World Cup Preparation: ✮
The Super Eagles organised three warm-up friendlies. The first, against Scotland at Craven Cottage, was overshadowed by rumours of match-fixing, which intensified when Austin Ejide appeared to throw the ball into his own net (though the goal was disallowed for a foul); it finished 2-2. They followed this with a 0-0 draw with Greece in Philadelphia and a 2-1 defeat to the USA in Jacksonville. To add injury to insult, key defender Elderson Echiejile was ruled out shortly before the start of the tournament.
Managerial Performance: ✮✮✮✮
Stephen Keshi’s final tournament in charge saw him mostly keep faith with the players who won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. In that tournament he built his side around inexperienced players, a number of whom were based in Nigeria; by now, most of those players have moved on to greater things, which meant just four were home-based (one of whom was late call-up Ejike Uzoenyi, who replaced the injured Echiejile). However, Sunday Mba, who scored the winning goal in the final a year ago, was a surprise omission. Dynamo Kiev’s Brown Ideye, not picked since the friendly against Italy last November, was also left out despite being a regular in qualifying. In came the experienced Peter Odemwingie and Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi. The selections paid off, though it took some time to be realised; Keshi’s use of 4-3-3 against a defensive Iran side was far too conservative, but he learned from his mistakes, switching to 4-2-3-1 for the remaining games and being rewarded by fine performances.
World Cup Performance: ✮✮✮✮
It’s easy to forget that after Nigeria’s first game against Iran, a disappointing 0-0 draw, many were already writing them off as an average team devoid of creativity who had no chance of getting through. That all changed with their win against Bosnia – and also Iran’s wonderful rearguard display against Argentina. The first game has been rewritten, this time more accurately, as another exceptional defensive display from Iran. The matches against Argentina, where Nigeria were unfortunate to emerge empty-handed, and France again emphasised that this was a talented attacking unit. It is worth considering that Nigeria did win only one of their four games here – and even that was slightly fortunate, thanks to a wrongly-disallowed Edin Dzeko goal in the first half – but nonetheless, they can leave with their heads held high, having made the knockout stages for the first time since the great generation of 1998.
Despite being weakened first by Echiejile’s withdrawal and then by the loss of Godfrey Oboabona in the first game against Iran, Nigeria were generally solid throughout, keeping clean sheets in their first two games and then performing resiliently against a talented France side. Conceding three against Argentina is excusable considering they were up against the best player in the world, though the circumstances of Marcos Rojo’s winner (from a set piece) will frustrate them. Particular credit must go to Vincent Enyeama, who was once again on top form on the biggest stage, making a hatful of good saves, though it must be acknowledged that he was in part responsible for Paul Pogba’s crucial goal in the Second Round match, surging off his line for a corner but failing to punch the ball clear. With Enyeama’s international future unclear, and Joseph Yobo retiring, Nigeria’s defence may be about to lose a considerable amount of experience.
John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi played virtually the entirety of Nigeria’s run in midfield; Onazi went off with half an hour of the Second Round match to go with an injury that is set to keep him out for some time, with Reuben Gabriel coming on in his place. It therefore might not have been a coincidence that France eventually managed to grind out a win with the Lazio youngster, who had had a solid tournament, off the pitch. Mikel was his usual dependable, unspectacular self, not reaching the peaks of the Cup of Nations win but better than he usually is for Chelsea. Ramon Azeez also played in midfield in the first game with Keshi opting for three in the middle, an unusually conservative tactic considering the opposition.
The combination of Emenike, Moses and Musa started the first game against Iran, but failed to break down the defence; Keshi’s introduction of Odemwingie and Ameobi did liven things up at the end, though, and resulted in the Stoke striker starting against Bosnia behind Emenike, along with Volyn Lutsk’s Michel Babatunde, who replaced Moses. This was much more effective, and probably would have remained the go-to combination but for Babatunde’s unfortunate arm injury against Argentina. Moses returned against France, but continued his disappointing tournament. Musa was erratic, drifting out of the game as he so often does against Iran, but scoring two fine goals against Argentina. Emenike failed to make the score sheet but was a powerful, troublesome presence throughout.
Player of the Tournament: Kenneth Omeruo
Despite the loss of experience at the back after this tournament, there is young talent coming through. Chelsea youngster Omeruo should receive enormous credit for his performances filling in at left-back, not his usual position. The loss of Echiejile before the tournament could easily have been very damaging, but in the end, he wasn’t missed from a defensive perspective. Omeruo is surely destined to be the long-term successor for Joseph Yobo at the back, and potentially a future captain; he turns 21 in October and already has over 20 caps. He certainly deserves a shot at his club, instead of being loaned out again.
Tournament Verdict: ✮✮✮✮
A success, though perhaps not overwhelmingly so. It was always going to be hard to match the Cup of Nations victory, as that came out of nothing. This time, arriving in Brazil, there was expectation due to the African Champions tag. Their performance in the first game against Iran hinted that the pressure might be getting to them, and they were unfairly dismissed. They seemed to thrive under the slightly lower expectations after that, though, and despite injuries and the inevitable bonus row, they delivered some very promising performances.
This was probably one World Cup too soon for the youngsters, with all the players except Yobo, Ameobi, Odemwingie and Enyeama being younger than 28; this gives great hope for the future and the 2018 World Cup in Russia in particular. But they are now losing the inspirational Keshi, their captain Yobo, and maybe the supremely-talented Enyeama. Can they withstand this? The focus now moves to the Nigerian FA – can they get this next appointment right?