Nigeria’s Super Eagles will begin their Brazil 2014 campaign with a tricky tie against Iran in Group F on Monday at the Arena da Baixada, Curitiba.
The Eagles are participating in their fifth World Cup after their first appearance in 1994, when they reached the Round of 16 of the event.
They went on to play at the 1998 edition in France, where they also reached the semi-final; and the 2002 and 2010 events, where they crashed out in the first round.
The Eagles boast four wins, eight defeats and two draws in 14 games played at the World Cup, and have not been able to advance past the Round of 16 in previous editions.
There have been reactions over this present squad of Eagles to rekindle the glory days of the country’s football.
Thus Nigerians and fans of the Eagles across the world have a rare chance to measure their darling team against the rest of the world on Monday, when the African champions begin their 2014 World Cup campaign in Curitiba, Brazil on Monday.
The Eagles saw a bit of what to expect in this competition when they featured in the FIFA Confederations Cup last year but even that is even a child’s play compared to the World Cup itself.
Stephen Keshi, who took charge of the team since 2011, has been able to hold his shoulders high on the continent of Africa. He won the Africa Nations Cup last year in South Africa in his very first attempt at the trophy with the team.
And even before the continent could get over the dramatic climb of the Eagles under Keshi, he took another brand of Eagles to the African Nations Championship in South Africa in January this year and ended up with a third place finish. He also took the gauntlet and qualified Nigeria for Brazil 2014.
Those rare achievements have made him the reigning African Coach of the Year. He was clearly the favourite when the Confederation of African Football held the awards ceremony last February in Lagos. But those achievements were of purely African note. Those who are not carried away by those marks are always ready to remind you that the World Cup parades the best teams in the world and of course all the biggest names of the game. Perhaps only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gareth Bale are the only world — acclaimed stars who are not in Brazil on the account of their countries not qualifying. Any other celebrity footballer not on the pitch in Brazil is out due to injury.
When Nigeria campaigned at the Confederations Cup — the dress rehearsal for the World Cup — the Eagles could not find their bearing. They could only muster a win against the tiny island of Tahiti. That competition stands against Keshi and his team and they must erase the unpleasant memory as they start the campaign with the match against Iran.
If those on the sidelines are worried, what does Keshi think about their preparations? The former national team captain is quick with a short answer.
“We are ready; let the World Cup begin. Bring it on,” he said just before home girl Claudia Leiite and American singers Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull took the stage for the opening ceremony in Sao Paulo on Thursday.
The only plea Keshi made was for prayers for the team and that he has asked their fans to send continually through Twitter.
Keshi’s statement may be assuring but their pre-World Cup games leave so much to think about. After saving themselves blushes with a last minute equaliser against Scotland in London, the other two matches against Greece and Team USA did not go down well with their supporters. The two games played in the USA ended goalless and a 2-1 loss respectively. The last game against the USA exposed the deficiencies of the Eagles to the public. Their lack of real creativity and poor defence became glaring. Keshi and his assistants will have to find a blocking in the huge hole left at the left back position vacated by injured Elderson Echiejile. The coach replaced the defender with an attacking midfielder — Ejike Uzoenyi whose, comeback story adds flavour to the entire World Cup stories.
But whatever the minus may be for Keshi, he has proven he could make the Nigerian league more respectful and attractive by sticking to players from the Nigerian domestic league. In the opening game in Sao Paulo on Thursday, hosts Brazil only lined up three players from their celebrated national league. Of the three only Fred was in the starting line up. Keshi has proven to be more faithful than the rest of the world teams as four of the players are from the Nigerian league. In a short while it will become clear if they were daring risk worth taking in the face of teams with players picked virtually from the leagues of Europe.
But whatever the fears of fans, the players are backing Keshi to succeed. Many of the squad members have reasons to try to excel on individual basis.
Taking a look at the team captain, Joseph Yobo, so much can be said. He had been shut out of the team since lifting the Africa trophy in February 2013. He rejoined the team with the pre-World Cup friendly games. His inclusion was greeted with a lot of debate as the defender had quite a lesser role to play with Norwich City in the English League.
Now Yobo would rather ‘die’ on the field of play to prove his critics wrong.
In preparation, he has asked Nigerian fans to lend their support to the national team, as he is confident the team would do well in Brazil. He acknowledges that they did poorly with the friendlies but hopes their mistakes will form building blocks to better a outing.
He said, “We have played some friendly games but didn’t get the results we expected, but we have learnt a lot from them. The games were a little bit experimental as well, but now were ready to go against Iran in the first game. We’ll make sure we do very well and get the three points.
“But the friendlies are over now. You take the positives from it and look forward to the bigger targets. We want them to still believe in this team, we need their support because without their support we can’t go anywhere.”