Eagles in World Cup Full Flight, By Hannatu Musawa
The FIFA World Cup is here again. The lenses of the planet will be centered on South America for the next month as the football elite descend on Brazil, the host country. As Brazil gears up for the glitz and glam of the World Cup, riots, strikes and civil disturbances in the host nation over the World Cup are the latest manifestations of the tensions that exist behind the glamour of the beautiful game. The 2014 FIFA World Cup will be the 20th FIFA World Cup, scheduled to take place in Brazil from today, the 12th of June to the 13th of July 2014. It will be the second time that Brazil is hosting the competition, the previous being in 1950. Brazil was elected unchallenged as host nation in 2007 after FIFA decreed that the tournament would be staged in South America for the first time since 1978 in Argentina, and the fifth time overall.
With the start of the World Cup just hours away, the pomp and pageantry associated with this epoch event has been eclipsed by civil unrest and metro strikes by the Brazilian citizens.
While poor Brazilians are protesting against excess funding and overspending on the tournament instead of investing in social amenities such as health and education and other necessary development projects, union leaders are demanding for wage increases, and threatening to resume a metro strike if their demands are not met. They are also calling for staff threatened with dismissal for their involvement in strike-related disturbances to be reinstated.
An earlier five-day stoppage had caused wide-scale traffic chaos, with fears that a repeat of the disruption could prevent fans and employees from attending group stage matches during the sporting event. If this continues, it could severely disrupt the opening encounter between hosts Brazil and Croatia at the Itaquerao stadium or Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. Presently, traffic in much of the city has come to a standstill, with FIFA officials subjected to four-hour car journeys from the airport to their hotels.
Owing to the hosting of this epic event, Brazil has seen over a year of protests against bad governance and perceived excessive spending on the World Cup. Apparently, Brazil is not entirely ready for this World Cup, and a good deal of the population still wants no part of it. This was definitely not what Sepp Blatter, FIFA President, envisaged seven years ago when FIFA awarded the tournament to Brazil; when Blatter began his insistent campaign to spread the glory to regions of the world that aren’t necessarily prepared for such a spectacle. However, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, has maintained that her country is ready on and off the pitch for the football World Cup, rejecting criticism of overspending, saying, “the tournament would leave a lasting legacy of infrastructure.”
Another major occurrence overshadowing the 2014 FIFA World Cup is the allegations on Sepp Blatter of corruption pertaining to the Qatar World Cup bid. Undoubtedly, Blatter is a quintessential and “poster child” of African leaders with a “stay put” mentality, never wanting to relinquish their hold on power. The 78-year-old president has been mired in rapacious corruption charges since he assumed office in 1998. In reminisce of African leaders ‘stay-put’ mentality, he is canvassing for a 5th term in office amidst numerous corruption scandals. There has been increasing calls as more of FIFA’s leading sponsors such as Sony, Visa, Adidas and Coca-Cola have joined the call for an investigation into allegations that Qatar bought the 2022 World Cup with millions of dollars-worth of bribes under Blatter’s stewardship.
However, Blatter has claimed that the current allegations of corruption around the Qatar World Cup bid are being driven by “racism and discrimination”. The FIFA president has also claimed there is a plot “to destroy FIFA”. Furthermore, in a manner similar to African leader’s penchant for tenure elongation while in office, Blatter has raised the issue of the two controversial reforms before the FIFA Congress — votes on term and age limits for the FIFA president and executive committee members. His stance is that age limits for sports administrators “is a form of discrimination”. This is indeed a blatant attempt at eliciting justification for his continued stay in office.
Turning our attention to the Super Eagles of Nigeria, what are our prospects in the 2014 FIFA World Cup? Nigeria is undeniably a soccer powerhouse in Africa and packed with football enthusiasts, only debuting in the world’s most followed competition in 1994. Taking an odyssey down memory lane, Nigeria qualified for her first FIFA World Cup when the esteemed competition was hosted by the U.S.A in 1994. The Super Eagles pulled a successful first ever World Cup run and were deservedly ranked fifth in the FIFA World Rankings during that period; thus, becoming the highest ranked African nation ever. After beating the likes of Bulgaria and Greece, and narrowly losing to Argentina, the Super Eagles progressed to the second round of the competition finishing first in their group. This was the “golden era” of the Super Eagles as they were still basking under the euphoria of winning the African Nations cup in Tunisia earlier that same year. They went into the competition as African champions, and they sure weren’t a disappointment. They soared elegantly like the Eagles they were and the likes of Emmanuel Amuneke, Daniel Amokachi, the ‘late great’ Rashidi Yekini, Finidi George, Samson Sia Sia, et al, shown as bright as the stars they were. Sadly however, the Super Eagles dream of reaching the finals and probably winning the competition was halted by Italy (the eventual silver medalist), in the 102nd minute of extra-time, when they were awarded a penalty after a one-all draw during the round of 16. I remember the moment we conceded that goal vividly and I can honestly say that it was one of the most excruciating and depressing moments I have had as a Nigerian.
