Super Eagles uniting Nigeria into a country of football believers

Nigeria's Kenneth Omeruo in action with England's Harry Kane. (Reuters)

Nigeria's Kenneth Omeruo in action with England's Harry Kane. (Reuters)

Africa has five out of the 36 national teams in the 2018 football World Cup tournament in Russia: Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia.

Nobody will put serious money on any of the continent’s teams winning the World Cup finals in Moscow on Sunday, 15 July. But before a ball has been kicked, Nigeria’s Super Eagles have at least and already won one “World Cup” with their dazzling new kit.

The fashion blog The Idle Man said: “This shirt has gained huge popularity on social media with many fans rating it as the best shirt of the tournament without a single game being played in it.”

Nike Football Design Director Dan Farron said: “With Nigeria, we wanted to tap into the attitude of the nation. We started to see trends in attitude and energy connecting the athletes to music, fashion and more.
They are part of a resoundingly cool culture.”

And it isn’t just the denizens of social media and fashionistas rating Nigeria’s jersey highly. Nike recorded three million pre-orders before it’s release, according to the Nigerian Football Federation. On the day of its release, people queued from 5am to make sure they don’t lose out, and all orders were sold out within minutes. That wasn’t only in Nigeria, but also in other parts of the world where there are concentrations of Nigerians.

Considering the cost of an original football kit – around ₦31 241 (Nigerian Naira) or $87.16 – and the economic hardship in a country that more than half of its population live below one dollar per day, this is clear evidence that Nigerians have a genuine passion for football, and of course for their national team.

History in the World Cup
Before their qualification, many football fans and analysts had doubted Nigeria’s chances of making it to football’s largest tournament because of their failure to qualify for 2017 African Cup of Nations (Afcon).

Surprisingly, the Super Eagles turned their doubters to believers by winning their World Cup qualification group comfortably. They won the group with 13 points out of a maximum of 18 with a five-point gap separating them from the second team, Zambia.

The World Cup in Russia is Nigeria’s fifth appearance in the tournament – that takes place every four years – since their first in USA 1994. They had consistently qualified for the World Cup from then to 2018, except in 2006.

However, in all those appearances the Super Eagles have never got past the second round stage of the competition. In 1994, they managed to top their group which included Argentina, Bulgaria and Greece. The Super Eagles were a few minutes away from the quarterfinals when they lost to Italy in the second round.

In 1998 in France, Nigeria reached the second round but was eliminated by Denmark in that round. In South Korea and Japan’s tournament in 2002, Nigeria bowed out in the first round – out of a tough group that included Sweden, Argentina and England. They repeated their poor record in 2010 in South Africa. In 2014 in Brazil, the Super Eagles were eliminated by France in the second round.

Most popular sport
Football is by far the most popular sport in Nigeria. Millions of people in Africa’s most populous country play or follow football both locally and internationally. Age, gender, financial status, ethnicity or religion does not restrict the interest and passion for football in Nigeria.

In every part of the country, it is prevalent to see groups of people playing, watching or discussing football. The World Cup is a phenomenon that unites Nigerians, even though the country has immense political, religious and ethnic tensions, that have on numerous occasions lead to conflicts and disagreements.

In World Cup times, pastors and imams all pray for the success of the team. Muslims and Christians share tables in football viewing centres to watch and support the team. In social media, people with political differences support one “party” – the Super Eagles – during the tournament.

Chances of winning
Could the Super Eagles reach or go beyond the Quarterfinals in Russia 2018? Their squad has players with bags of experience such as their captain John Obi Mikel, who has won many trophies with his former English Premier league club, Chelsea. Victor Moses, who plays for Chelsea, has vast experience in the Premier League, described as the toughest league in the world. Others players in the Nigerian squad, who also play in that league, include Alex Iwobi, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa.

The Super Eagles are in the Group D of the World 2018 alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland. Many see Argentina and Croatia as the favourites of the group. It will be the fifth time Nigeria meet Argentina in the group stage of the tournament. However, the Super Eagles are yet to register a win against the South Americans in all these meetings.

If they are to win this time, they will have to do it against the likes of international superstars like Lionel Messi, Ángel Di María and Sergio Agüero. For the Super Eagles to go far in the tournament, will depend on their performance on and off the pitch. On the pitch, they have shown weakness in the defence and inability to start games well especially in their friendly against England.

Off the pitch, they need the necessary support from the Nigerian Football Federation. All allowances due to the players should be paid to avoid a repetition of the previous World Cup where Nigerian players abandoned training due to the non-payment of their allowances.

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