At least a tinge of bitterness will accompany Nigeria on their flight to Russia this month; an emotion born not only of their own experiences, but also those of a whole continent.
The Super Eagles are the only African team who return to the World Cup after participating four years ago. Hosted in Brazil, Stephen Keshi managed to sneak the team past a group that included a dominant Argentina side. In the last 16, France stood in the way of a first quarter-final berth.
“If you remember, the only African teams that made it to the knockout stage were Algeria and Nigeria,” Arinze Oguchi recalls. “You know when it feels like you’re carrying the flag of the continent.”
Oguchi, an engineer and superfan from Lagos, travelled to South America that year for the tournament. Nigeria started strong against the French, only denied the lead by a marginal, but correct, offside call. Then, in the 55th minute, Blaise Matuidi buried his studs deep into Ogenyi Onazi’s ankle.
“The thing most Nigerians remember from that game was we had our holding player injured,” says Oguchi. “That got us into a tight situation. People felt he should have gotten a red card, but the game continued … most Nigerians just can’t forget that game.”
Despite the forced substitution of Onazi, the Super Eagles continued to push, coming close to finding the winning strike themselves.
It was only a stroke away from the 80th minute that Vincent Enyeama flapped at an inswinging corner, deflecting it perfectly for Paul Pogba to head into an empty net. With his head down, Joseph Yobo would go on to score an own goal in stoppage time, confirming a 2-0 defeat. Keshi vented his frustrations after the game but he could not prevent their Brazil adventure from coming to an end.
African sportsmen and women take significantly more pride in the success of their continental neighbours than anyone else on the planet. Nigeria’s defeat then, to some, felt less like a once-off and more like a sequel to one of the most infamous moments in World Cup history.
“Four years back, Ghana was the only African country in the quarter-finals and then the [Luis] Suárez handball drama happened,” says Oguchi. “Not only did it hit the Ghanaians, but even as a Nigerian I felt Africa was robbed by Suárez’s action.” Uruguay won that fixture after Suárez blatantly stopped a goal with his hand.
This month, the Super Eagles travel with a strong squad. Oguchi, however, says the fans back home won’t be getting too excited.
“We’re using those experiences to normalise our expectations from the World Cup this year. If you talk to the average Nigerian, he’ll say if the boys can get to the knockout stage then he’d be proud. Unlike in the past where our expectation was ‘Hey, go get the World Cup’.”