The Golden Eaglets fly south early
First they lost out on the field to Argentina. Then, cruelly, they lost out to Costa Rica in the drawing of lots required to separate the two sides after they finished dead level at the end of their three matches. Coach Augustine Eguavoen was left with the unenviable task of calling his charges at the hotel to tell them the news. A dejected flock of Golden Eaglets is flying south early from Finland this summer.
It is midnight in the Marina Palace Hotel in Turku. Nigerian coach Augustine Eguavoen is pacing up and down the lobby, unable to decide whether to go to his players now, or wait until tomorrow. He runs through the succession of small errors that led to his current predicament: "My players are very young. They took too many things lightly, laughing them off. Well now they’ll have time to reflect on that.” He decides to leave it until the morning.
Up in the rooms, one of the Nigerian delegation is already packing for home, carefully stowing everything from pairs of socks to team equipment into boxes. A friend pops in with a delivery of Bea – a Nigerian speciality – in a Tupperware dish. Everyone tucks in, and the discussion inevitably returns to the day’s events.
"I’m packing up," says the room occupant. “We have to go home now. When I got up this morning I thought we would win and stay, because we like it here. But that’s life! The ball doesn’t always run for you. Things don’t always turn out as you want. The hardest thing is to lose because of the luck of the draw, as if you’d tossed a coin for it. I would have preferred to lose out on the pitch after a good hard fight.”
Nkem Ovunwo comes into the room, stone-faced and dragging his feet. “It’s hit a lot of the players hard. They can’t get over it,” says the Golden Eaglets captain. “Inside I was really hoping we’d qualify and reach the semis or even the final. Now we have to accept what’s happened. In life you have ups and downs. It’s not the end of the world. We’re on our way home and life goes on.”
Out in the corridor, other players are exchanging jerseys with the Australian team who express a few words of comfort. Some of the Nigerians appear listless, almost punch drunk. Ovunwo had really believed they would go all the way: “We never thought we could lose against Argentina, but we just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. When we got back to the hotel the coach phoned us with the Costa Rica result. Then the result of the drawing of lots.”
Delegation manager Enebi Achor has seen it all before: “It isn’t the first time I’ve seen so many tears after a football game. I was with the U–20 team in Morocco last year for a UAE qualifier. We needed a win in Morocco but we lost. It was a terrible night. In fact the players didn’t cry.”
“I keep telling them it’s not the end of the world but I’m not sure they are listening to me,” says Achor. “Now we need to get home as soon as possible and get the lads back to their families. That’s what they really need.” Nigeria’s last night in Turku will no doubt be their longest.