In 1998, when the FIFA World Cup was held in France, the Super Eagles returned to the tournament again with high hopes of surpassing its performance in the United States. Most of the 1994 squad was retained, infused with some of the victorious players that won gold in the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. Many thought that with four more years of experience in the kitty, Nigeria could build upon its 1994 run and progress into the quarter-finals and beyond. As the competition commenced, the Super Eagles managed a massive upset, defeating favorites Spain 3-2 in a pulsating game. The team came from behind twice to pull an important victory from Spain. With another win and a loss, the Eagles progressed through the group stage and looked primed to break their previous run. Unfortunately, akin to what happened in 1994, the Eagles fell to an excruciating defeat when they were walloped 1-4 by Denmark.
Consecutively, the Super Eagles also qualified for the 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan. With most of the ’94 and ’98 World Cup crop of players getting to retirement ages, Nigeria enlisted the services of a new crop of younger players, injecting a new sense of optimism and vibrancy in Nigeria. However, a replication of the previous successes, albeit minimal couldn’t be reproduced as the Super Eagles were drawn in an extremely tough group. The Eagles couldn’t spread their wings and soar in that competition. A loss to both Argentina and Sweden and a barren draw with England in the group stage meant we had to exit the tournament without proceeding to the knockout stage. Subsequently, the 2006 World Cup held in Germany recorded the absence of the Super Eagles as we failed to qualify to be one of the representatives from Africa via technicalities of having an inferior head to head record with Angola.
The first and only FIFA World Cup tournament held on African soil thus far saw the participation of the Super Eagles. Alas! The 2010 World Cup held in South Africa was once again a disastrous outing for the Super Eagles, reminiscent of the 2002 tourney. The Eagles performance was dismally low as we finished last during the group stages. As a result of the below par performance, an infuriated President Jonathan banned the Super Eagles from partaking in international competition for two years. However, five days later, the government rescinded its ban, but FIFA ultimately banned the national team from international football tournaments indefinitely due to reasons of political interference.
Eventually, the ban was provisionally lifted and the case was dropped. The Super Eagles, having qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil commencing in a few hours’ time and on the backdrop of being the champions of Africa, with a young squad which includes Chelsea star, John Mikel Obi, Liverpool star, Victor Moses, the ever dependable Osaze Odemigwe, the deputy captain and the best Goal keeper in the French League, Vincent Enyama, and a no-nonsense coach that steered the Eagles to victory in the African Cup of nations earlier this year, a former player and captain of the golden era Super Eagles, “the big boss” himself, Steven Keshi. If there was any individual that can do it, Steven Keshi is the man capable of taking the Eagles all the way.
Presently in a group perceived to be “weak on paper” comprising Iran, Bosnia and Herzegovina and our customary opponent in every World Cup tourney, Argentina, the Eagles are widely expected to well and have a strong chance of progressing further than the group stage. With the caliber and quality of players, and an imposing coach, the prospects of the Super Eagles are looking quite bright.
Hence, can the Africa champions finally break the jinx of surpassing the round of 16? Will we pass the group stage? Can we go all the way to the final and possibly come back home with the trophy? Will our other African teams excel in the game? Is 2014 going to be the year for Africa? I think even the predictive prowess of the late Paul, the psychic octopus who hit the headlines during the last World Cup by picking the correct results throughout the game from his tank in Oberhausen, Germany and his equally psychic cousin, Ollie, would have probably struggled to hazard a guess.
No doubt in the next four weeks all eyes will be on Brazil. The world will be watching and cheering on their national teams as they dribble, kick, shoot and perform all manners of exhilarating football theatric. And even though I will not be in Brazil to cheer our boys to victory, I will certainly be rooting for our beloved Super Eagles from the comfort of my home. “Go Eagles Go…!”
May you make history with a victory! May your wings open wide so you can fly high and come out supreme at this World Cup of 2014!