They have seen one of their most important players drop out of the squad just days ago and carry an immense burden of popular expectation back at home, yet Nigeria have been in a loose and happy mood at their base outside of Durban, South Africa.
The attitude is all the more remarkable considering that in only a few days' time they will kick off their FIFA World Cup™ finals campaign against highly-fancied Argentina at Johannesburg's Ellis Park. Yet according to both coach Lars Lagerback and talismanic veteran Nwankwo Kanu, spirits are high in camp and the Super Eagles are committed to keeping it that way. "The players have really been professional in training and everything," Lagerback told FIFA. "We have travelled a lot and they have done that in a marvellous way. You see a lot of smiles going around so I really enjoy working with these guys," added the Swede who only took over the team in February.
For his part, Kanu said the spirit among the players could not be better and that this would be one of their greatest strengths in a tough-looking Group B where they must also face Korea Republic and Greece. "[Our happiness together] is what makes us strong," he told FIFA. "That's what makes the team tick because everybody is friends with each other like family and brothers and with that we tend to go far. The spirit is like that now."
Even the late loss of Chelsea midfielder Jon Obi Mikel to a knee injury does not seem to have dented the optimism that is coursing through the Nigeria squad, with both Lagerback and Kanu insisting that the two-time African champions had the players to fill the hole. "An injury in football is never a disaster," said Lagerback. "It's very sad for Mikel, and of course for the Super Eagles – he has been one of the best players for Nigeria. So of course we will miss him, but at the same time other players step in so it all works, I know it's a cliché, but it all works."
Kanu, a veteran of the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups, has similar confidence in those likely to step into the breach, with Monaco youngster Lukman Haruna a seeming front-runner to fill Mikel's big boots. "Nigeria are always blessed with talented players, quality players," said the 33-year-old before returning to the collective spirit of the side. "The most important thing is to work as a team and that is what we are doing. Nobody knows what we can come up with on any day. On our good day it's difficult to handle us."
Pressure and prayer
The Super Eagles must traditionally cope with the immense expectations of Africa's biggest population. It must be a difficult prospect to keep 150 million football-mad Nigerians happy at each step of the preparations for a major event, not to mention an intensely interested local media. Kanu considers it an inevitable consequence of their previous successes at the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups – where they reached the second round in impressive style – and the famous victory at the 1996 Olympic Football Tournament.
"Considering what we have done in 94, 96, 98, everybody believes we are one of the big countries in Africa, so definitely we have to produce. When we are not producing, that is when it is difficult. So the pressure comes," he said. But the Portsmouth-based former Inter Milan and Arsenal man is not backing away from his prediction that Nigeria have every chance of going deep into the tournament. "For me I can say we are going to be up to the semi-finals… maybe even the Final. We believe we can beat any team any time, but you're going to have to play very well."
The new Lagerback regime has impressed Kanu and helped foster this confident attitude. "He has given us his own style of play which we adopted.We are getting used to it faster because the World Cup is almost here," he said. "He brought in discipline and a new style of play and wants us to play like a team. Things are working well so far, improving every day." Talk then comes back to the spirit in the camp, and a special closeness that the players enjoy. When asked why they end every training session in a circle, holding hands, Kanu explained that the team was actually united in prayer.
"It's like a culture in the team," he said. "Most players are Christian or Muslim, so what happens is, when we all hold hands, we pray. After Christian prayers, then the Muslims also pray before we leave." Kanu and Nigeria are hoping their prayers will be answered against Lionel Messi and Co on Saturday.