By Ed Dove
While the history books will forever record that Nigeria recorded an emphatic 6-1 victory over Tahiti to open their Confederations Cup campaign, that simple stat will never tell the story of a fascinating and engrossing contest. The reality is that the Super Eagles were wholly unimpressive yet never looked like losing a match that probably has no place at a major international competition.
Sometimes it is easy to tell the story of a game of sport; the clichés are all to hand, and the actors play their parts according to the script.
Last night was not one of those occasions, and it left me unsure of how best to recall the narrative of a unique encounter. This contest was the rare occasion of a match that roundly delivered all that had been expected of it, but at the same time, provided a myriad of surprises and unforeseen dynamics that combined to make it a delightful 90 minutes of action.
I begin with the predictable. All those who previewed the contest envisaged a resounding Nigeria victory. The African champions are, after all, in 28th place in the FIFA World Rankings, 110 spots ahead of their opponents on Monday night.
Indeed, within half an hour, the game was over as a contest. The unfortunate Vallar put the ball past his own keeper on the five minute mark, before Nnamdi Oduamadi scored a brace to put the Super Eagles in a position of resounding dominance.
That Tahiti’s defence were regularly bewildered in the face of Nigeria’s offensive was surely no surprise either. Time and time again the backline of amateur players was overrun and overturned by a litany of Super Eagle forwards.
This game, however, will surely be remembered for the unexpected, for the narrative twists that few could have envisaged.
Who could have foreseen, for example, that the nominally neutral but abrasively partisan crowd would get behind Tahiti so forcefully? The islanders’ every touch was greeted with a cacophony of elation, while their goal was feted as though Neymar himself had bagged it.
Nigeria, by contrast, were booed out of the building, and were treated as though Argentina had turned up at Belo Horizonte and were throwing their weight around against much weaker opposition.
The enormous ovation for Tahiti and the visceral distain of the Super Eagles naturally had an effect on Stephen Keshi’s young squad. The likes of Kenny Omeruo looked uncharacteristically tense at times, while his teammates appeared to visibly wilt in the face of the animosity towards them.
They also looked like they were caught unawares by the competency and composure of Tahiti’s attackers. Time and time again the veteran Marama Vahirua, making his debut for the side, offered a probing menace in the middle of the park.
Similarly, they minnows offered an abrasive threat down the left flank. The exquisitely named Steevy Chong Hue was a persistent challenge for Omeruo and Efe Ambrose, and frequently troubled the Naija backline by using good, old-fashioned speed and direct running.
The fans loved it, buying into the ‘underdog’ narrative completely, and contributing to the disarray painfully evident within Nigeria’s ranks.
The eleven on the field were clearly shattered by Tahiti’s goal, which came on 54 minutes. A routine corner wasn’t dealt with by the Naija backline, and Johnny Tehau rose above Ambrose to head past the unknowing Vincent Enyeama.
The finish certainly wasn’t in the script, and the Super Eagles were acutely aware of the inevitable humiliation and embarrassment that was due to come in their direction.
It is to their credit, therefore, that after a sustained period of malaise they managed to pick up the pace once more, rediscover a fluidity to their passing, and resume their terrorising of the underprepared Tahitians.
The 43 minutes or so of playing time that separated Nigeria’s third and their fourth were certainly desperate for Keshi and his team—incidentally, I have never seen a backroom staff looking so glum while 3-1 up at a major international tournament—but the Super Eagle’s final flurry could prove to be invaluable.
In the final 20 minutes or so they found the net a further three times. The erstwhile hero Tehau put past his own keeper, before Oduamadi and the impressive Elderson Echiejile completed the rout.
While the subsequent headlines have focused on Tahiti’s unlikely rally, and Nigeria’s uninspiring showing, I believe there is reason for optimism amidst the rubble of the triumph.
Bearing in mind the youthful XI, the squad’s well-documented injuries, the partisan crowd and the bonuses row that dominated the team’s pre-tournament preparation, a 6-1 scoreline isn’t too shabby. Indeed, the squad showed character to overcome their malaise and temporary lack of composure, and they are unlikely to forget that final convincing assault on the Tahitian goal.
I imagine this young squad will be stronger for the hardship and the unlikely misfortune that has riddled their post-Cup of Nations progression. With Spain and Uruguay to come, things may get worse before they get better, but look for a renewed mental solidity and a deeper conviction within the Super Eagles squad following the dramatic narrative of a thoroughly memorable encounter.
Ed Dove writes from Belo Horizonte , Brazil and can be followed @Eddydove