It is not very often in football that silver linings can be gleaned from a loss, especially not in Nigeria. And very particularly, not when it is a home loss to unfancied opposition.
The defeat in June to South Africa, to whom the Super Eagles had never lost before, still leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many a football fan and official, but there is one consensus: The loss helped reboot the Super Eagles’ sluggish CPU.
Up until that game, coach Gernot Rohr’s policy was unapologetically skewed in favour of youth. The German looked determined to lower the average age of his squad to the early 20s, with only the barest sprinkling of experience.
Fate then played him an unexpectedly poor hand. The quartet of players who made up the experienced core of his team, led by captain John Mikel Obi, pulled up injured just before the game in June.
Joining Mikel were goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, defender Leon Balogun, and forward Victor Moses. In one stroke, Rohr’s team had its spine traumatically ripped away. Rather than look to other experienced players, Rohr turned to untested rookies, some of whom had never previously played international football.
Odion Ighalo and Victor Moses were two of Nigeria’s four goalscorers against Cameroon, a tally which is set to earn the Super Eagles squad about N75-million (about $202 000) in gifts. Kabiru Abubakar/fotodezamora
It proved disastrous. South Africa won 2-0. In truth, the scoreline flattered Nigeria. It should have been more. The inquest was immediate, and it went all the way to Nigeria’s cabinet minister, who summoned both coach and federation.
What followed was a recall of experienced internationals, helped by returns from injury, as the Super Eagles promptly despatched Cameroon 4-0 in their very next game, in September.
Team official Patrick Pascal, himself a former Eagle, says the Bafana Bafana loss was a blessing in disguise. “If we had not lost that game, we may not have made the changes that we needed and we could have lost against Cameroon,” he told KweseESPN.
He is not alone. It is a sentiment shared by many in the country’s football. Even Rohr himself has learnt the painful lessons of that defeat, as he prepares to lead his wards out against Zambia in their World Cup qualifier in Uyo on Saturday.
“Even though it is at home, it is not very easy sometimes,” Rohr told KweseESPN. “We saw against South Africa that anything can happen. But now, I have a team with experience and youthfulness. So, this is a good cocktail and I think we are ready for this game.”
While Nigeria are one win away from becoming the first African country to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, Rohr is under no illusions about the task ahead.
“Zambia has a very good team, better perhaps than Cameroon, and the match will be difficult, so we must be ready,” he said.
“We have a big fight to do because this new Zambia team is very young, they don’t have anything to lose. They will come here to win also so we must be very strong to win this game.”
The Super Eagles won the earlier WCQ fixture against Zambia 2-1 at Ndola last October, but Rohr says his players cannot take any chances.
At a team meeting on Wednesday, the coach stressed the importance of staying focused, of winning their individual duels against the Zambians, and taking whatever chances present themselves.