Nigeria’s players take their time in the changing room, silent as a grave save the rush of the showers. It’s a far cry from the singing and dancing before the 2-2 draw with South Korea, the Super Eagles' best performance here in South Africa but one which sees them head for home. “We had it all in our hands,” Victor Obinna, just 23 and with the bewildered devastation of youth showing in his face, grimly told FIFA.com.
South Korean fans continued to shout their slogans in the emptying stadium, for their team was going on to a Round of 16 and a date with Uruguay. For Nigeria, there were only tears. “We fell short, just too short,” continued Obinna, who also tasted bitter disappointment in national colours two years ago, losing out in the Gold Medal match to Lionel Messi’s Argentina at the Beijing Olympics.
“So many people back home are so unhappy right now,” added the on-loan Malaga star, an attacking spark off the bench for Nigeria at these finals, which end with only one point after a stop-start run in Group B. Frustrating Argentina for large chunks of their opener, they eventually bowed to a slim 1-0 defeat.
Leading in their next game against Greece, a red card for a petulant foul by Sani Kaita saw the game deteriorate and the Nigerians fall 2-1. “I am short for words because I know what it means for the people back home,” he continued, citing the heavy expectations on the Eagles’ shoulders coming from the 150 or so million in football-mad Naija. “They believed in us and we let them down,” he admitted, head dropping into hands under the glare of lights in the belly of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
At this magnificent venue in Durban, with the salty sea air thick, the Nigerians again led in their third match against the Koreans. But a dramatic contest was yet to unfold. Despite a raft of chances for the Eagles, they had to settle for the single point. “It was one of those games,” Nwankwo Kanu told FIFA.com, shuffling past in his track suit and slippers with the tired look of a beaten man.
We would have died to win tonight; we tried so hard. No one can say we didn’t.
“We created so many chances, but we weren’t good enough to take them,” he said, bringing to mind the worst miss of these finals when, midway through the second half, Yakubu Ayegbeni somehow conspired to hit wide of an open goal from four yards out. The Everton man did make amends though, showing the guts to dust himself off and equalise from the penalty spot minutes later. “If you score your goals, you win. It’s a simple thing,” added Kanu, who played his first minutes of South Africa 2010 in the draw.
“Argentina did us a favour too, so it’s more of a shame” he lamented, knowing full well that one more goal for the Eagles would have seen them to the Round of 16, thanks to the Albiceleste’s victory over Greece in Polokwane. Kanu, a Nigerian legend and member of that iconic side that took Gold at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, has likely played his last game as a Super Eagle. “I’m a little tired, I’m a little down,” said the 33- year-old with nearly 100 caps since his debut in 1994. “Yes, it’s possible this is my last game as a Super Eagle. I have been in the frame for a long time, you know,” he added with a forced laugh, refusing to rule out a return to the ranks as a coach.
Kanu – a connection to brave old high-flying Eagles past like Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh – understands what might have been. “If we did what we did today in our first two games we would have probably gone through,” said the former UEFA Champions League winner and Arsenal hero. “We would have died to win tonight; we tried so hard. No one can say we didn’t.”