NIGERIA AND THE FIFA WORLD CUP, HOW WE MADE IT THERE… JERRY UDOH

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The FIFA world cup, FIFA’S flagship tournament is the premier football competition on planet earth, it is the Zenith of world football, the apex or climax of the beautiful game, the trophy itself is valued at about $22m.

Some say it is the most glamorous football championship in the world, others say it is the most spectacular single sporting showpiece or spectacle on planet earth, some even believe its football’s Eldorado and it started way back in 1930 (13th July,) in Montevideo, Uruguay.

For Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, (black race’s highest demographic nation) it was indeed a rough road to the copa mundial (as the Latins will call it). Nigeria first entered the race to qualify in 1961, a year after independence in 1960 for the 1962 edition in Chile, drawn alongside Morocco and Sudan ( Africa wasn’t guaranteed an automatic slot then).

The sole African qualifier needed to still go through a playoff as only 16 nations participated then in the Coupe Monde (French version), Morocco topped the log then but still failed to reach Chile. And It became one failed attempt or the other for Nigeria and it began to appear as if the country was jinxed, many said the ancestors were angry and the “god of soccer ” needed to be appeased.

Smaller nations like Zaire (DR Congo) made it in 1974, Tunisia in 1978, Algeria in 1982 and 1986, Morocco in 1986 and more unbearable and intolerable for Nigerians was when Cameroon (our eastern neighbours, not even up to half our population) qualified twice to “Espana 82′ and Italia 90′ becoming Africa’s first quarterfinalist (in Italia 90′) after Morocco’s second round heroics in Mexico 86′

At this point, Nigerians became agitated and questions were asked, who cursed Nigeria? These other nations that have been making it were not better than Nigeria both in terms of talent (human resources), natural endowment or numerical strength, so the message was simple “we must qualify for the world cup no matter what it takes”

After several near misses like the qualifiers for Argentina 78′ (by now Africa was guaranteed an automatic slot since Mexico 70′ which Morocco had qualified, off course Egypt had made it as Africa’s first participant though from the playoff in Italy 34′) a mere draw would have suffice (qualified us) in Lagos as we would have been Africa’s sole qualifier to Argentina, but we blew it all up on the 7th of November 1977, as an uncharacteristic own goal from a famous back pass header from a Tunisian corner by Godwin Odiye nailed us, the velvety commentary guru, Ernest Okonkwo screaming “what a black Saturday, Nigerian score Nigeria.

Then came the October 1981 bitter episode in the last Espana 82′ hurdle against Algeria (a team we had beaten in march 1980 in same venue, Lagos, 3:0 to win our first nations cup on the 22nd of that month), we surprisingly got spanked in the game 2:0 and lost the return leg 2:1 in Annaba, these two were the closest we came to qualifying.

Finally, after several failed attempts the jinxed was broken, the myrth was demystified, we got it right 63 years after the world cup commenced and 32 years after our first attempt, this was in October 1993. Before chronicling the on field performance that got us there, suffice me to give special mention to the likes of then Nigerian vice president (Augustus Aikhomu), complete communication limited (owners of complete football and complete sports), the then football president (Emeka Omeruah), sports commission chairman then (Alex Akinyele), head coach (Clemence Westehof the enigmatic “Dutchgerian”) and the relevant bodies they headed who played key roles to see us through .

It started on the 12th of October 1992 at the national stadium Sports city in Surulere, Lagos, where the Eagles thrashed South Africa’s Bafana Bafana 4:0 (Rashidi Yekini 2, Samson Siasia, Richard Owobukiri), next up was December 20th 1992 in Pointe Noire (black point, Congo), it ended Congo’s Red Devils 0:1 Nigeria (Yekini), this was a really interesting game, the Congolese did not take defeat easily and their fans held the Eagles hostage after the game and threatened brimstone and fire, a battalion of the Congolese army had to be sent to evacuate the Eagles from black point, it wasn’t a funny affair that day, the team went straight to the airport amidst stones pelted on their bus by the angry mobs and flew back home. Then next was the game at the Soccer city, Soweto on the 15th of January 1993, it ended goalless against a greatly improved South Africa, then at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu on the 8th of February 1993 it was Nigeria 2: 0. Congo (Finidi George, Edema Fuludu).

