A day before our soccer ambassadors to the recently concluded FIFA World Cup Finals staged in Russia, the Super Eagles, flew out of the country, the squad paid the traditional farewell visit to President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
The soccer-loving president, who was the head of state when Nigeria first won a global trophy at the FIFA/ Kodak U-17 World Cup Finals in Beijing, China in 1985, was highly effusive when he hosted the team and its officials.
He urged them to play well and play fair.
The Commander-in-Chief did not order them to come back with the trophy which he had a brief moment with at the Villa during its routine round-the-globe tour to all the participating nations.
That would have been a tall order… a mission impossible, given the calibre of players in the squad.
However, the captain of the team, John Obi Mikel, who was at his boastful best, declared in the full glare of the television cameras that he would come back with the coveted trophy for the president to adorn his office with.
I would not know whether Mr.
President believed his ears or not.
If he did, he must have taken Mikel’s promise with a pinch of salt.
Even the dyed-in-the-wool disciples of the Super Eagles knew that Mikel’s declaration was to humour the president.
It would have been the greatest miracle after Christ if John (Obi Mikel), the namesake of the forerunner of the Saviour, had made good his promise, given the quality of legs he led to Russia.
As someone who has spent all his life writing about football and playing the game before hanging my boots at 34, I knew that Mikel was not honest to himself.
Methinks John told the Villa occupier what he thought would gladden his heart.
Signs that Mikel would not be able to keep his promise began to manifest from our first match in the so-called pool of death that comprised Croatia, Argentina and Iceland.
We lost 0 – 2 to the eventual finalists.
Our hope was rekindled in the second match with an emphatic 2 – 0 bashing of the Icelanders (kudos to Ahmed Musa’s sumptuous brace) before falling to 1 – 2 to our perennial foes from Argentina in a duel we should have won but lost just four minutes to regulation time.
We had committed a defensive blunder at that critical time when we needed just a draw to fly into the round of 16 and we were punished by the same defensive player thought to have committed a foul in the vital area some minutes earlier.
That would have earned us a penalty kick.
It was the fourth time in their six appearances that Nigeria had failed to progress beyond the group stage.
Their best outing was at the USA ‘94 where they narrowly missed qualifying for the quarter-finals against Italy.
Nigeria paraded one of the best teams in their debut appearance at the tournament, ranking 5th in the world.
If the skipper of the squad, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi of blessed memory, had boasted that he would return to the country with the trophy in 1994, perhaps many would have believed him.
The Super Eagles were at their optimum best, having just conquered the continent at the Nations Cup Finals held in Tunisia.
Keshi was complemented by the likes of Rashidi Yekini, Dan Amokachie, Sunday Oliseh, Victor Ikpeba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Peter Rufai and Finidi George.
Such quality players were lacking in the squad that went to Russia.
We may not see that generation of Nigerian players, led by iconic Clemence Westerhof, in many World Cup Finals to come.
The USA ‘94 squad also reminded one of the generation of footballers that threw up players like Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amiesimaka, Christian Chukwu, Emma Okala, Alloysius and Andrew Atuegbu, Muda Lawal, Felix ‘Owoblow’ Owolabi, Thompson Oliha, Humphrey Nwosu, Arthur Ebunam, Okey Isima, Christian Madu, Pat Ekeji, Sam Ojebode and Thompson Usiyen.
Must I go on? Usiyen reminded me of the late Rashidi Yekini.
The former was lanky and skilful like Emmanuel Adebayo and deadly in the box.
But Yekini had no time for finesse like Usiyen.
But he had the speed of a cheetah and the force of a bulldozer.
He was goalkeepers’ nightmare! Russia 2018 was a heartbreaking reminder of their previous outings at France ’98, Japan/Korea 2002 and South Africa 2010.
Brazil 2014 was a shade better because we qualified for the round of 16 only to lose to France.
We went to Russia with players that lacked good quality and depth who ply their trades in the European leagues and a couple of them in the mediocre Chinese soccer.
Most of the players are bench-bound in their various clubs, coming off in the dying minutes of matches or not getting the nod at all in most cases.
It was this set of players that Mikel was banking on when he made the boast.
The next World Cup Finals tournament comes up in Qatar in 2022.
In Russia, Nigeria paraded the youngest squad.
What that means is that more than 60 per cent of them could still make it to the next jamboree.
But our major problem is continuity.
Nigeria has conquered the soccer world in the age grade categories, especially the U-17, starting from the exploits of the Golden Eaglets in 1985.
But how many of them have been able to graduate to the intermediate and senior levels to replicate the feats? We may not have won the U-20 World Cup Finals, but we have not done too badly in some tournaments like the one that produced the likes of skipper John Obi Mikel and Taiye Taiwo that starred at the Holland 2005.
We were runnersup to Argentina at the tournament that also featured Lionel Messi.
The successes achieved by the diminutive Argentine at the global level are known to even non-soccer buffs in this country.
Right now, Nigerian football is once again at crossroads following the recent Supreme Court’s verdict that favoured Chris Giwa’s election to the leadership of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) four years ago.
Nigeria’s soccer future is now trapped between the Devil and Satan.
The situation is like starting fire to the forest.
The fire starter only knows where the fire is starting but cannot accurately predict the direction it will follow.
The pyromaniac could even get consumed in the ensuing conflagration! All told, one cannot but admire the spirit of sportsmanship exhibited by the youthful and ebullient President of France, Mr.
Emmanuel Macron and his beautiful and amiable opposite from Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in the build-up to the grand finale that featured their countries.
They both pumped hands when goals were scored by either side; held hands, kissed and hugged each other, even after France eventually overpowered Croatia to clinch the trophy.
The duo can be said to have returned home from Russia with love, unlike our Super Eagles that returned with loss