by ‘Ifreke Inyang
October is almost a month to dread for the Super Eagles. This time last year, the Nigerian national team’s dream of qualifying for the African Cup of Nations, for first time since 1986, was nipped right in the bud. The absence of Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, etc. from the continental fiesta, that was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, was perceived by most soccer pundits as a paradigm shift, as minnows replaced the so-called football powerhouses.
For Nigeria, it was a very avoidable situation. They went into the game in Abuja, needing just a 1-0 win to qualify. They gave away a last minute goal to draw 2-2.
Redemption time beckons this weekend. On Saturday evening, Stephen Keshi is expected to deliver a ticket to the revamped Nations Cup that will hold in South Africa next January. As Nigerians, that is the least we expect. Nothing else.
The Liberians will be tricky customers. They forced the Eagles to a 2-2 draw in the first leg, played a month ago in Monrovia. Beyond the underhand tactics the fellow West Africans employed to unsettle the Eagles, they were decent opponents.
And there is even more underhand tactics this time. The 125-man delegation from Liberia does not land in Nigeria until 24 hours before the game. On the surface, it will appear they are doing themselves in, as they will barely have time to acclamatize and train in Calabar. But it is a deep, cryptic psychological battle. Added to that is $150,000 winning bonus awaiting them from the president of their country, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
It shouldn’t bother Keshi and his boys. Even if they walked onto the U. J Esuene Stadium from the airport, we have more than enough to restore my lost pride in African football. Joseph Yobo’s solidity and leadership will be sorely missed in defence, but Mikel Obi’s return will ensure calmness and balance in midfield.
Yes, if we will be honest, we will still be nervous throughout the game. But in the end, nothing short of a place in next year’s competition will do.
NFF’s Assistant Secretary General, Technical, Emmanuel Ikpeme, echoed the nation’s sentiments articulately: “The federation has given the coach all he needs to give Nigerians a good result this weekend so there would be no room for excuses,” he told MTNFootball.com. “No national team coach should wait for last minute permutations to qualify for any tournament. Every national team coach should win all his matches and that is what we expect from the Eagles.
“They should beat Liberia this weekend in Calabar and save us the headache of any mathematics as regards qualification.”