After their absence from two consecutive Africa Nations Cup in 2015 and 2017, the senior national tem, the Super Eagles this Saturday begin their campaign in the competition with the aim of grabbing the title they have won on three previous occasions.
Their departure to Egypt after what seemed like their sendforth party, the 0-0 friendly match at their new found home in Asaba against Uganda, at the stadium named after one of their own, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, former captain and coach, was without fanfare.
Nigerian football fans who are always excited when the Super Eagles are preparing for such major competitions, appear uninterested this time around, maybe as a result of the team’s outing in recent times, most of which was the painful exit from trhe 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Their fears are not helped by the utterances of the German-born tactician, Gernot Rohr who has repeatedly said the Super Eagles are not the favourites for the title. Before he even picked his final 23-man squad, Rohr kept singing that he had selection headache, even to drop only two players from a list of 25.
So it could be seen why with only five days to the kick off of the biennial football festival, the excitement which goes with fans arguing about the team and how far they would go is lacking everywhere you turn across the country.
However, though the euphoria of their participation may be lacking, it could be a blessing in disguise as the team, from records, usually don’t do too well at competitions any time the citizens expectations from them are too high.
Recall the 1982 edition in Libya when the Super Eagles, still known as Green Eagles then, went as defending champions, after their first ever win on home ground two years earlier. Nigerians had high hopes that the Eagles would return with the trophy, but what happened, an ouster after the first round.
They started well on a high note, winning their first game against Ethiopia 3-0, with two goals from Keshi and the third from Ademola Adeshina. In the second game against Algeria, after Emmanuel Osigwe raised hopes with his strike in the 40th minute, Okey Isima scored an own goal just before half time and the Eagles lost that game 2-1.
The third game brought more pains to Nigerians as the Chipolopolo of Zambia overran the team 3-0, with another own goal, ironically from goalkeeper Peter Fregene who is unfortunately bedridden today and needing urgent medical atthention. Thank God oil magnate, Femi Otedola has offered to foot his medical bills just as he did for Christian Chukwu, another former Eagles player, captain and coach.
Though the Eagles were champions on foreign soil in Tunisia for the first time in Tunisia in 1994, they were unable to defend the title in South Africa in 1996 for political reasons. Nineteen years after the Tunisia feat, the Eagles were again champions on foreign soil, this time in South Africa with Keshi as coach but they couldn’t defend the title as they failed to qualify for the 2015 edition hosted by Equatorial Guinea and the 2017 edition in Gabon.
After a consecutive absence from the AFCON, the Eagles participation has not been greeted with any fanfare from their teeming fans who appear to be adopting the siddon look attitude. This could be the tonic the Mikel Obi-led team need to fly high as no pressure seem to be coming from any quarters.
Again from history, apart from the 1982 experience in Libya where they returned empty handed with a tinge of shame and the 1986 edition incidentally in Egypt which they didn’t attend, the Super Eagles have never been to any AFCON hosted in north Africa and come back without a medal of whatever hue.
At Maroc ’88, the Eagles, then still known with the prefix Green, came back with a silver medal after the controversial 0-1 loss to Cameroon. That was the team that boasted of Rashidi Yekini, Ndubuisi Okosieme, Humphrey Edobor and Samuel Okwaraji who dazzled on his debut for Nigeria.
Two years after Maroc ’88, the Eagles again went to North Africa, this time in Algeria. After losing 1-5 to the host in the opening game, the team still got to the final but lost 0-1 to same Rabah Madjer inspired Algeria.
In 1994 in Tunisia, the Eagles were champions, in 2004 in the same Tunisia, they came back with the bronze and in Egypt again in 2006, they came back with another bronze. Out of the six times the Eagles have attended the AFCON on north African soil, they have come back with a medal five times.
Based on this, however, it would be too premature to write off the team because of the fear of teams like Egypt and Senegal parading UEFA Champions League medalists, Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane respectively. The Eagles could perform the unexpected in Egypt so Nigerian football fans should not despair but keep hope alive.