On Saturday, Nigeria face a crucially important encounter – the second leg of their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying play-off with Ethiopia – that could see them reach the promised land of Brazil 2014.
After watching their heroes secure a vital 2-1 away triumph in Addis Ababa, fans of the Super Eagles would be forgiven for viewing the upcoming 90 minutes as a formality. But that would be a grave error, according to Stephen Keshi.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Nigeria coach stated his belief that nothing is guaranteed in football, and that the second leg could well be a closely contested affair.
All to play for
The five first legs of the African Zone play-offs produced three wins and two draws. Among the teams who emerged victorious, only Ghana, who defeated Egypt 6-1, are practically certain to be on the plane to Brazil next year.
Victorious away from home and set to benefit from an undoubtedly raucous home support, Nigeria are well-placed to join them. Their experienced tactician is quick to dispel this notion, however.
“Nothing’s decided yet," he said. "We’ve not qualified, and I’m not even thinking about it at this point. We got a good result in the first leg, but we must be wary of overconfidence. It’s a critical match, and the players will need to be totally focused. We’ll celebrate once we’ve booked our spot, of course – that’s something we’re all hoping for."
Earlier in the year, Keshi became only the second man (after Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary) to lift the CAF Africa Cup of Nations as both a player and coach. His success on the field had come in 1994, when he claimed the continental trophy as part of Nigeria’s ‘golden generation’.
It’s not a personal thing; it’s for our country. Our goal is to return to the World Cup stage and give our supporters something to cheer about.
In South Africa in February, he steered his compatriots to a third African crown, earning a berth at this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup in the process. When asked what these accomplishments mean to him, he smiles in a satisfied manner, stressing that a potential qualification for FIFA’s flagship event would be dedicated to the people of Nigeria.
“It’s not a personal thing; it’s for our country. Our goal is to return to the World Cup stage and give our supporters something to cheer about. I don’t think about myself during times like these, just the work I’ve done.”
Keshi is keen to emphasise that the home fans will be a key factor in overcoming their Ethiopian opponents in Calabar. In the event of a positive outcome, the celebrations are likely to surpass those that followed the aforementioned Cup of Nations success earlier in the year.
Keshi was unable to call up all of his players for warm-up matches ahead of the play-off, and so recently took to the pitch against Jordan without several regular starters. The friendly encounter ended in a 1-0 defeat, but he was content with his charges’ display nonetheless.
“The match gave us a chance to try out a few new things. We were physically strong, and we need to keep that up. When our other players join up with us, we’ll turn our focus to the qualifying game. I’m relying on their mental strength to help them carry out what we ask of them and achieve the target we’ve set ourselves.”
Keshi has mixed together an exciting blend of Nigeria-based players and star performers plying their trade abroad. It has proved to be a winning combination, as the Cup of Nations win was followed by the capture of first place in a World Cup qualifying section composed of Malawi, Kenya and Namibia.
The Super Eagles may have finished top of Group F, but they did not have it all their own way, drawing three of their six matches.
“African football has changed – there just aren’t any ‘little’ teams anymore. The gap has closed and it’s now very difficult to predict the outcome of matches. The group phase was definitely not a walk in the park, but we achieved our goal,” said the Azare-born coach.
Those words would certainly apply to the Ethiopians, who finished ahead of South Africa, Botswana and the Central African Republic, backing up Keshi’s belief that the tie still hangs in the balance.
The former Strasbourg centre-back has learned that football is a sport in which a second chance will eventually manifest itself to those that work hard enough. Despite having guided Togo to the 2006 World Cup, he was unfortunate to miss out on the opportunity to lead them at the actual tournament.
And now, just a few months after holding aloft the Africa Cup of Nations, he is on the verge of becoming just the second-ever Nigerian (after Adegboye Onigbinde) to oversee his national team at a World Cup
“Let's qualify first. That would be a dream for me,” concluded Keshi. And while he is right to put the interests of his country and its people first, there is a strong chance that, should his team overcome Ethiopia on Saturday, his own efforts will also be celebrated.