A great start but…

Nigeria’s maiden appearance in the 1994 World Cup was a revelation. The Super Eagles almost knocked Italy out in the second round.

The year 1994 will always be remembered with fondness by Nigeria’s football tragics. In its maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup, the team produced a solid performance that took not just its opponents, but also its adoring fans by surprise.

Bunched with Argentina, Bulgaria, and Greece, Nigeria, almost incredibly, topped the group.

Managed by Clemens Westerhof — he also led the side to a championship triumph in the African Cup of Nations in ‘94 — Nigeria began its campaign in the United States with aplomb, beating Bulgaria 3-0. While it lost to Argentina, a 2-0 victory over Greece took Nigeria to the second round.

The ‘Super Eagles’ were within touching distance of making the cut for the quarterfinals. After Emmanuel Amuneke had scored in the 25th minute against Italy, Nigeria looked destined to create history. But, Roberto Baggio’s late strike took the game to the extra-time, where he again fired the winning goal.

In the 1998 edition in France, Nigeria proved that its performance four years ago was no fluke. Under manager Bora Milutinovic, the Nigerians recorded an upset 3-2 win over Spain. What was particularly impressive was the manner in which they came twice from behind — from 0-1 and 1-2 down respectively — to shock the Spaniards.

The Eagles prevailed over Bulgaria, but lost to Paraguay. It qualified for the second round nevertheless. Nwankwo Kanu, Sunday Oliseh, and Jay-Jay Okocha had come up with stellar displays. However, a 1-4 loss to Denmark dashed any hopes of further progress.

Following fine performances in the 2000 and 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria was fancied to better its showing. But, in 2006, drawn with Sweden, Argentina, and England, the side didn’t go past the first round. Nigeria’s fortunes plummeted further as it didn’t even qualify for the next World Cup in Germany.

Its poor run continued in the 2010 edition, too, as it failed to go beyond the group stage. This had frightening consequences back home as the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, suspended the national team from international competition for two years. The team was at a risk of being banned by FIFA on the grounds of political interference. But, in July 2010, the government rescinded the ban.

The side has never been a stranger to controversies. Westerhoff had revealed a couple of years ago how corruption was commonplace in the set-up. “We had cases where players paid $15,000 (about N2.8 million) to the coach and say ‘I want to play for the national team’ and the coach would accept. They bought their way into the national team and it was an unbelievable situation. Very sad. I know these things,” he told supersport.com.

The present coach, Stephen Keshi, has made a name for himself as a hard-nosed operator. His ploy of choosing hardworking domestic players over established stars resulted in Nigeria winning the Africa Cup of Nations last year. Now, a World Cup code of conduct has been imposed on the players to put an end to the persistent squabbling over payments and selection. Last year, a pay-dispute almost resulted in Nigeria missing the Confederations Cup.

Despite rumours to the contrary, Keshi is said to have the backing of the Nigerian football authorities. “My employers the NFF (Nigerian Football Federation) didn’t set any targets for me to reach at Brazil 2014, but I have set a target for myself which is not meant for public consumption,” he said.

According to reports, each player is guaranteed at least $100 000 if Nigeria wins the competition.

* * * A delight to watch

Augustine Azuka `Jay-Jay' Okocha is undoubtedly one of the best players to have emerged from Nigeria. An immortal chant associated with him is he is `so good they named him twice.' Okocha was born in a family that was passionate about football and he grew up playing on the streets and rough pitches. That, he said, helped shape his technique.

After making his official International debut for Nigeria in 1993, he was a member of the victorious Africa Cup of Nations squad as well as the World Cup side that made it to the second round. In 1996, he was part of the Olympic gold winning Nigerian side in Atlanta.

It was during his time at Bolton that his popularity soared. Ever the showman, Okocha was known for his intelligent passing skills as well as his chiselled flair with a dead ball. His sheer gamut of tricks made him a crowd favourite. As was the case with many of his colleagues in the Nigerian team, he, too, was accused of age-fudging.

Okocha announced his retirement after Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. He signed off with a win against Senegal in a third-place playoff match in the Cup of Nations in Egypt. In March 2004, Pele named him among the top 125 living footballers.