Article: Andy Quao
Nigeria are undoubtedly among the dominant soccer forces on the African continent. Apart from the biennial Africa Cup of Nations tournament, this most populous country in Africa has also won silverware at other international competitions. In 1985, the Golden Eaglets became the first African side to win the FIFA U-17 World Cup only to be annulled by the world’s soccer governing body on grounds of age fraud. But the Eaglets of 1993 atoned for that loss when they won the competition by beating Ghana.
One of the greatest moments in the history of Nigerian football was in 1996 when all the continent joined them to celebrate Africa’s first gold medal at the Olympics.
Before that feat, the Super Eagles had since 1994 been one of Africa’s contenders at the World Cup.
In club football, the Nigerians have spawned great sides like Enugu Rangers, Julius Berger, Inyawanwu FC and lately Enyimba, who have made history in the CAF Inter Club competitions.
The achievements of Nigeria as a soccer nation go back to the 1980s when they hosted and won the Nations Cup in 1980. On that historic occasion, the Super Eagles thrashed the Desert Warriors of Algeria 3-0 at the Surulere Stadium to lift the trophy.
The Nigerians were on the threshold of making history with a second win of the competition in the 1984 edition in Cote d’lvoire but their bubble burst in their encounter with their age-long nemesis, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun. The game, which evoked the rivalry between these two famous African teams, ended in a 3-2 victory in favour of Cameroun, who paraded one of the best sides in living memory. On the Lions’ list were legends like Roger Milla and Theophile Abega, Emmanuel Kunde and Thomas Nkonu, with the Nigerians featuring the likes of Stephen Keshie, Henry Nwosu and Muda Lawal.
Though they failed to go beyond the first round in the 1986 edition in Morocco, they bounced back in style in the 1988 edition and managed to cruise to the final, only to be halted once again by the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun. Having established themselves as perennial contenders of the competition, the Nigerians were in Algeria in 1990 and lost 0-5 to the host nation but still managed to qualify for the finals only to lose again to the Desert Warriors.
Since 1994 when they won the tournament for the second time, the Super Eagles have remained one of the strongest forces of the competition. They have since 2000 ensured a place in the last four.
In the 2002 edition, after accounting for Ghana in a steamy quarter-final showdown, they cruised through to the semi-finals only to lose to Senegal.
In 2004 the Nigerians were again among the semi-finalists of the competition, which was hosted and won by Tunisia. The feat was repeated in the last edition of the competition in Egypt.
Since losing 0-4 to their arch-rivals, Ghana, in a London friendly, the Nigerians have felt insecure and a revenge, together with the ultimate at Ghana 2008, is the best prize to placate their teeming fans back home.
The complexion of the team has changed radically since that loss to Ghana. German Coach Berti Vogtz took over from Nigerian Austin Eguavon, and appeared to have inspired the team back to their winning ways, even though Vogtz told newsmen during the draw in Accra last year that winning the trophy would be an uphill task.
They arrived in Ghana with the most attractive array of talents. The list includes John Mikkel Obi, John Utaka, veteran Nwanku Kanu, Yakubu Ayegbeni and Obafemi Martins.
Traditionally, the Nigerians have derived their strength from a fluid midfield and a mobile attacking line. This they hope to exploit to confound their opponents.
What the Nigerians boast in attack and midfield they lack in defence as they occasionally become erratic around the centre where Joseph Yobo usually operates.
The Nigerians arrive for Ghana 2008 with all the big names, including Everton striker Yakubu, Ayigbeni. The squad will be captained by the experienced Kanu Nwanku, who will be making his fifth appearance at Africa’s football showpiece.
Yakubu, who last year said he was not interested in playing for the Super Eagles, made an about-turn after being assured of a starting position in a star-studded Nigerian attack, which also has Newcastle’s Obafemi Martins and Osaze Odemwingie, who plays for Locomotiv Moscow.
The newcomers of the Eagles squad for Ghana 2008 include defenders Rabiu Afolabi, Onyekechi Apam, Danny Shittu, Ifeanyi Emeghara and Richard Eromigbe and striker Ikechkwu Uche, who was rewarded by Coach Vogtz after his goal lifted Nigeria to a 2-0 win over Sudan in a friendly in Spain. However, striker Mannasseh Ishiaku, who scored the other goal, was not lucky in getting into the squad.