Storm clouds gathered threateningly over the Nigeria training camp on Tuesday. Three days on from a manful 1-0 loss to Group B favourites Argentina, the Super Eagles were back out on the training pitch as some wild weather whipped through Richard's Bay, about 200km north of Durban through the winding sprawl of Zululand.
With traditional practice cones of no use, for the wind made kites of them, Lars Lagerback's Swedish coaching staff laid down full water bottles as field markers, giving the session an improvised vibe in keeping with the spirit in the Nigerian camp. And that spirit could not be better according to forward Yakubu Ayegbeni, who believes the Super Eagles made their critics choke on their words at Ellis Park on Saturday. "People were writing us off even before the tournament started, but I think we made some people eat their words," the muscular Everton attacker, who put in a hard-working performance up front, told FIFA.com. Huddled away from the bitter cold so rare in the sub-tropical region of Kwazulu-Natal, Yakubu added: "We gave as good as we got against one of the best teams in the world, and we have what it takes to reach the next round."
The Nigerians suffered against Argentina, if truth be told. But the effort put in against Lionel Messi and company was nothing short of admirable given the squad's short preparation time and the fact that Lagerback had been forced to use a number of players out of position. "It's one of the best games Nigeria has ever played," said Yakubu, a giant of a man with a gentle, shy manner of speaking. "We didn't play many warm-up games before we got here, but we got better in each one and our rhythm has gotten better and better. If we keep the same spirit and mentality, we can go through to the next round at least."
I remember watching the World Cup on TV with family and friends and neighbourhood people when I was a young boy, and I never dreamt I would be there, playing in one.
Yakubu made his name in Israeli football with Maccabi Haifa before moving to England with Portsmouth in 2003. He joined Middlesbrough in 2005 and then moved again, two years later, to Goodison Park. Born in Benin City, heart of the football-mad Edo State, 'The Yak' – as he is known to fans in the blue half of Liverpool – has come a long way from his days as a kid running around the dirty streets with half a dream. "I remember watching the World Cup on TV with family and friends and neighbourhood people when I was a young boy, and I never dreamt I would be there, playing in one." To be playing in one alongside Nwankwo Kanu, hero of the 1996 Olympic gold-winning side that Yakubu watched with stars in his eyes, and doing so on African soil, brings the big man to the verge of tears. "Being here, and with a legend like Kanu as a team-mate, I can remember what it felt like to be a boy and dream."
In the here and now, though, the never-ending pressure to score goals springs to the fore. Yakubu failed to open his account in the loss to Argentina, although he did set up Nigeria's best chance of the game with five minutes to go, spurned by Kalu Uche. "As a striker you're always under pressure to score goals," said the 27-year-old ahead of a do-or-die clash with Greece on Thursday in chilly Bloemfontein. "You can play well and contribute, but if you don't put the ball in the net people will criticise you and say you're not doing the right things. I want to get goals more than anybody to make the people back home in Nigeria happy. I give everything I have when I pull on the shirt of my country, of Nigeria, and I will keep on doing it until I fall down."