Expectations are diminished for Nigeria at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but it was not long ago that the Super Eagles were seen as the most likely African nation to finally reach the last four of a FIFA World Cup. And though they have just one point from their last five matches in the finals and missed out on Germany 2006 altogether, the continent’s most populous nation looks likely to be a dangerous dark horse with little to lose up against the world’s best.
That was how the side came to USA 94, where they dismantled eventual semi-finalists Bulgaria 3-0 in their first match before going on to cruelly fall 2-1 against Italy in the second round. However, that was not before the likes of Sunday Oliseh, Victor Ikpeba, Jay-Jay Okocha and Finidi George had become synonymous with the next generation of explosive African football. A similarly quick start in 1998 - they stunned Spain 3-2 in one of the matches of the tournament to start and beat Bulgaria again 1-0 - gave way to another second round defeat, this time a disheartening thumping at the hands of Denmark 4-1. But after dramatically reaching South Africa in their final qualifier, Nigeria could be forgiven for going into the finals with a positive attitude.
The road to South Africa
A surprising scoreless draw in their first match in the final round of CAF qualifying to Mozambique left Nigeria playing catch-up to Tunisia from the start, and consecutive draws with the Carthage Eagles had the west Africans staring elimination in the face. However, Tunisia lost 1-0 in Mozambique and Nigeria came from a goal behind twice to win 3-2 in Kenya. Striker Obafemi Martins was the hero on the day, coming on at half-time before scoring the first equaliser on the hour mark and the winner just nine minutes from time. The goal stamped Nigeria’s ticket to the next World Cup.
The star players
The Super Eagles have the ability to score a lot of goals in South Africa behind a pacy, dynamic attack that features the likes of Martins, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Peter Odemwingie as well as youngsters Victor Obinna and Ikechukwu Uche and evergreen Nwankwo Kanu in what is surely his last role of the dice. They won’t be a soft touch behind that either, with Jon Obi Mikel anchoring the midfield, and captain Joseph Yobo in the centre of defence.
Despite qualifying the Super Eagles for another FIFA World Cup, Shaibu Amodu was demoted after the team finished third at the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. He was replaced by former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback at the end of February. The 61-year-old led Sweden for over a decade - part of the time as co-manager with Tommy Soderberg - and took the side to the knockout rounds at Korea/Japan 2002 as well as Germany 2006. His teams also qualified for three consecutive European Championships.
• Nigeria’s 3-0 waltz over Bulgaria in their USA 94 debut match was more remarkable given that the Europeans went on to beat Greece, Argentina, Mexico and Germany in the tournament.
• Since Clemens Westerhof built the 1994 side and left the Super Eagles, the team has been coached by such well-known European journeymen as Jo Bonfrere, Philippe Troussier, Bora Milutinovic and Berti Vogts.
• Nigeria have a rich history at other worldwide tournaments, having won the 1985, 1993 and 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup as well as the 1996 Olympic Football Tournament.
What they said
"We know that we will have a tough job at the World Cup. We are up against some tough teams like Argentina, with top players like [Lionel] Messi. It's important for us to prove that we can play our own game against the best," Nigeria forward Chinedu Obasi.