Marcus Rojo. Minute 86. A magnificent volley from the edge of the 18-yard box. These are a few things which Nigerian football fans will never forget. This exact combination sent the Super Eagles home after a promising run which raised a lot of hope and expectations despite being in the group of death. Sounds sadly depressing, but good times wait ahead as Nigeria showed us bags of potential and I am sure, we have a real African contender on the rise.
Nigeria went into the qualifiers of the World Cup 2018 full of confidence and the fans were expecting big things from The Eagles, qualifying to be the bare minimum. As expected, Nigeria had no troubles going over Zambia, Cameroon, and Algeria in the 6 qualifying games, dropping only 4 points out of the obtainable 18. Things were looking promising as the young Nigerian squad played as everyone expected them to play. Fast, direct and dynamic way of moving the ball forward and defending as a unit. The 23 men Nigeria sent to Russia this year was most likely the strongest line-up this country has ever seen with the likes of young and exciting English Premier League talents combined with experienced midfielders and a brick-like defensive line. The team was ready, the fans were in a bliss together with stress, suspense and hope and the stage was set. There was only one problem though. While other African teams were drawn into relatively easier groups, Nigeria got the toughest nut of them all – Argentina with the world`s best player up front, Croatia with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in the heart of midfield which probably is the scariest pairing you can ever think of and from all the possible underdogs – Iceland… The small island from the upper part of Europe which sent England home 2 years ago in Euro 2016. Of course, there are a lot of nations which are capable of making sure that it is not “coming home”, but you can never count such teams out. 7 months remain until the FIFA World Cup 2018 kicks off and Nigeria has to do the impossible.
The June of 16th came around and it was a warm day Kaliningrad enriched with a beautiful sunset and Croatians together with The Super Eagles could start their World Cup campaign. Croatia pressed hard but could not find the key to unlock Nigerian goal in the first half an hour but in the minute 32, the ball was in the net after a touch of Nigerian defender Etobo. Sadly enough, it was the net of the Africans. It was 1-0 in favor of chequereds, but the flow of the game was not looking particularly bad for Nigeria, it was just impossible to beat Croatian midfield line and that was easily predictable before the game started. The game went on, Croatia had the upper hand for the entirety of the 90 minutes and Real Madrid leader, Luka Modric finished the game off with a precise spot kick which was caused by a handball in the six-yard box. Nigerian performance did not show a lot of promise but it was not dreadful too. 2 games were in front of them and they had to move on. Do not forget, Croatia was looking sharp and completely fulfilled their game plan which later led them to the final.
Iceland, which drew Argentina in the Match Day 1 was up next. Nigerians were the slight favorites according to bookmakers and football pundits although it was their game to win on paper. Nigeria was stronger in any element of the beautiful game and Iceland had to continue to surprise us even more if they wanted to have any chance of getting the 3 points. The game went according to The Super Eagles plan and two world-class goals from Ahmed Musa secured the win for Nigeria and the match which took place in Volgograd ended 2-0 in favor of the Africans. Nigeria comfortably dominated the majority of the game and did not give The Vikings a scent of victory. In the same day, problematic Argentina got utterly destroyed by the unstoppable looking Croatia which meant Nigeria took the second place and the last step in completing The Mission Impossible was to beat Messi and Co. Of course, on paper it sounds like an almost unreal task but seeing Argentinian struggles and how confident Nigeria looked in their game against Iceland, the African fans were full of hope and everything seemed very promising for The Eagles. Nigeria needed the bare minimum – a point. A draw would be enough for them.
The game against Argentina started off with a goal from the main man himself, Lionel Messi putting the ball behind Francis Uzoho which gave Argentina an early lead. The game was close and finally, in the middle of the 90 minutes, Victor Moses had the big chance – a penalty kick which he took calmly, easily putting the ball in the net. 1-1. 40 minutes to go, 40 minutes separating Nigeria from the Round of 16. In the minute 75, it looked like it is going to be all over as Ighalo was unmarked near the six-yard box releasing his shot towards the South African goal and the ball… goes wide. Eleven minutes later, Mercado crosses the ball into the Nigerian box and the rest is history. Argentina and Croatia went further, Iceland and The Eagles, this time without the ‘’Super’’, had to pack their bags.
It is hard to tell what Nigeria lacked to complete The Mission Impossible. Maybe it was composure, maybe it was the experience, maybe it was the individual quality or maybe even luck. We must not forget that Nigeria conceded only 2 goals from open play, one being an unstoppable volley and the second one being scored by the world`s best player which begs the question – Was Nigeria not good enough for the knockout stages? My guess is no. They were surely strong enough to be between the Top 16, they just lacked… luck. As painful as it may sound. It is very hard to take away anything from Nigeria as they played some very disciplined football and they did not fall out of the game at any moment. Maybe it was the tactical approach although, in my opinion, the 4-2-3-1 worked wonders for the squad Nigeria sent to the FIFA World Cup 2018. Maybe they lacked intelligence in Salisu Yusufs choices as many people thought that Kelechi Iheanacho was not given enough playing time when in meanwhile, Ighalo up front was very underwhelming and missed very important chances, it especially the most important one against Argentina. Coming to conclusion, it is safe to say that Nigeria looked good and all the stars aligning say that they will come back even stronger. Their squad is young, full of future stars and I am sure that these 4 years will be very succulent for The Super Eagles. Looking at the results, I am sure that Nigeria would go through if they had an easier group, of course, it is a far-fetched statement as everything can happen in football, but you can not deny that Nigeria looked good in every aspect of the game, it is just that other teams were a bit better. And had a bit more luck. Nigeria looked like they belong between the worlds elite and that is the most important thing which must be taken away by Nigerian fans.