“Of course. Why not?” That was the confident response from Obafemi Martins in an interview with FIFA.com, when quizzed whether Nigeria can hold their own with elite teams such as Germany, Brazil or Italy.
“The advantage for us is that we can play a blend of African and European football, because most of our national team play for clubs in Europe. With that combination we can go a long way. I see no weaknesses.”
Indeed, Nigeria are peppered with world-class players such as John Obi Mikel of Chelsea, Portsmouth's Nwankwo Kanu and Martins, who is currently plying his trade with Wolfsburg. The 25-year-old enhanced his popularity among the Super Eagles' fans by scoring twice in the 3-2 victory over Kenya that secured them a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
“We had major problems at the start of qualifying and the competition was intense," said the pacy forward. "The main thing is that we’re there. It’s obviously hugely exciting at the moment."
Now the challenge is to finally make the leap at the FIFA World Cup that has thus far eluded Nigeria, often strongly favoured going into a tournament. “The problem in the past has been that we haven’t been able to perform to our potential when it mattered,” said Martins, who nevertheless rejects the criticism that, despite having big-name players, they are unable to gel as a team.
The scale of expectations in the west African country is clear from recent history. Despite a third-placed finish at the recent CAF African Cup of Nations in Angola, then-coach Shaibu Amodu was relieved of his duties. Since March, there has been a Swede barking out orders from the bench. “I haven’t known Lars Lagerback for long," said Martins. "I’m only just getting to know him, so I can’t really evaluate his methods yet. But he’s clearly highly experienced."
The advantage for us is that we can play a blend of African and European football. With that combination we can go a long way.
Martins has already been acquainted with a number of coaches in his relatively young career. As a teenager he moved to Reggina, before moving to another Italian club in Inter Milan soon after. After a three-year spell in England with Newcastle United, Martins signed for Wolfsburg, who were Bundesliga champions when he joined them in summer 2009.
“It was all very new for me at first and I had to settle in. Unfortunately, I haven’t made that many appearances so I haven’t had a chance to prove myself.” With just 16 Bundesliga outings - and six goals - to his name, the Nigerian is understandably motivated for the new season. “The way I look at it is: new game, new fortunes. In football, anything is possible.”
However, by the time Martins pulls on his club shirt again in August, he hopes to have left his mark on the first FIFA World Cup on African soil. So, are Nigeria one of the favourites?
“I don’t know yet. We will have to wait and see," he said. "Anything can happen in a tournament like this, but obviously I hope we can go as far as possible. We want to do ourselves proud.” To do that, Nigeria will have to make their way past Argentina, Greece and Korea Republic in Group B.
Much will rest on Martins' broad shoulders in South Africa, but fortunately he appears unaffected by the pressure: “I’ve been around long enough to know how to deal with it.”
The Super Eagles also seem ready to soar. How long the flight will last remains to be seen.