Having kept their goal intact in their three previous outings, a pair of defensive lapses changed everything for Nigeria last month. The Super Eagles are still coming to terms with the fact that they no longer control their own destiny in 2010 FIFA World Cup™ South Africa qualifying, a nightmare scenario that arose in the heat of Abuja on 6 September, when they let a 2-0 lead slip against Tunisia. Seemingly out of the game, the Carthage Eagles battled back to hit an 89th-minute equaliser that silenced a crowd waiting nervously to celebrate victory in the high-profile Group B meeting.
The sense of frustration and sadness lingered long after the 2-2 stalemate at the National Stadium, and now Taye Taiwo and Co must win their next two games - at home to Mozambique on 11 October and in Kenya on 14 November - while hoping leaders Tunisia slip up against at least one of the same opponents. "We need to leave that behind us even if it was a huge disappointment," the Marseille left-back told FIFA.com. "We had to win that game but we need to forget it and give 200 per cent in our last two matches. We were all very sad after Tunisia, but that's life, that's football. You should never dwell on a disappointment."
The World Cup isn't over for us and the two games to come will be crucial, for the supporters and the country. We need to be optimistic and not ask ourselves any questions.
Seated in one of Marseille's player lounges following a sun-bathed training session, coach Shaibu Amodu's most permanent fixture during the current qualifying campaign sounded a positive note when analysing the future. "Everything is still possible," said Taiwo. "We need to win those two matches. Tunisia will be playing the same teams and we can hope that they slip up. Whatever happens, if we don't win these two games, then we have no chance. The World Cup isn't over for us and the two games to come will be crucial, for the supporters and the country. We need to be optimistic and not ask ourselves any questions."
A finalist at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2005 , where he scored two goals, the defender with the blistering shot was nonetheless frank about the side's failings in their games to date. "We need to play together and defend together," he explained. "The forwards have to help out more defensively and the defenders need to stay concentrated until the final minute. We've lacked a genuine team ethic until now. That goal in the game against Tunisia was the perfect example of what's not working." The 24-year-old was likewise quick to dismiss the notion that he and his colleagues have struggled with the pressure of trying to live up to their more illustrious predecessors. "It's the same for me at Marseille, who are the team everyone's looking to beat whenever we're away," he said. "It's the same for all my team-mates, so that's no excuse."
Some critics have found motivation levels wanting, but Taiwo rejects those suggestions out of hand. "We're all immensely proud to play for the national team," he said. "It's an honour and even if it's difficult sometimes because the conditions are so different to the ones we're used to in Europe, we're all happy to do it." The issues seem to lie elsewhere, but issues there undoubtedly are as the Super Eagles looked favourites to dominate their section when the draw was made.
Few will be as committed to ironing out those concerns as Taiwo, one of the side's natural leaders despite his protestations to the contrary. "I'm not the captain and I'm not pretentious enough to make out I'm a leader, even if I'm one of the regular players," he said. "I listen to what the older players say to me. I play my games with the team in mind, but in the dressing room I don't pretend to be a leader."
We've lacked a genuine team ethic until now. That goal in the game against Tunisia was the perfect example of what's not working.
Following on from the failure to qualify in 2006, the entire nation has placed its hopes in the Super Eagles booking their ticket to South Africa and rediscovering the qualities that once made them shine on the global stage. Having made his debut in 2004, Taiwo missed out on those glory days. Yet he remains nostalgic for the searing passion that characterised the team at the dawn of his international career, describing it as "an engine which made it possible to put a whole generation of sought-after individual talents such as Joseph Yobo, John Utaka, Obafemi Martins, John Obi Mikel and Peter Odemwingie on the road to success."
They could do with that same passion on 11 October, when Mozambique come to town looking to add to Nigeria's problems. As he does before each game, Taiwo will offer up a prayer that day requesting the strength to be in optimum form - and, who knows, he may just have a few discreet words to say about the game between Tunisia and Kenya as well.