Football is like opium, the addictive analgesic, taken by football fans around the world – the evidence abounds in every stadium environment and around television sets screening live matches. Now, you can also watch a tension-soaked match on your tablet or smartphone, as long as it is internet enabled and the appropriate apps are downloaded, many thanks to rapidly growing technologies! Nigerians are very passionate about football and the English Premier League (EPL) and other leagues in Europe have driven this passion to an all-time high. For those who do not know, I’m an Arsenal FC fan – a Gunner for life!
The excitement is usually palpable – chants of ahhs and oohs rent the air arising from additional surge of adrenaline; energetic victory songs and gloomy faces of defeat tell the inevitable stories after 90 mins. Sometimes, a team can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as in the cases of Liverpool versus Barcelona and Ajax versus Tottenham – two nerve wrecking semi-final Champions League matches that produced miraculous comeback victories by Liverpool and Tottenham that set the stage for an all-England clubs final in Madrid, Spain recently. Liverpool won the game 2 - 0 with Mohammed Salah scoring the first goal from the spot in less than two minutes and Divock Origi scoring the second goal three minutes from full time.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria are set to participate at the next Africa Cup of Nations scheduled to hold from June 21 to July 19, 2019 in Egypt, with their group matches holding in Alexandria. Having missed the last two tournaments hosted by Equatorial Guinea in 2015 and Gabon in 2017, what are the chances of the Super Eagles now that the competition has been expanded into a 24-team format? The fighting spirit displayed by Liverpool and Tottenham is what the Super Eagles need to become relevant again in African football. Nigeria has won the Nations Cup three times – in 1980 when we hosted the competition; in 1994 in Tunisia and 2013 in South Africa.
I was right inside the FNB Stadium six years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, when the Super Eagles guided by the late “Skippo” Stephen Okechukwu Keshi – may God Almighty preserve his soul -- lifted the Nations Cup trophy as champions of Africa beating Burkina Faso by a lone goal in an epic encounter on February 10, 2013 when the tournament featured 16 countries.
Since 1957, Egypt has dominated African football by winning the Nations Cup a record seven times but the remarkable back to back wins in 2006, 2008 and 2010 stands the Pharaohs out as the Kings of African football. Cameroon and Ghana, on the other hand, have won the Nations Cup four times each and the continental rivalry between these three counties has become legendary.
It is being speculated that Egypt is ‘hosting to win’ again – that’s what they did in 1959, 1986 and 2006. This should be a source of concern to the other teams including Nigeria, merely looking at the historical records. Expectedly, Mohammed Salah, the confident striker and EPL highest goal scorer last season -- an honour he shared with team mate Sadio Mane and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang -- will lead the attack for Egypt.
In trying to assess the chances of the Super Eagles and understand how our national team can overcome the formidable challenge posed by Egypt, Cameroon and Ghana, I called Bode Oguntuyi, a sports reporter of note and long standing colleague, to share his views on the matter. Bode told me the Eagles will not be disgraced at the tournament but they have to work very hard.
Nigeria will play alongside Burundi, Guinea and Madagascar in Group B at the tournament in Alexandria. This is a group Nigeria should win without breaking too much sweat, with the toughest opposition likely to come from Guinea.
Recent statistics suggest that the Eagles should not under rate the Guineans. The two countries were in the same qualifying group for the 2012 Nations Cup, and the Syli Stars prevented the Eagles from taking their place at the main event following a harrowing 2-2 draw in Abuja after the Guineans had won the first leg 1-0 at home.
Then, at the 2016 Africa Nations Championships, Guinea handed the home based Eagles another 1-0 defeat in the last group game to move into the quarter-finals while Nigeria headed home. For the Eagles to remain super and qualify from their group in Alexandria, Coach Gernot Rhor and his players should beware of the Guineans because, apart from Egypt further down the road, the Syli Stars will be out to stop them again.
Going by their current form, Bode expects the Eagles to qualify from their group but where they finish on the table may determine how far they go in the tournament. "If the Eagles take care of business and finish top of the group, they will be handed the relatively easy draw of playing the team that has the best third place finish in any of Groups A, C or D. But if they finish in second place, they will have to square off against the second placed team in Group F which has Ghana and Cameroon," says Bode.
I’m sure the Eagles would like to avoid a confrontation with Ghana and Cameroon so early in the tournament, a very good hint for Gernot Rhor. The competition gets tougher from that point on, since the chaff of the tournament would have been burnt off and only the teams with a real chance of winning the trophy would be left. By the time we add Guinea and Egypt into the mix, the Eagles and the coaching crew should know from Day One who their tough opponents would be and assess their chances critically.
Michael Porter, the world-renowned professor of strategy, says the strategy is all about winning by gaining competitive advantage. For example, having an influential midfielder or a top striker or a goalkeeper with a safe pair of hands could be a good advantage. Mikel Obi was an influential midfield supremo at the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa, and I expect him to lead by example again in Egypt, especially now that he is the team captain.
Realistically, it should be considered a successful tournament for the Eagles should they make it to the semi-finals. After that, any other achievement is a bonus. The reason for this is simple: despite the impressive results of both the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Nations Cup qualifiers during which they won their tickets with a game to spare, the team is still in transition. But because they are the Super Eagles of Nigeria, you underrate them at your peril. In fact, former international and ‘Prince of Monaco’, Victor Ikpeba, believes the Super Eagles will get to the semi-finals. “The team will do well having missed the last two tournaments,” says Ikpeba confidently. “Although we shall miss Victor Moses in the Eagles line-up, Odion Ighalo and Ahmed Musa will lead the attack and they will be supported by Alex Iwobi and Mikel Obi,” Ikpeba further assures Nigerians.
*Braimah is a public relations and marketing strategist based in Lagos