Nigeria has not done well on the continent for quite a while. And by well, we mean we have not won it since forever. Let’s get real, a child who was born in 1994 is right about ready to start having its own kids, so it is that long since Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations (Afcon).
Most people here in Lagos are not as optimistic as we have been in the past because what makes it even worse is that we even failed to qualify for the last AFCON tournament. A previously unheard of “achievement”. Then to make things even worse, we are now saddled with a coach (Stephen Keshi) who has a reputation for fighting with his players. A solid mix if you ask me.
However, there is a school of thought that believes Nigeria may do better than expected starting next Monday in South Africa. I tend to subscribe to this school and will give reasons below.
First, the expectations this time are low. All the years of disappointment in the past never seemed to dampen the belief that Nigerians had that, at least on the African continent, the Eagles were anointed to win any and every game they played, and by a handsome margin in the least. The first chink in that armor appeared when we failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. But that sense of destiny was finally blown to pieces when we failed to qualify for the Nations Cup in 2012. Nigerians finally appear to have a reasonable level of expectations from the team. To add to that, the fact that a lot of our players are not doing as well in Europe, in our eyes at least, as in previous seasons makes people unsure of what to expect from the team. You only need to listen to Nigerian radio and television to note that the excitement that used to accompany the Nations Cup previously, is simply not there now. I think this lack of fan pressure will make for better conditions, less intensity, less scrutiny. The kind of things that have for too long distracted Nigerian sides.
The Eagles will do well in South Africa because for the first time in quite a while, we have a good blend of experience and genuine youth, brawn and brain, home- and Europe-based footballers. What this means is that there are enough hungry players in the team who are angling for moves to the big leagues and know that this is probably the only opportunity they have to impress the scouts who will no doubt cluster at the Cup of Nations. With the experience of players like Joseph Yobo, things can be calmed down such that the occasion will not get to the heads of some of the younger players. Again, with this blend, Keshi now has the ability to change things to suit the variable conditions he might meet on the field. Then there is the surprise factor…
My third reason for optimism is that we have Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses and above all, Emma Emenike. Providing all three can stay fit, I am very optimistic that the team will score goals from the chances that will definitely be created. You see, unlike a lot of others, I think that a midfield built around John Michael Obi is an excellent prospect. Mikel is, at the moment, Nigeria’s only genuine world class player. While a lot of people here are unhappy that he did not turn out to be the reincarnation of the great Jay-Jay Okocha, Mikel has remained a regular in the Chelsea first team. Granted, he appears to have retrogressed and, to be honest, does not occupy the same orbit as Lionel Messi nowadays, but the fact is that Mikel has time and again proved to be a big game player. He frustrates fans with his jeje style of play, but ask the guys he is on the field with, and Lampard as an example will tell you without equivocation that Mikel is essential to Chelsea. Look at his role in the last three games of the 2011/2012 Champions League. I think that the inventiveness of Nosa Igiebor, the industry of Ogezi Onazi and the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel is a great combo.
Despite all my reasons given above, this Nigerian team is far from the finished article and we must keep our eyes on the real ball, which is next year’s World Cup in Brazil. However, there is a window of opportunity here as the two great teams from the last decade, Cameroon and Egypt, are missing. Cote d’Ivoire, I firmly believe, are well past it and will not win in South Africa. I don’t think that the other strong team on the deck, Ghana, have the balance required, not without Kevin Prince-Boateng, and Dede Ayew. Zambia, the defending champions, have won what I think will be their only ever Nations Cup. So, I will go out on a limb and make Nigeria slight favourites for the 2013 African Cup of Nations.
Nigeria play their first match in Afcon 2013 against the Burkina Faso on Monday January 21 at 18.00 GMT.