After a heart-breaking 2-1 defeat by Greece, Nigeria are struggling to keep their heads straight in the aftermath of a contest that slipped through their fingers. Their fortunes went from hopeful to grim in the space of minutes as the very real possibility of moving on to the knockout rounds took a massive knock after a silly red card and a two-goal fightback by the Greeks. However, all is not lost and the men in the camp have refused to throw in the towel in the face of such a serious set-back.
Although they also lost their Group B opener 1-0 to Argentina, even a single-goal victory in their final match against Korea Republic and a single-goal loss for Greece against the table-topping Albiceleste would see Nigeria through on goal difference. But no team in FIFA World Cup™ history has ever lost more than one group stage game and gone on to reach the next round, and it was clearly a battle for the typically optimistic Super Eagles to hold out much hope.
The manner of defeat against the Greeks was a body blow for Lars Lagerback's side, who went ahead through Kalu Uche's lofted free-kick from out wide in the 16th minute and looked good value for their lead in the first half-hour. But a straight red card for Sani Kaita out of nowhere left the west Africans reeling and struggling to cope with the 2004 European champions. And though one would be hard pressed to argue that Nigeria deserved a point in Bloemfontein, Greece's two goals came from a deflection and a goalkeeping error, so the result could easily have been different even with the red card.
It's still very sad. We just have to cheer up and work for the next game. We played very well in two games and lost. We just have to keep working hard and try to be physically and mentally ready. It won't be easy.
"We were so sad, so sad," a clearly distraught Uche told FIFA about the sending-off and the result. "That's really all I can say – it was very, very sad. We came out in the second half and tried to fight, but it's not easy to play a man down, and it was difficult to defend against them.”
Big central defender Danny Shittu, who has started both matches in his debut FIFA World Cup campaign, said the Nigerians felt they were bossing the game before the red card. "We came out here today, not even looking for a draw, but looking for a win," said the England-based player. "I think that when it was 1-0 and we had 11 men, we were still pushing forward and we had control of the game. We kind of thought, 'Yeah, this could be it'. As a defender especially you think, 'Look, we can deal with this, and ride it through', but [the expulsion] kind of changed the game and gave them some confidence as well and they started pushing up against us."
Hoping to turn the tide
Shittu's central defensive partner and captain on the night, Joseph Yobo of Everton, was the most critical after the contest, calling the red card a lack of professionalism. “We showed that we don't have a very complete team," he said. "Some players are very inexperienced, and we showed that today. We had the game under control, but we can't make excuses."
The loss stretches Nigeria's FIFA World Cup run to seven matches without a win since France 1998, which includes six defeats. But with coach Lagerback saying he was proud of the team's effort and insisting that they can beat the Koreans and claim an unlikely place in the next round, the Super Eagles were trying their best to focus on Tuesday's match in Durban. "The coach told us after to hold ourselves together and raise our heads," said Uche. "We are in a very difficult situation, it is true, but in football anything can happen. It's still very sad, but we just have to cheer up. We played very well in two games and lost. We just have to keep working hard and try to be physically and mentally ready. It won't be easy."
Shittu said he had every faith the team would stand defiant in the face of the Korean challenge. "Every single person in that changing room now is extremely disappointed. But we have a very crucial game in the next couple of days. And it's a game that we believe we can win. We are going to go out there and get our strength back, get our confidence back, and definitely try to win."