It may be something of a footballing cliché that “at the highest level, any error can prove fatal” but on Monday, at the Estadio Nacional, it most certainly rang true. Having shown organisation and initiative aplenty in their Round of 16 clash versus France, Nigeria’s hopes of clinching a first ever FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final were dealt a hammer blow in the 79th minute.
From a French corner kick, Super Eagles goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama – who had been in fine form throughout the match – misjudged the high ball, enabling the unmarked Paul Pogba to nod Les Bleus into a crucial lead. Though the error turned out to be the beginning of the end for Nigeria, it should by no means overshadow their positive campaign here at Brazil 2014.
“Honestly, I don’t think that we should be feeling bad right now,” said John Obi Mikel to FIFA.com, having had time to shower and cool down after the heat and emotion of a very even encounter. “We’ve had a great tournament and today we showed the whole world just what we’re capable of, even when up against a great team.
“I think that we played really well from the start, right up until we conceded the opening goal,” added the Chelsea midfielder. “From that moment on, I’ll admit that we let our heads drop a bit. We couldn’t drag ourselves back into it, but none of that should take the shine off our performance.”
In Mikel’s view, were it not for the costly corner mix-up, the 1998 world champions would have been unlikely to pierce the Nigerian backline. “We were very well-organised,” said the No10.
“We knew exactly what we needed to do in defence against a strong team like France and, on top of that, whenever we had the ball we weren’t afraid to attack. We even had good chances to go in front ourselves. We got so much right, but mistakes do happen. What else can we say? We need to forget it and move on.”
Not that Mikel will be able to forget the titanic battle he enjoyed in the centre of the park with France counterpart Pogba, the powerful duo shadowing each other from start to finish in Brasilia.
“It was an incredible duel, it’s true. There were times when I thought he was starting to look tired, but then he went and scored the opening goal. I guess that, in the end, he wasn’t that tired! But yes, the two of us had a really good tussle,” said Mikel, just as Pogba passed behind him in the mixed zone and gave him a friendly pat on the back.
“I was just talking about you. Good luck for the rest of the tournament,” said Mikel to the Juventus star, showing admirable good manners, before winding up his conversation with FIFA.com.
“He’s an unbelievable player, isn’t he? He got the better of me today, but I’m sure we’ll come up against each other loads more times in the future. Who knows, maybe even at the next World Cup?”