We had started the World Cup Qualifiers on a terrific note- dispatching Rwanda 2-0 at the National Stadium in Abuja courtesy Obafemi Martins’ brace. It was a game that sparked a bit of life into the Super Eagles after the disappointment of falling short at the Nations Cup, finishing with a bronze medal at Tunisia in 2004 in what looked like the Super Eagles’ best selection since 1994. Just before our first game in Morocco, the trio of Celestine Babayaro, Victor Agali and Yakubu Aiyegbeni were sent home for breaking camp rules and was a dismissal that marked an end to the careers of both Agali and Babayaro in the Super Eagles. We were later eliminated by Tunisia after a particular Osaze Odemwingie missed his penalty during the shoot-out after the team had played a 1-all draw during regulation time. Spirits were lifted when we started with that commanding victory against Rwanda but our hopes were soon short lived as the team capitulated when they should have held their breath.
Further victories against Zimbabwe away and a less than convincing performance against Algeria at home on a day Kanu Nwankwo got married meant the team had started on a bright note. The joy soon ended as the Super Eagles started throwing away crucial points where it was least expected. Foreign-based players missed away fixtures and the senior players always had excuses for missing important matches coupled with a lack of friendly matches, ensured the team was no longer in good standing in the race to Germany.
Following a loss to Angola courtesy of Fabrice Akwa lone goal and another draw against Rwanda in Kigali, Nigeria was now dancing a macabre and had just wasted the golden opportunity of a relatively easy group. Overconfidence played a part and also, a questionable level of commitment. We defeated Algeria in Algiers 2-5 which stands as one of the best performances I’ve seen of the Super Eagles- we defeated Zimbabwe 5-1 in Abuja and spirits were high now that the team was back in shape and ready to play.
Head coach, Christian Chukwu was in high spirits and confident that the team will nick the ticket. There was a regular lineup now and Obafemi Martins, JayJay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Joseph Yobo, Ifeanyi Udeze, Chidi Odiah, Vincent Enyeama, Seyi Olofinjana were in great spirits and working harder than ever to ensure we made it to the World Cup but the tragedy left it so late before it struck.
Hell was let loose, fans were teary-eyed, players were disjointed and dismantled, the whole of Africa thought the shock was over after the advent of Togo but they had one more to be seen. The choice of hot Kano for a legion of strictly foreign-based players was a wrong call and then NFA Chairman, Ibrahim Galadima never had a response to the catalogue of criticisms that greeted his office after that shocking incident. Nigeria was sitting comfortably courtesy of an Okocha free-kick which was absolutely beautiful and the fans were on cloud nine and in a jubilant mood as their darling star-studded Super Eagles coasted home with delight: then suddenly, Vincent Enyeama fumbled Figuerero’s apparently weak free-kick and that was it! Nigeria would be missing out of the World Cup, for the first time in 12 years. Okocha’s magic couldn’t save us from that tragic incident. Angola qualified and Nigeria missed out, despite scoring 18 goals and conceding six in eight qualifying games. It was really a sad day for Nigerian football and one never to be forgotten in history.
As the Super Eagles of Nigeria march out to play her other qualifying games after starting so beautifully, there should be the warning that it is not yet Uhuru as celebrations should be delayed for the end of the battle. Good luck, Nigerians!