Football is special and gripping. The joy and excitement across the length and breadth of Nigeria on Saturday, October 7, 2017 was palpable. Few things can birth such happiness. For 90 minutes, tribal sentiments, ethnic inclination and religious proclivity were purged from our national discourse. We embraced each other, stood side-by-side with one another. We combined our voices, agreed in our prayers and supplications to the “god of soccer”.
The lads adorned the national team jersey with pride. With gusto, bravado and sheer tenacity, they neutralized the firepower and pipped the Chipolopolo of Zambia by a lone goal at the magnificent 30,000-seater ultramodern “Estadio Akpabio” in Uyo. Fist clenched and adrenalin popping like someone about to square up against Mayweather, I punched the air when Alex Iwobi’s sublime strike rolled past Kennedy Mweene, the Zambian goalie, into the net.
Prior to the goal, the game was already tension-soaked and the heebie-jeebies had hit feverish crescendo. Then came the 73rd minute when we broke the deadlock.
The moment was transcendent and awe-provoking. Yes, we are going to Russia – a beautiful country with Byzantine-inspired architecture.
Making it to the world’s biggest football event has never been an easy feat. When the draw for the qualifying round was held in Cairo on June 24, 2016, many Nigerians understandably doubted the Super Eagles’ chances of making it through. The Eagles were pitted against other heavyweights in Group B dubbed the “Group of Death”. Joined with Nigeria in the group were Algeria and Cameroon – two of the five African representatives at the last World Cup. Zambia, the shock winners of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations completed the group.
The Super Eagles bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup began on October 9, 2016 at the Mwanawasa Stadium, Ndola, Zambia. A goal apiece from Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi within the space of 10 minutes ensured a late strike from Zambian Collins Mbesuma was a mere consolation goal. 1-2 it ended in favour of the Eagles.
The second game of the qualifying round saw the Eagles played host to the 1990 African champions Algeria. The fireworks of the host proved too much for the North African side. Though Nabil Bentaleb 66th minute strike gave the visitors a flicker of hope, they still went down like a pack of badly-arranged cards 3-1. Thanks to Victor Moses’ brace and Mikel Obi’s goal.
After a very long break, the Super Eagles were called to action once again on September 1st, 2017 when they welcomed five-time African Champions Cameroon to the beautiful City of Uyo. The Eagles ran riot and dominated the indomitable Lions. The home team fired from all cylinders and loaded in goals with reckless abandon. Odion Ighalo opened scoring at the 29th minute. John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses added a goal each before Kelechi Iheanacho rounded up the mauling at the 76th minute. 4 – 0 it ended, in favour of the home side.
Still wailing under the pains of a bruised nose, the indomitable lions welcomed the Super Eagles to the Stade Omnisports, Ahmadou-Ahidjo, Yaounde on September 4th, 2017. The lions were baying for blood and literally had “vengeance mission” engraved on their faces. But like the fearless Daniel of biblical times, the Eagles drew the first blood when Moses Simon struck past Fabrice Ondoa just at the half hour mark. The Lions could not find a way past the solid defence wall of their visitors until the 74th minute when a penalty was awarded. Vincent Aboubakar stepped up, converted it neatly and brought the game to parity. Both sides ensured they conceded no goal until the blast of the final whistle. And yes, the Super Eagles of Nigeria left the Lion’s den unscathed!
On October 7th, 2017 came the culmination of all that began about a year ago. The Super Eagles needed just a draw to book their place in the FIFA World Cup Russia2018 for the sixth time in history. But they did it convincingly and in style by claiming all three points thereby topping the group with a game to spare.
Though qualified, now is no time to rest on our oars. Team for the qualifiers is not necessarily the squad for the world tourney proper. More work needs to be done and we must not wait until the tail end to commence. Gernot Rohr must start the onerous task of chiseling, sculpturing, and molding his squad into a finely finished article.
Whilst we hope for the best in Russia 2018, let us for now, enjoy the sweet sensation that comes with clinching a World Cup qualification ticket. Congratulation Nigerians. Up Super Eagles!
Elvis Ogah is the Sport Editor for Thinkers Magazine.