By Desmond Ovbiagele
Among the (depressingly few) lights that twinkle in the firmament of Nigerian sports, none shone brighter in 2013 than the so-called ‘beautiful game’.
Derided by some (predominantly exasperated members of the opposite sex) as the pointless spectacle of 22 grown men pursuing a round leather object, football has nonetheless provided this nation with by far the most positive headlines amongst the slew of otherwise denigrating reports that have typically covered the affairs of the land over the past 50 weeks. So it definitely deserves its place in the sun.
It all started right at the beginning of the year; at the tournament where we had not triumphed for 19 years, and leading up to which there had been no compelling evidence that our fortunes were destined for a glorious change.
Relatively new coach. Squad comprised of the usual mixture of foreign and home-based professionals (characteristically skewed toward the former), none of whom were particularly setting the world alight at their respective clubs (most of which were decidedly outside the sport’s elite echelon). No exceptional form demonstrated in pre-tournament friendlies played. Under the circumstances, a semi-finals berth would have been rated a noteworthy achievement indeed.
But there seemed to be an inexplicable wind behind the sails of Ship Naija as it cruised somewhat listlessly through the sedate waters of the group stages before arriving at the treacherous rocks that loomed in its path to harbour – the Yaya Toure/Didier Drogba-inspired Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire, the pre-tournament favourites. A loss would be no means have been a disgrace (it was an African Cup of Nations semi final after all); a draw … hey, in the lottery of a penalty shootout, who knew what could happen?
But the enigma that is our senior national football team decided to remind their redoubtable West African neighbours of their pedigree in joga bonito. So from kick-off to final whistle, they attacked their startled opponents with an irrepressible ferocity hitherto missing from their previous matches. The Ivoirians never quite recovered their poise; suddenly, against all expectation, we were in the final!
And suddenly we had transformed from outside title contender to overwhelming favourite — especially against the less illustrious Burkinabes. It was however an expectation that appeared to weigh too heavily on the shoulders of the 11; the enterprise and endeavour that inspired the semi final heroics unfortunately went AWOL in the face of a spirited challenge from the undaunted underdogs. An upset appeared far from an impossibility.
But the moral of Nigeria’s tournament thus far (in view of the semi-final winning strike from home-based Sunday Mba) had been that ‘the stone that was rejected had become the chief cornerstone of the building’. So perhaps it was no surprise that salvation again came by the hand of perennially underestimated home-based talent. Once again the honour fell to Sunday, but the ultimate glory to the nation. All legal petitions to divorce ‘Super” and ‘Eagles’ were instantly dismissed; to the bemusement of the continent — Nigerians included — after almost two decades of wilderness, we were top dog in Africa again!
We basked in the euphoria of this ‘gift’ for several weeks; after all, it honestly was not the logical outcome of any fundamental administrative or technical reforms that had been previously implemented.
But there were other mountains in the soccer landscape to climb, not least of which was the slippery slope of qualification for Brazil 2014 World Cup qualification. And again, we commenced our campaign with a series of indifferent performances at the group level that nonetheless yielded a clutch of wins and draws, seeing us to the top of our table and ensuring progress to the final knock-out stage scheduled for the latter part of the year.
In the interim, the happy hunting ground of the biannual World U-17 tournament was available for ploughing; the arena of multiple past conquests the nation had struggled in vain to replicate at senior level. In contrast to the Nations Cup however, the overall technical quality of our youth team’s play was sumptuous; the avalanche of goals a delight to behold; their ultimate triumph expected, realized, and fully deserved. Once again, Nigeria hogged world media headlines for all the right reasons with their unprecedented fifth triumph at the tournament.
And then back to the last lap of World Cup qualification. Where our unheralded but feisty East African opponents breathed fire and brimstone ahead of the first leg tie in Addis Ababa. And where the bemused African champions somehow managed to extract an unexpected but vital away win through a combination of unglamorous resilience and a hefty slice of good fortune in match officiating. The return leg was touted by all (except the still-defiant Ethiopians) as a mere formality and indeed was proved to be the case as Nigeria, by virtue of the fixtures schedule, received the accolade of the first African country to qualify for Brazil 2014.
With our achievements in virtually every other sport during the year ranging from negligible to non-existent, football carried the pride of the nation on its shoulders and reminded the world (and ourselves) of our formidable potential to challenge for honours in any field of human endeavour, given conducive conditions.
Was 2013 a fluke? Are we going to be brought crashing down to reality in the coming year, especially at the ultimate litmus test in South America where the slightest shortcomings are ruthlessly exploited and substitutes for adequate preparation are contraband?
We are certainly off to a positive start with our relatively favourable group draw a few days ago. Can we capitalize on that and venture into unchartered territory at the highest level?
Only time will tell.