/ 30 May 2008

SA vs Nigeria: A titanic rivalry

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and South Africa, its economic powerhouse, have a rivalry rooted in the advantages brought by their respective strengths, numbers and wealth.

Nigerians believe they are the best footballers on the continent, even though their country’s trophy cabinet does not have much to show.

They have won the Africa Nations Cup twice, in 1980 and in 1994. They failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and at this year’s Nations Cup in Ghana, they were eliminated 2-1 at the quarterfinal stage by a Ghanaian side that played with 10 men for most of the game. It was their worst record in more than a quarter of a century.

Such failures do not stop their former player and commentator Sunday Oliseh and other Nigerian football pundits from belittling teams such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire — teams that have, in the past decade, supplanted Nigeria’s lofty position as a great football-playing nation.

Perhaps much of this arrogance stems from the fact that Nigeria believe they would have retained the Africa Nations Cup they won in 1994 when they beat a Kalusha Bwalya-captained Zambian side that was rebuilt from the team that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

Nigeria did not participate in the 1996 tournament that South Africa won. Dictator Sani Abacha, in a moment of pique, withdrew the Super Eagles team as a snub to Nelson Mandela, who was vocal in his condemnation of the execution, in 1995, of Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni activists fighting Shell’s pollution of their homeland.

It is unclear whose diplomatic victory that was, but football matters are much clearer. The football statistics are weighted in Nigeria’s favour, going into this weekend’s match.

South Africa have never beaten or scored against Nigeria in a competitive match.

In 1992, the Super Eagles defeated South Africa 4-0 in a qualifying match for the World Cup United States 94 and then drew 0-0 at the FNB Stadium in the reverse fixture.

At the Africa Nations Cup in 2000, Nigeria beat South Africa 2-0. They comprehensively outplayed Bafana 4-0 in Tunisia in 2004.

Based on their form at this year’s Nations Cup, it is difficult to say whether Nigeria are in a downward spiral or actually undergoing renewal under new coach Shaibu Amodu.

Amodu, who once coached Orlando Pirates, might fancy that he has an inkling of the South African scene and the mentality that prevails here, not to mention a score to settle with those who have never shown him the respect he deserves.

His squad still have the bulk of the players who served Nigeria dismally over the years. What is clear is their lack of the kind of the pedigree that made the team the continent’s dominant force in the 1990s.

Their high-profile players either play for middling teams in England, France and Europe’s third-tier leagues or are not central to the plans of their respective teams.

For example, Nigeria’s most high-profile player, John Obi Mikel, has not had much playing time under former Chelsea manager Avram Grant. He was not included in the squad that played Manchester United in the Champions League final.

At Newcastle, Obafemi Martins may be sold this season. He has never fulfilled the high expectations that the club had of him when they brought him from Inter Milan and handed him the number-nine shirt won by iconic former club captain Alan Shearer.

But Amodu believes his team can beat South Africa. He doesn’t see the arrival of Brazil’s Joel Santana as posing a threat at all.

As part of his preparations his team played Euro 2008 co-host Austria to a 1-1 draw this week. This is the same Austria whose fans last year launched a petition titled ”Let’s not embarrass ourselves”, a campaign that called for withdrawal from the Euro 2008 tournament to save the country’s honour.

South Africa — whose main failings at the last tournament, earlier this year, related to the lack of proven strikers — go into this match without Benni McCarthy, who scored eight goals this season in England’s premier league. He is being his usual petulant self. He would rather be a good parent to his daughter than score goals for Bafana.

Lerato Chabangu, scorer of the winner in the Nedbank Cup final last weekend, has been recalled to provide cover for the striker.

Problems on the pitch aside, Bafana are sure to face a frosty reception following the attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa in the past two weeks. Nigerians have threatened to demonstrate at the team’s hotel and the stadium to protest against the attacks.

Nigeria may be in a renewal process of their own, but one cannot see how a Bafana side with a new coach, with no proven strikers and playing in front of a hostile crowd, will defeat them.