BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
The journey is gradually coming to an end. Fifty four countries began the race to the 2018 World Cup in Russia of which 20 advanced to the final qualifying stage. Of the 20, the boys have been separated from the men as five are already out, leaving 15 still in contention.
The eliminated teams are Guinea and Libya in Group A, Cameroon and Algeria in Group B and Congo in Group E. Of the remainder, Nigeria is nearest to picking a slot this weekend and clock ticks down to the decisive hour. A win over Zambia earns the Super Eagles the ticket to Russia.
It looks easy, considering the Nigerian side playing at home against a team it has defeated away from home.
Yet, it is very dicey considering that football history is replete with tales of teams that stumbled at the cusp of victories.
Perhaps one example should be offered. France playing in UEFA Group 6 qualifying series for USA ’94 needed just a point from its last two home matches against Israel and Bulgaria.
hat set up a final showdown with Bulgaria in Paris. France needed just a draw to qualify and Eric Cantona gave the team the lead in the 30th minute.
But barely five minutes later, Emil Kostadinov equalized for Bulgaria. The 1-1 score line was still okay for France.
They held on till the 90th minute. Then a miss kick by France David Ginola found Bulgaria’s Emil Kostadinov who lashed the winner almost on the dot of full time.
This is a lesson for the Super Eagles to be cautiously optimistic. The Zambian side beaten at home has since been overhauled and the subsequent results ever since are showing.
The Super Eagles and their handlers as well as the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) should also take a look at the disciplinary records. In the preceding four matches, at least a Nigerian player is booked. Some of the cautions were avoidable.
Victor Moses was given a yellow card for removing his shirt while celebrating his opening goal in the 3-1 defeat of Algeria last year.
Victor Moses was cautioned in the match against Algeria for indecent exposure just it happened to Emmanuel Amuneke 20 years ago in Nigeria’s World Cup qualification duel with Kenya in Lagos. It is a well known fact that players are not expected to pull off their shirts during matches.
Odion Ighalo was cautioned for showing off inscription in his inner wears after scoring against Cameroon. Messages of any kind are no longer allowed to be displayed while on the field.
It is an age-long rule that even amateurs are aware of. Technical handlers need to inform the players. In the last match with Cameroon, Odion Ighalo was not just cautioned; he was seen arguing with the referee that he never removed his shirt.
What was his offence? He had a written message in his under vest which has also been outlawed.
FIFA has for some time outlawed any form of communication on players’ under vests, be it social, political or religious.
Ighalo had this message written in his inner wears “Thank you Jesus” which he displayed after scoring the opening goal. This must be avoided.
But more importantly is that of crowd behaviour. It is essential to support the Super Eagles with every enthusiasm.
But encroaching on the field incurs fines which roll into millions of naira. Such fine which the NFF is supposed to pay would have been better spent on developmental initiatives and on the players.