It was deep into stoppage time in Abuja in October when substitute Victor Obinna offered Nigeria a precious lifeline.
Their World Cup qualifier against Mozambique was heading for a goalless draw and Nigeria were headed out of the 2010 campaign before the striker belted in a last-minute winner.
His dramatic rescue kept the Super Eagles in the race for South Africa, though Tunisia had a two-point lead on them going into the final round of qualifying matches on November 14. However, a 3-2 victory over Kenya, courtesy of an Obafemi Martins goals seven minutes from time, combined with Tunisia’s shock 1-0 defeat to Mozambique, ensured Nigeria clinched first place in African qualifying Group B.
However, the reality of Nigeria’s situation is that they were in perilous danger of missing out on a second successive World Cup and once again must deal with the perplexing question of whether they will ever be able to live up to their potential.
Africa’s most populous nation lost the initiative in September when Tunisia held them to a 2-2 draw in Abuja. It was a thrilling game in which the visitors claimed a dramatic equaliser deep into stoppage time, but on the balance of play they deserved a share of the spoils. Had Nigeria held out, they would have turned a two-point deficit in the standings into a one-point lead and been in pole position to go to the finals.
Nigerian football remains an enigma. The country seemingly has loads of talent and a wide pool of players to choose from at clubs in Europe, but unlike other nations such as Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon lacks a talismanic figure – a Drogba, Essien or Eto’o – around which to rally and build the team.
Nigeria’s favourite footballer over the last decades was the brilliantly-gifted but mercurial Austin “Jay-Jay” Okocha, who, to the frustration of his team-mates, always appeared to be playing a parallel game to the one going on around him.
Nwankwo Kanu was the country’s other high-profile superstar, who played at Ajax, Internazionale and Arsenal, but also never showed much application for the national team.
Returning home from Europe was always an occasion to catch up with friends and family, and Kanu rarely put in much preparation before internationals. Sometimes he skipped games altogether and his goal return for Nigeria is evidence of the same kind of lethargic attitude that has infuriated fans of the clubs he has played for since his Arsenal days.
Obafemi Martins might have proved a player worth building a team around when he first came to prominence at Inter, but Nigeria found it hard to persuade him to commit to their cause. The Italians pressured him into focusing on his club career, not without good cause either. It is much the same these days for Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel – Nigeria’s most talented player but also one who is wary of getting sucked into too many international commitments.
The malaise in Nigerian football continues to be blamed on an allegedly incompetent federation and the lack of a skilled coach.
“Nigeria is blessed with many incompetent people who can’t afford to try to be organised because, if they do, their dishonest nature will be clear for all to see,” says former midfield star Sunday Oliseh.
Shaibu Amodu has had nine different spells at the helm of the Super Eagles, most often as a caretaker in between the appointment of others. His last decent spell in charge saw him fired months ahead of the 2002 World Cup finals after Nigeria finished third at the African Nations Cup in Mali, yet they still turn to him when the team is in crisis. This insecurity hardly gives him the air of gravitas needed for the Super Eagles coaching job.
Amodu is a victim of the perennial debate in Nigeria on whether to hire a local or foreign coach. Nigerians all have an opinion on their national side, mostly fervent and passionate. When a foreign coach fails to deliver, the clamour for a local replacement reaches deafening heights. Now, in the wake of an erratic qualifying campaign, the sentiment is back towards bringing in some high-profile foreigner.
Nigeria need a strong personality at the helm in exactly the way that the unsophisticated Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof barged his way through the vagaries of the job and eventually seemed to get the better of the system.
Admittedly he was able to charm high-ranking politicians and use them to force the hand of his employers at the Nigerian Football Association, who frequently skipped off with the players’ payments or botched up the arrangements around the team.
But it was a dangerous game and eventually Westerhof had to flee his own team hotel at the end of the 1994 World Cup campaign in the USA.
Even though Amodu secured World Cup qualification, there is no guarantee he will go to South Africa. The cacophony of noise around the Super Eagles rises decibel by decibel, day by day.