CHAOS DIGEST

Missing 2006 World Cup marked the downfall of the Super Eagles, missing 2022 could have same effect [Excerpt]

If history is anything to go by, missing out on Qatar 2022 could have far-reaching repercussions for Nigeria's men's national team at the highest level

Osodi Emmanuel

As far as significant dates in Nigerian football go, June 18, 2005, perhaps does not ring the bell that it should. Sure, the more attentive will recognise it offhand, but even then they might not grasp the fuller significance of it.

The setting is Kano. The worst of the sun’s fury is spent, and as Essam Abdel-Fatah puts the whistle to his lips for the final time, for the first time the reality is beginning to dawn: the possibility of Nigeria missing out on the World Cup is all too real.

The failure of the NFA to notify FIFA in good time of its desire to schedule the game for a night-time kick-off meant that, on the day, both teams took to the pitch at the Kofar Mata Stadium in the baking afternoon sun. The rest, to borrow a horribly overused cliche, is history.

It is actually my firm belief that, in reality, it was not that 1-1 draw against Angola that denied Nigeria a place at the 2006 World Cup.

The (at the time) novel use of the head-to-head record as a tiebreaker has gone some way toward cementing this view. However, the case of Cameroon, who beat Cote d’Ivoire both home and away but failed to qualify regardless, should be instructive: similar to Nigeria, it was actually a lack of efficiency against the group’s weaker teams that did them in. The Super Eagles picked up 12 points against the bottom three teams in Group 4; Angola picked up 14.

In any case, the real tragedy was not missing out on the Mundial in Germany in itself. It was in what came after.

You see, missing out on the 2006 World Cup officially marked the end of Nigeria’s footballing heyday. If we pinpoint 1988 as the beginning of that golden period (this was the year before the arrival of a certain Clemens Westerhof), there is a clear difference between the baseline of performance before Germany 2006 and after.

Of the eight Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournaments before that year’s World Cup (Nigeria was absent from the 1996 and 1998 editions for political reasons, so we can safely leave those out of this consideration), the Super Eagles reached the semi-finals at a minimum in all of them. Of the eight editions after, they have only made the semi-finals on three occasions, and thrice have actually failed to qualify altogether.

Failing to make an appearance in Germany was a dreadful outcome, but its wider effect was the abrading of Nigeria’s standing and competitive level even within the continent.

In the AFCON immediately following, Nigeria posted its worst finish at the tournament since 1982, exiting in the first knockout round. 2010 saw Shaibu Amodu’s side once more contrived to reach a semi-final, but beyond the outcome, the performances actually illustrated Nigeria’s decline aptly: they needed a penalty to defeat Benin in the Group Stage, and in the Round of 16 they were roundly outplayed, outshot and outclassed by a young, Herve Renard-led Zambia side two years removed from their miracle in Libreville. Even against far from elite opposition, Nigeria could now be routinely matched.

Success in 2013 was well earned, but within the context of what came before and after, it was clearly something of a freak, and owed (to perhaps a smaller degree than some detractors would have you believe) something to a less-than-stellar field.

Fittingly, there is no better illustration of the before and after than Nigeria’s relationship with the team that arguably took its place at the top table of African football: Ghana.

Nigeria went 15 years without a defeat to Ghana at senior international level, but since the Black Stars’ maiden World Cup appearance in 2006, the tide has perceptibly turned: Ghana have not lost to Nigeria in the 15 years following.

Handily, both sides faced one another in the two AFCONs that bookended the World Cup. (The less said about the chaotic 2007 friendly in Brentford, the better) In the 2006 edition, the Super Eagles won, the 1-0 scoreline perhaps not a fair reflection of Nigeria’s superiority on the day; in 2008, despite being at a numerical advantage for half an hour following the sending-off of John Mensah, Ghana comfortably held their great rivals at bay and won 2-1.

Come the 2010 edition, the Black Stars did not even need a full-strength squad to eliminate Nigeria, putting a drab Super Eagles side out of their misery in the final four.

However, most pointedly, Ghana would inherit Nigeria’s spot as a reliable, consistent AFCON performer, reaching six consecutive semi-finals between 2008 and 2017.

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