By Tony Uban, in South Africa
Finally, the die is cast. For Nigeria and indeed Argentina, the World Cup begins today as the two countries go for each otherâ€™s jugular in a Group B opener inside the magnificent Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg. The match has all the trappings of a classic, given the rivalry that exists between the two countries; a rivalry that dates back to the USA â€˜94 World Cup.
In 1994, a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina recorded a 2-1 victory over a compact Nigerian team that never looked inferior in skill and technique, except in experience. Nigeria lost 1-0 again in Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup.
Today, Maradona will be leading his countrymen from the bench. He is expected to replicate what he achieved as a player by winning the World Cup.
The once petit but now robust coach boasts of some of the best collection of players on earth including current Worldâ€™s best footballer, Lionel Messi whose young shoulders carry the weighty hope of a whole nation. Equally in the Argentine line up are other world class strikers like Diego Milito, Aguero, Higuain, Tevez among others
Nigeria on her part is in the 2010 World Cup to make a statement. Coach Lars Lagerback has never hidden his desire to be the miracle worker. Leading a largely young, inexperienced squad that he first came in contact with barely three weeks ago, Lagerback is already exuding confidence and surefootedness.
After the Eaglesâ€™ 3-1 victory over North Korea in their last warm up match in South Africa, Lagerback boasted that he had known his first X1 to face Argentina. He was so impressed with the score line that he told Nigerians not to fret over todayâ€™s encounter as he had designed a way out of what looks like a suicide mission.
Lagerbackâ€™s boasts are borne out of the abundant talent at his disposal, despite the teamâ€™s share of injuries that have seen the likes of John Obi Mikel, Ikechukwu Uche, Onyekachi Apam and Victor Anichebe drop out of the team.
The Swede will bank on the athleticism of goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and the ruggedness of Danny Shittu who has sworn to stop the smallish Argentine terror, Messi and his fellow travellers.
If one could read Lagerbackâ€™s mind, then it becomes clear that Taye Taiwo, Chidi Odiah, Danny Shittu and vice captain, Yobo Joseph will form the impregnable wall the Argentines will have to break down to access Enyeamaâ€™s post.
Suddenly, the exploits of youthful Monaco of France playmaker, Haruna Lukman so far have become noticeable.
If Lukman could control his temper, concentrate on the ball and avoid undue adventure and work for the team, one doubts if Mikel Obi would be sorely missed in the midfield. Uche Kalu and Sani Kaita will complement Lukman in the middle, pushing Osaze Odemwingie to work slightly behind Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Obinna Nsofor.
The duo have hit an understandingÂ Â that could turn out to be vital in Nigeriaâ€™s campaign in South Africa. Obafemi Martinsâ€™ hunger for action was evident in the last friendly against North Korea.
He too could be called to duty. Lagerback may even start with FC Hoffeinham forward, Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi who was one of those that faced Messi and some of his team mates at both the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Maradonaâ€™s short coaching career, so far, has not been a pleasant experience. Back in his native land, many are not expecting him to win the trophy as a coach. The team have not been a perfect blend that reflects the calibre of players they are made up of. Argentina virtually struggled to qualify for South Africa 2010.
The famous Argentinaâ€™s invincibility has been gravely demystified under the tutelage of Maradona. But that is not to dismiss the Argies with a wave of hand.
The few weeks they have spent in camp have turned things around for the South American giants. A string of victories in recent friendly matches which include a 1-0 victory over Germany is a pointer to the fact that the two-time world champions still possess their sting.
With the expected massive support from the large contingent of supporters behind the Nigerians, Lagerbackâ€™s experience in coaching and his knowledge of the Argies could work against Maradona and his men and the world could be out for the first major upset of the 2010 World Cup.