Cup twice at Nigeria’s expense. Twelve years separate those shattering losses, but they are worth recounting as Tunisia stands between the Eagles and another World Cup ticket.
Once Beaten: 1978 World Cup

Under the care of the Yugoslav Father Tiko, Nigeria built its football to continental reckoning with a third place finishing at the 1976 Nations Cup in Ethiopia. Nigeria was therefore a top contender for the 1978 World Cup, with a team that Father Tiko had tuned to excellence, leading to the qualifiers.

The Eagles were in an incredible form. In 1976, they were tipped favourites for a medal at the Olympic Games that Nigeria boycotted in Montreal, Canada. The World Cup was their target, and it was essentially the same team that Father Tiko had prepared for the Olympics with few additions who had earned their wings, that he deployed for the assignment. They almost made it.

Tunis – 25 September 1977 was memorable for Nigeria in that World Cup campaign. The Eagles drew in Tunis against Tunisia in one of the closing games of the round robin World Cup qualifier, setting Nigeria on the road to the World Cup finals in Argentina. A draw at the National Stadium in Surulere would have seen the Eagles through after amassing points from games against Egypt.

Celebration was in the air; the chorus was that Nigeria, at 18, would play at the World Cup. Almost two months separated the Tunis leg from the return tie at the National Stadium, Lagos.

Those two months were wasted in   the wrangling between IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and Rangers International of Enugu over the semi-final of their Africa Cup Winners Cup, possibly the most contentious game ever played in Nigeria. The two teams that supplied the bulk of the membership of the Eagles quarrelled intensely over the rules for their engagement. The biggest issue was which of their players would be released from the Eagles camp for the continental assignment.

Rangers wanted Emmanuel Okala, Eagles choice goalkeeper, Christian Chukwu, Eagles captain, as well as other players released for the game. IICC wanted Segun Odegbami, fearsome Eagles striker, Best Ogedegbe, Eagles reserve keeper and IICC’s first choice, their captain Sam Ojebode and other players for the encounter. IICC were defending the trophy which they won in 1976.

A long drawn debate ensued on this. The NFA wanted to release a minimal number of players to the teams so that the preparations for the World Cup would continue. The practice then was for long camping for the Eagles all of whom were home based.

The number game, for releasing the players did not work. IICC argued that Okala was equivalent to four players and he alone should be released to Rangers, who on their part repeated the same argument for Odegbami. No agreement could be reached. The matter went all the way to Brigadier Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Chief Staff, Supreme Headquarters (today’s equivalent of the Vice President) who settled the rancour.

Yar’Adua posed with Chukwu and Ojebode at the centre of the National Stadium pitch in a last ditch effort to prove to Nigerians that the differences were over, and maybe to get the World Cup preparations on track. The pictures of the beaming faces made the front pages, the next day, in the few newspapers that were around then. It was too late – too much had gone into club for much to be left for country.

Some analysts blame the IICC-Rangers acrimonies for Nigeria’ absence at the 1978 World Cup.

Lagos – 11 November 1977 saw   the National Stadium stretched to its capacity. Every seat was taken. Eagles’ fans wanted to be part of history when Nigeria would earn her first World Cup ticket. Things were going well until Godwin Odiye back headed to Okala who was off his line

The World Cup dreams evaporate with that goal. Odiye’s career was over. He went abroad for further studies. More than two decades after, own goals are still referred to as Odiye, even by those who were not born by the time of this incident that saw a generation of enterprising Nigerian players not making it to the World Cup.

Twice Beaten: 1986 World Cup
Another notable futile attempt   followed the 1977 debacle. On 3 October 1981 Algeria took the ticket from the Eagles at the National Stadium, in another disastrous outing that was unforgettable for the blunders that preceded it.

The Eagles had resoundingly defeated Algeria 3-0 in the 1980 Nations at the National Stadium, but the team that performed that feat had been depleted by retirements. The Eagles trained in (Reykjavik) Iceland and other snowy places in Europe for the game that was played in the heat of Lagos. The Algeria soaked the sun in Togo for months for the game. The NFA refused to listen to protests that the preparations were unsuitable. The 2-1 loss marked a definite dip in the Nigeria’s game, including a remarkably poor defence of the Nations Cup title.

Lagos – 29 June 1985, few would forget Okey Isima’s crackling shot that gave the Eagles a lone goal victory at the National Stadium. Fears about the Eagles chance of making the World Cup grew after the game in which Tunisia dwelt more on containing the host. John Fashanu was to feature for Nigeria’s, but some tardiness with his passport (reminds one of today’s challenges with visas and connecting flights) ensured it never happened. Everyone looked to the return leg with trepidation. Late in 1984, Tunisia trounced the Eagles 5-0 in a friendly in Tunis. The usual thoughtless arrangements were in place, the team arrived late and plunged into a game that psychologically devastated it.

Tunis – 12 July 1985, the leafy   surroundings wrapped up El Manseh Stadium in a way that the late arriving Nigerian supporting party wondered if it was on the right way to the match venue. The packed stadium roared with every Tunisian move. The conditions were chilly, made more so by the fact that Nigeria had no chance in the game. The Tunisians had speed, and used it.

The strategy was to break the stronger side of the Nigerian defence which Yisa Sofoluwe, until then considered unassailable, manned. The Tunisians for the first 20 minutes initiated all their attacks through that flank and wore Sofoluwe out.

Godwin Ekeh handled the other side, notoriously weaker – the Tunisians did not bother with him. After Sofoluwe was spent, the Tunisians had a time of their lives, choosing from where to attack. Their 2-0 victory was a poor testimony to a performance that left Peter Rufai hoarse from calling his players to offer what they did not have.

Rades – 20 July 2009, venue of    today’s defining encounter, with its 80,000 capacity stadium, is a deliberate choice of the Tunisians to muster a vociferous home support against the Eagles, who flew to the precipice at the opening of the critical stages of this campaign with a drawn game in Maputo. Tunisia is clinging to the advantage it earned on opening day with a sterling way victory over Kenya.

Tunisia has a reputation for staging home games only where it expects to exert maximum advantage. Souse, for example is the venue of choice when it wants to confront opponents with the best wintry conditions.

If we are to take the preparations from the perspective of the poorly executed trip to Malta, it is obvious that the programming is badly executed. Some members of the Eagles were still winging their way to Rades by Thursday – the two weeks since the Abuja euphoria were wasted.

The challenge would be for the coach Amodu Shuaibu to make the most of the team. He has done well with certain players in the last three matches. He would be courting disaster if he bows to pressure to change the players that are shaping into a team.

Rades is more important than most people realise. The Eagles must get at least a draw to postpone the verdict to September 5 in Abuja:  77 days away. With a draw in Rades the Eagles must win in Abuja to overtake Tunisia, with one point and hopefully not stumble again.

Amodu is at the most critical moment of his coaching career. Perhaps, if Amodu is able to halt these bad memories of Tunisia and our World Cup attempts, he would have earned the respect of Nigerians who are ever so generous with their compliments.