I’m a benchwarmer going to Russia
By Chidi Nduka Aja
Speaking ahead of their last 2018 World Cup qualifier against Nigeria, Algeria’s new coach, Rabah Madjer had described the Super Eagles as a team of benchwarmers, which has only one regular player in its squad.
Buttressing his point further, Madjer, who was one of the stars of the great Algerian side of the 1980s, said the Super Eagles should not pose any threat to his team because it is a team with many players who don’t get to play for their European clubs.
“I have studied the Nigerian team, apart from Iwobi, every other player is mostly a substitute for his team in Europe…” he had boasted.
Rabah Madjer could be pardoned for the disrespect. He was, like every new coach, talking tough to justify his appointment and shore up the morale of his boys and a disappointed country who had hope for greater things from the lads given their performance in Brazil. He knows better now.
But what could be a better story than the story of a bunch of no-hopers making it to the world’s greatest sport spectacle, Russia 2018.
Indeed, when the draws for the third round, 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying, African Zone, was made in Cairo, Egypt on June 23, pitching the Super Eagles against the Desert Foxes of Algeria, the Chipolopolo of Zambia and eternal rivals, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, all former winners of Afcon in Group B, many a football buff had feared the worst for the Eagles.
Easily labelled the ‘Group of Death’ on account of the strength of the opposition, the Eagles were given no chance of emerging from the group.
But Eagles and their handlers had other plans. In what looked like a taste of what to come, the team went to Zambia and beat the Chipolopolo 2-1 in their backyard, Ndola.
Then came the big test, squaring up against the current Afcon Champions, the Indomitable Lions. The Eagles soared above the Lions in a scintillating performance that Nigerians dared to believe.
Trouncing the Desert Foxes at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, Uyo that has become a formidable fortress, gave fans reasons to believe that the heart- wrenching exercise of punching the calculator to determine who goes through in the group would not be used.
After edging out the Chipolopolo 1-0 thanks to Alex Iwobi’s late goal in a nervy match at Uyo, the Eagles topped group B with 14 points to pick the sole ticket in the group with a game to spare. Not only were the three-time Afcon Champions unbeaten, they also became the first team to qualify from Africa.
When the Super Eagles class of 1997 qualified for France ’98 World Cup under the tutelage of Phillipe Troussier, the famed “White Witch Doctor’’, they did so with a match to spare; and 20 years later history repeated itself.
However, unlike the Class ’97 the manner of Eagles and the make-up of the team, might just be a sign that Nigeria could go far in Russia.
Former Green Eagles goalkeeper, Emmanuel Okala, thinks along these lines too. Positive that Russia will be more than Nigerians expect from the Super Eagles, he said: “With the present crop of players, the future looks bright for the Super Eagles, even at the 2018 FIFA World Cup proper.
“They stop at nothing, except success. The way they played against Zambia showed that uncommon commitment to make the country proud.”
Unarguably, the qualification will go down in history as one that was seamless. The team sang from the same song book. For once, we saw and FA that was alive to its responsibility. There was no bickering over bonuses as everyone connected with the team played its role effectively.
Gernot Rohr, Super Eagles’ Technical Adviser said as much when he hailed the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) for the “professional and committed manner” it handled the team’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Rohr said NFF’s professional approach to the team’s preparations for all their six qualifiers played a pivotal role in the team’s success.
“For sure, we must commend the NFF for the role they played right from that game in Ndola against Zambia to the last game in Constantine against Algeria.
“Apart from putting together excellent arrangements for our games at home, they ensured we travelled in comfort to all our away games.
“And the fact that our away travels were always direct on chartered flights made sure we had very good recovery period between games.
“This also helped to manage the few days we usually have because of the congested and very small number of the FIFA international days,” Rohr said.
Rohr attributed the Eagles performance to paying attention to little details.
“From the time the draw was made for the group series of the qualifiers, we knew that in a difficult group like the one we were in, the difference between success and failure could be down to little things that most people would take for granted.
“But, I am happy that the NFF were very professional, passionate and committed to the cause.
“Their great planning and arrangements made the players to focus on the football only. So, we got the best out of them.
“Now we cannot rest on our oars because there is a bigger challenge ahead of us. We have to prepare better and focus even more as we get set for the World Cup next year,” he said.
The NFF general secretary Dr. Mohammed Sanusi corroborates Rohr. It is not just about qualification, he said.
“We will ensure the best preparation for the Super Eagles team to set a new record of performance for Nigeria at the FIFA World Cup when they go to Russia next year,” he added.
The Super Eagles worked hard and deserved to be at the Russia 2018 World Cup despite what opposing coaches have said.
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