By John Egbokhan
2015 was a bonfire of celebrations for Nigerian football following Eaglets victory at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile and the Under-23’s triumph at the AFCON U-23 Championship in Senegal but 2016 will present daunting challenges to the Super Eagles, who have a mountain to climb to qualify for the 2017 AFCON in Gabon and FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The year that just finished witnessed a medley of victories for the Eaglets, who won an unprecedented fifth world title in Chile and the U-23 nicking of a Rio 2016 ticket as well as claiming the African title, at the expense of Algeria.
Besides, the country’s home-based Eagles also qualified for the CHAN tournament, holding this month in Rwanda while on the home front, the Nigerian league witnessed a big boom and clear departure from the inglorious past, with Enyimba winning a record seventh title, ending Kano Pillars’ three-year unfettered reign as Nigerian champions.
In retrospect, 2015 was a very good year for the Nigeria Football Federation, given the scorecards of the junior sides in continental and global scenes. For the Amaju Pinnick-led Executive Committee, the year that just finished yesterday was a successful one by any stretch of the imagination. It called for celebrations, with the clinking of glasses after the popping of the champagne.
But before another sip of the expensive wine, 2016 has come and with it the seeming daunting challenges that the Super Eagles will have to navigate in their bid to qualify for the African Cup of Nations in 2017 and the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
If truth be told, the NFF will be judged by the results and performances of the Eagles, not the giant strides made by the junior teams. Previous NFF boards were ousted based on the failure of the Eagles or the perceived politicking inherent in the team. It is with this in mind that the NFF must know that whatever successes the junior sides achieved in 2015 would count for nothing to Nigerians, if the Eagles fail to fly in the AFCON and World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Gabon will host Africa’s flagship tournament next January and the battle for qualifying places will hot up in March when the matches resume.
Only the first-placed team in each group get to qualify for the tournament and the case is peculiarly tricky for the Eagles, who are locked in a two-horse race with record title holders, Egypt for the lone qualifying ticket to Gabon 2017.
Egypt currently top the group with six points from two games, two points more than Nigeria. The Group G pacesetters also have a massive five- goal advantage over Eagles, who have it all to do if they must upstage the Pharaohs from the summit of the table. A picture of which direction the ticket will head to will be clearer on March 23 when the Eagles host the Pharaohs in Nigeria.
Coach Sunday Oliseh will not have a better opportunity to secure pole position when Egypt come visiting. An Eagles win would catapult them to the top, albeit momentarily until the reverse fixture holds four days later in Egypt. If the results over the two legs go in Nigeria’s favour, then Eagles can start counting their chicks until they are hatched by mother hen.
But the road to Congo 2017 is not paved with gold stones as Eagles still have to travel to face Chad on June 3, where only an away win will keep their qualification hopes alive. But they must watch it against the Chadians, who will be bidding to spoil the fun of the travelling Nigerians.
If Eagles survive the scare in Chad and return with a victory, then they may as well secure their passage to Gabon 2017 if they defeat Tanzania in the final match of the group on September 3 in Nigeria.
But should the Eagles buckle under the weight of these seeming daunting challenges and fail to qualify to a second successive AFCON finals next year, then Oliseh and the NFF may as well start preparing to face the wrath of an impatient and expectant home fans, who will demand a Russia 2018 World Cup ticket as the atonement for the failed AFCON bid. And Eagles chances of progressing to the Mundial are by no means easier as they may likely face tougher teams when CAF makes the draw for the final round of qualifying.
This came to the fore last year when after Eagles scaled the hurdle of Swaziland over two legs. The Coach Sunday Oliseh-trained side could well draw bitter rivals Ghana and Cameroon in the group phase should the FIFA rankings be used by CAF to seed teams.
As things stand, Nigeria are 59th ranked team in the world and on this count, they will fall in pot 3 of seeds along with Egypt (57), Mali (63), Uganda (68) and Zambia (71).
Pot 1 will have the continent’s top teams Cote d’Ivoire (22), Algeria (26), Ghana (30), Cape Verde (32) and Senegal (39). Pot 2 will comprise Tunisia (41), Cameroon (51), Congo Brazzaville (52), Guinea (53) and DR Congo (55).
The last pot of 20 qualifiers could then be Gabon (73), South Africa (75), Morocco (79), Burkina Faso (93) and Libya (113). A team from each pot will be picked out to form a qualifying group of five teams with the overall winners advancing to the World Cup in Russia.
And in an attempt to avert the looming dangers, the Nigeria Football Federation has been shopping for top grade friendly matches for the team to enhance the rebuilding process of Oliseh and shore up the Eagles low ranking on the FIFA rankings.
According to the President of the NFF, Amaju Pinnick, all efforts will be geared towards helping the team to succeed.
He said the Super Eagles brand are the biggest property of the body and it was incumbent on the body to ensure they success.
“We understand the coaching crew is working hard in the rebuilding process as well as getting the desired results but we must help them by complementing their efforts with top grade friendlies like what we had against Cameroon and DR Congo,” said the NFF supremo.
In reality, Eagles have found it difficult to grind out results when playing away from home, a situation that worries Nigerians.
The team played a barren away draw against Tanzania in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier on September 5 and repeated another goalless draw in Swaziland in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
Another board member who spoke on condition of anonymity said “with our critical situation in the AFCON qualifiers, we must not lose our two remaining away games to Egypt and Chad because we have been struggling to win away. We must secure victories in away games to enhance our chances of qualifying for these two tournaments.”
He was however hopeful that the team would be stronger and in better shape before the next set of AFCON qualifiers in March.
“Our double header against Egypt in March will be very crucial to the Eagles. Also, the group stage qualifiers of the World Cup would be tougher considering the fact that the best 20 teams in Africa would be participating, so we must brace up for tougher challenges,” he said.