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Christian Obodo: ‘When we missed the World Cup, it was like our careers were over’

November 18th 2022, 9:22:49 pm

The former Nigeria international speaks exclusively to Pulse Sports on the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup

Christian Obodo dejected during Nigeria's 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign (Getty Images)

For only the second time since a memorable debut in 1994, Nigeria will not be counted among the number of African representatives when Qatar 2022 kicks off on Sunday.

Crushing defeat at the hands of Portugal on Thursday night only made the reality of the Super Eagles’ standing starker. Few African national sides have logged more appearances at the World Cup than the three-time African champions, but in Lisbon Nigeria were reduced to training fodder for uncharitable hosts, a tune-up for more rigorous examination when they raise anchor on November 24.

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If the manner of the defeat stung afterward, it will sting even more after the opening festivities, when the dust settles inside Al Bayt Stadium and the curtain is raised. Only then will it become apparent what has been lost; according to former Nigeria international Christian Obodo, “That is the point where they’ll say, ‘Wow, I missed this World Cup. I should be playing here.’”

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Nigeria’s last World Cup no-show – 2006 – saw them fail to qualify for the finals in Germany despite only losing once in the qualification campaign. Obodo was a part of that side, a player of supreme gifts whom many believed had the flair and derring-do to replace no less a player than Jay-Jay Okocha.

2005 found the sorcerer’s apprentice at the peak of his powers: a mainstay in a Udinese side that went toe to toe with Barcelona on Champions League nights and from time to time put noses out of joint in Serie A.

His experience of Nigeria’s failure and the repercussions were quite particular. Beyond the basic grief, missing out on the World Cup seemed to mark an inflection point for Obodo: not only did he never get another shot at strutting his stuff on the grandest stage of all, but his career took something of a nosedive right after.

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Back-to-back knee injuries kept him out of action for close to two years, not only torpedoing his chances of making the squad for the 2010 edition, but also costing him at club level: after a number of unremarkable loan spells, he was released by Udinese in 2012.

The misfortune has lent him a unique perspective. “Missing the World Cup is the worst thing that can happen to any player,” Obodo said. “It was not just about representing a big country like Nigeria, which I am proud to be from, but all of Europe was looking forward to (seeing) how a player like Christian Obodo would do at the World Cup as well. At that time, 18 different clubs were looking at me in Europe.

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“When we understood we were not going to the World Cup, it was like our careers were over. It was my saddest moment.”

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On the final day of qualifying for the 2006 tournament, the Super Eagles thumped Zimbabwe 5-1, but by that point their destiny was no longer in their hands; while Nigeria ran up the score in Abuja, in Kigali, it only took one to deny them. With 11 minutes left on the clock, Fabrice Akwa struck in enemy territory to seal the most implausible of fates. “We were expecting the other people to get a draw," the skillful midfielder admitted. "But they (Rwanda) lost on their home ground, allowing [Angola] to go to the World Cup."

Obodo struggles to make sense of precisely where things got out of hand, but believes catastrophes of that kind are born of a multiple systems failure. "We all made mistakes. When you fail to qualify for the World Cup, it’s not going to be [the fault of] the coach, it’s not going to be the players, or just the management at all. Definitely, something has gone very wrong.

"Sometimes, I sit with some of my boys, they say the players are wrong, the tactics are different. When we win, everyone takes the glory, but when we lose we start pointing fingers. But the truth is everybody was involved. That’s my own opinion. ”

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The circumstances were very different in March, even if the setting was the same. Against Ghana in Abuja, Nigeria had the bit between their teeth but got sucker-punched in the mouth and never properly recovered. The 1-1 draw that knocked the Super Eagles out of the reckoning precipitated a pitch invasion, as angered fans had their way with the stadium’s furnishings in lieu of the stricken, heaving players.

“Our own was quite different,” Obodo agreed. “But I understand what the present Super Eagles passed through. For ‘almighty’ Nigeria to not be at the World Cup, as far as Africa is concerned, is a knock – not just a slap – on the head.

“I know the fans were upset, but I believe the players were even more upset than the fans, because our dream as footballers is to go to the World Cup. Nobody knows when next you will have that opportunity.”

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Indeed, as the tournament draws closer, the pain will only swell. Portugal, who handed Nigeria their heaviest defeat in 24 years, will open their campaign against Nigeria’s nemesis Ghana. It is rather cruel irony, of the variety that leaves the players – and all who have a stake in the national team – with no place to hide.

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“This is the time when it will really dawn on them,” Obodo said. “In that moment, after you lose or draw, you get some of the feeling for a week or two, but when you go back to your club and start playing games, that helps you get your mind off it.

“But now, when the leagues stop and they get a brief holiday and everyone is going back to their countries for the World Cup, that is when the real pain comes. Because all of us will be at home watching the people playing the World Cup.

“It’s not just the players. Nigerians too will feel like they should be running to their homes with their friends and drinks when Nigeria is playing, supporting their country. But it’s not going to be so.”

Solace Chukwu
Solace is a respected columnist across various international platforms, he has close to a decade of experience reporting on African football. He can be found on Twitter: @TheOddSolace.

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