Nigeria made it to the final qualyfing round ahead of South Africa and Congo, and in matchday 1 of the second round on the 2nd of May 1993 at the Felix Houphet Boigny stadium in Yamassoukro, it was Nigeria 1:2 Les Elephantes of Ivory Coast (Yekini, Abdoulaye Traore, Ibrahim Outtarra), on matchday 2 at the Sports city in Lagos on July 5th 1993, it was Nigeria 4:1 Algeria’s Fennec Foxes or desert warriors (Yekini 2, Daniel Amokachi, Austin Okocha, Abdelhafid Tasfout). Next was on the 25th of September 1993 in Lagos, Nigeria 4:1 Ivory Coast (Yekini 2, Daniel Amokachi, Thompson Oliha, Guel Tchedrossa).

Then came the mother of all battles on the 8th of October 1993 at the July 5 stadium in Algiers, the game was highly political and volatile, Ivory Coast, who had finished their qualifiers needed Nigeria to lose for them to go through, and tried playing the Francophone card with Algeria, a draw was okay for Nigeria, Algeria were already out of the three horse race, the game began amidst tension back home in Nigeria, Finidi George however, dosed the tension with a goal in the first half, the Algerians were in no friendly mood at all and needed no pleasantries, they equalised in the second half to make the last few minutes even more apprehensive for Nigerians, the goal came from Sheriff Ouazanni, but Nigeria held sway and qualified (1:1) was the final score. Special credit to goalkeeper Wilfred Agbonabare (Agboni cat) for keeping his nerve earlier on in the game while others were nervous.

Then at Nigeria’s first world cup proper in 1994 in the United States, the Eagles arrived as African champions (rated 5th in the world, Africa’s highest ranking till date). After an elaborate preparation, the team stormed Dallas for her first game ever in a world cup, it was on the 20th of June 1994 at the Cotton Bowl stadium, after a nervous start with Austin Eguaveon almost scoring an own goal in a split second of madness, but thanks to goalkeeper Peter Rufai (Dodo “the rock” Mayana) for calming frey nerves in the teething period and keeping the Eagles in the game, it ended Nigeria 3:0 Bulgaria (Yekini, Amokachi, Emmanuel Amuneke).

The remaining three games the Eagles played were all at the Foxboro stadium in Boston, first on June 25th 1994, it was Nigeria 1:2 Argentina (Samson Siasia, Claudio Caniggia 2), in the last group game on June 30th, it ended Nigeria 2:0 Greece (Finidi, Amokachi), Eagles topped her pool against all odds with 6 points same with Bulgaria and Argentina. Then came that tricky tie against four time world champions, Italy’s Squaddra Azzuris in the first knockout stage, while most Nigerians didn’t expect the Eagles to perform that much in her maiden world cup, however, hopes had been raised and expectations were high following an impressive group stage.

Emmanuel “Ammunition” Amuneke had opened proceedings with a clever goal, and just when it appeared the Eagles were already in the quarter finals, FIFA player of the year then, Roberto Baggio popped up like fine dust and a bolt from the blues and spoilt Nigerians’ fun and send sadness across Nigeria with a back breaking 88thmin equaliser, it remains a game to forget, inexperience was deduced as our Achilles heel as Baggio made it 2:1 from the spot in extra time, we never recovered and crashed out in round 16, although it remains our best showing till date in the mundial even if we have had two more second round appearances in 1998 and 2014. Five players from that team unfortunately are now glorified, Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Uche Okafor, Thompson Oliha and Wilfred Agbonibare, may their souls continue to rest well.

Since then Nigeria have been to six world cup tournaments,, only Cameroon has seen more games from Africa (going for their 8th finals this year), Eagles only missed out of Germany 2006 and now Qatar 2022.

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