When the draws for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers were made, most soccer-loving Nigerians started thinking about the 2022 edition.
With Algeria, Africa most ranked side by FIFA, and Cameroon, reigning Africa Cup of Nations champions, pitched in the same group with the Super Eagles and only a sole ticket to Russia to vie for, in the group, the game seemed over for Nigeria.
But not until the Super Eagles defeated Zambia, the other team in that ‘group of death’, did Nigerians start mimicking Barack Obama’s rhetoric’s of ‘Yes We Can’!
The team’s campaign to Russia actually started in Swaziland. The home team ranked 130th in the world, recorded a huge morale boost when they held the three-time African champions to a goalless draw in Lobambo on November 13, 2015, at the Somhlolo National Stadium.
The Super Eagles redeemed their image four days later in Port Harcourt with a 2-0 win to reach the league phase of the qualifiers. Goals from Moses Simon and Efe Ambrose secured the victory.
“For a fact, Swaziland’s FIFA ranking is totally not justified,” Sunday Oliseh, the Super Eagles coach, said after the match.
“We should congratulate them. They posed us a lot of problems, they were always compact and resilience. They played with their hearts over the two legs and made things pretty difficult for us.
“If I got a chance to play a friendly in the future I will invite Swaziland.”
The former Nigerian International didn’t get a chance after he decided his own future on the job. On February 26, 2016, Oliseh announced his decision to end his increasingly controversial tenure on Twitter attributing the decision to lack of support and contract violations by the Nigerian Football Federation, NFF.
After six months, German tactician Gernot Rohr, signed a two-year deal to become the technical adviser of the team.
In recommending the former coach of Girondins Bordeaux, Etoile du Sahel, Niger Republic, and Burkina Faso for the job, the NFF’s technical and development committee described him as “calm, mature and possessing a good knowledge of the game in Africa”.
However, the federation didn’t show any of these traits with the embarrassment caused by naming Paul Le Guen as technical adviser, only for the Frenchman to turn down the offer.
Back to football related matters.
The team got off to a bright start in their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign as they defeated Zambia 2-1 to pick up their first ever away win against the Chipolopolo.
English Premier League duo of Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho scored in the 33rd and 43rd minute respectively to hand Nigeria the victory in Ndola on October 10, 2016.
The Super Eagles defeated Algeria 3 – 1 in their next game in Uyo. Victor Moses opened the scoring with a solo goal from the left then captain Mikel Obi added a second from a one-on-one situation after initially thinking he was in an offside position.
In the second half, Nabil Bentaleb scored from almost 35 yards after Riyad Mahrez had drawn midfielders Oghenekaro Etebo and Ogenyi Onazi out of position with some silky skills.
Moses, however, scored his second and Nigeria’s third when he found himself free on the left.
After two-round of games, Nigeria lead the group with six points. Cameroon, in the second position, has two points while Algeria and Zambia have a point each.
Nigeria chased a 33-game unbeaten run in World Cup qualifiers in their next game against the perennial foe, Cameroon.
They were not in the mood to be denied this feat after a 4-0 win over the African champions at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium Uyo with goals from Odion Ighalo, Mikel Obi, Victor Moses, and Kelechi Iheanacho.
“The ticket to Russia from Africa Group B appears to be taking on the green-white-green colour already, but we must not relent”, the president of NFF, Amaju Pinnick, said after the game.
“We must fight hard for every ball for the 90 minutes.”
Substitute Vincent Aboubakar rescued Cameroon from an embarrassing home defeat in the return leg which saw the Super Eagles’ World Cup ticket delayed – for another 90 minutes.
Moses Simon gave Nigeria the lead in the first half but a second-half penalty from Aboubakar ended the game 1-1 at the Stade Omnisports Ahmadou Ahidjo.
The ticket to Russia was finally secured after a 1-0 win against Zambia in Uyo courtesy of an Alex Iwobi goal sixteen minutes from time.
Iwobi’s entry as a substitute to Simon Moses in the second half of the match changed the tempo of the game putting a smile at last on the faces of the Super Eagles fans.
The biggest smile, however, was on the face of Rohr.
“The most difficult game in the qualifiers is today, we are at home, the pressure to win at home was high,” he said.
“Today was a big fight, we had to be intelligent and not concede a goal, I am very happy for the victory.”
The Super Eagles finished their World Cup qualifier with no defeat as they played out a 1-1 draw against Algeria in Constantine.
John Ogu gave Nigeria the lead in the 62nd minute before Yacine Brahaimi pulled Algeria level late from the penalty spot.
The Confederation of African Football, CAF, however, criticised referee Eric Otogo-Castane of Gabon for awarding the penalty.
“Yacine Brahimi won and converted a harshly-awarded late penalty to rescue a 1-1 draw for Algeria against already-qualified Nigeria Friday in a World Cup Africa zone Group B dead-rubber,” the body said on its website.
“The Gabonese referee ruled that Abdullahi Shehu fouled Brahimi as he moved into the box in Constantine, but big-screen replays suggested otherwise.”
Penalty or no penalty, most soccer-loving Nigerians didn’t lose sleep like they did when the draws were made. Russia here we come!