Watching the Super Eagles play was always something I looked forward to. I never got to witness the golden era which produced great teams like those who clinched the Nations cup at Tunisia 94 or the USA 94 squad that made it to the last sixteen of the world cup and narrowly missed a spot at the quarter finals. I also missed out on the Olympics that took place in Atlanta in 1996 but I heard tales and saw clips of how we struck gold. I therefore heard how the likes of Rahsidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, Stephen Keshi, Finidi George and many others brought joy to Nigerian homes but I never really watched them play.
Nigeria’s Dream Team celebrate their gold medal at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. (Google Photos)
By 2002 I had aged a little and was well aware of the Nations cup in Mali and the Korea/Japan world cup. I remember hearing Taribo West was pastoring a church. It sounded absurd at that point but I admired him for it wondering how he appeared before his congregation with a funky hairstyle and a suit. I always wanted to see Julius Aghahowa score so I could watch him perform his signature backflips too.
Taribo West (Google Photos)
Tunisia 2004 was when I really gave the game my full attention. Jay Jay Okocha came correct with his sublime skills, Kanu Nwankwo’s stature and stamina won us free kicks and penalties and Pius Ikedia was always introduced at the 89th minute to just come and run around with the ball. I also remember when Peter Odewinghe made his debut against South Africa. He came on as a substitute and went ahead to score two classic goals at the last minute. That day, NEPA did their thing and before I could rush to my neighbour’s house to catch up with the match, Osaze had already put in his brace. Nigeria left Tunisia with the bronze medal. Unfortunately Okocha was denied the African Footballer of the year title that year losing to Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon.
Jay Jay Okocha captained the Super Eagles at Tunisia 2004 (Google Photos)
The World Youth Championship took place the the following year in Netherlands and it was another opportunity to witness the birth of stars like Lionel Messi, John Mikel Obi and Taiye Taiwo. Mikel was one of the best players at the tournament, second only to Messi and he got scouts clamouring for his signature. He had to decide between Manchester United and Chelsea. Taiwo also went on to Marseille to try and flourish. Sadly Taiwos spell at the National team was short-lived as he could never reignite the spark from his Under-20 days with the National team.
Mikel and Taiwo were among the top three best players alongside Lionel Messi at the World Youth Championship in 2005 (Google Photos)
2006 was quite bitter/sweet. With Austin Eguavon now in control, we failed to qualify for the World Cup in Germany for the first time since 1994. We consoled ourselves by traveling to Egypt for the Nations cup. We struggled to find our footing but we managed to scale through to the Semi-finals. Okocha was left out of most of the competition either due to injury or because he reported late for the tournament but the likes of Wilson Oruma and Christian Obodo took care of the midfield. Obafemi Martins popularly known as Obagoal,John Utaka and Yakubu controlled the frontlines. Didier Drogba denied us a place in the finals that year and we once again settled for bronze. Okocha also announced his retirement that year.
2007 introduced new kids on the block with the FIFA under 17 world cup. Rabiu Ibrahim impressed so much with his skill, commentators tagged him the next Austin Okocha, Chrisantus Macauley couldn’t just stop scoring and went ahead to win the golden boot. Other promising acts like Lukman Haruna and Onyekachi Apam made their presence known. They went on to win the cup but I still find it hard to decipher how people from this team couldn’t transcend their talent and perform at optimum level with the Super eagles. Sadly the under 17 coach Yemi Tella, passed away barely a month after the tournament from lung cancer.
Golden Eaglets were the world championship in 2007. (Google Photos)
In Beijing 2008, Samson Siasias Dream team came alive and were netting goals here and there, people started paying attention. Promise Isaac, Obinna Nsofor, Chinedu Ogbuke and many others shocked the world and the Nation in particular with their performance. They were such a delight to watch and they received the blessings of Nigerians. I had to wake up by 5am to catch the finals in Nigerian time but Angel Di Marias lone goal ensured we didn’t have a repeat of Atlanta 96. Our Nations Cup outing that year was not memorable due to early elimination by host country Ghana.
We returned to our normal bronze medal in Angola 2010 but there was still something missing in the squad. We didn’t look like we were ready to compete at the World level. Luckily we made it to South Africa that same year after a tough world cup qualifier, by narrowly beating Kenya 3-2 in Nairobi. I don’t know if it was the Jabulani ball or the noise from the vuvuzelas but Sani Keita could not control his emotions against Greece and was shown red. Fans reacted back home. Rumour has it that they burnt his house in Kano. Also Yakubu Aiyegbeni was the subject of laughter and frustration after his infamous miss against Korea. People laughed, rappers made punchlines and no one really forgot that moment. Our presence at the competition was short lived and we had to return home.
Yakubu’s infamous miss against Korea at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (Google Photos)
By 2012 my frustration with the Super Eagles had reached an all-time high. We failed to qualify for the Nations cup. This was strange considering the wonderful job Samson Siasia had done with the under 20 squad in 2005 and under 23 squad in 2008. The squad at the Olympics in London had a disastrous outing. No one was bothered at this point anymore and people decided to move on, focus on their clubs and enjoy countries ready to play.
2013 was a breath of fresh air and things felt different. Stephen Keshi led the team for the Nations cup in South Africa. By this time, Victor Moses had agreed to abandon the colonial masters and play for us, Emmanuel Emenike and Sunday Mba scored to keep us in the competition, Brown Ideyes lack of accuracy on goal didn’t do much damage to affect our presence in the competition and Vincemt Enyeama was superb in the post. What really got my attention was their style of play. Watching them play I could sense a high level of team spirit and camaraderie. They were also composed and accurate with the handling of the ball. We went on to win the competition that year, making it our third title and also making Stephen Keshi a Nations cup winner as a player (which he did in Tunisia 94) and as a coach. This made him the second person to achieve this feat with Mahmoud El-Gohary of Egypt being the first. That same year, Manu Garba ensured the Golden Eaglets remained the most successful team in the FIFA under-17 championship when they world their fourth world championship title. Kelechi Ihaenacho was awarded as the best player at the tournament. Impressed scouts took note of his talent and he ended up at Manchester City after the tournament. He also received his Super Eagles call up after that.
Nigeria’s players celebrate winning the African Nations Cup (AFCON 2013) final soccer match against Burkina Faso in Johannesburg February 10, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya (SOUTH AFRICA – Tags: SPORT SOCCER) –
The NFF seemed to have faith in Keshi and sent him with the squad for the World cup in Brazil the following year. Ahmed Musa came correct against Argentina when he netted in two goals and even though we went ahead to lose the match it didn’t really feel like a loss since we made it to the round of 16. France however denied us a spot in the quarter-finals after a hard fought battle.
Alex Iwobi (Google Photos)
After the world cup in 2014, Nigeria failed to qualify for the subsequent Nations cups held in 2015 and in 2017 but they were able to make it to Russia in 2018. I think we had an opportunity to be more popular than our Nike jersey from during the World Cup in Russia. Players like Leon Balogun and Alex Iwobi pledged allegiance to Nigeria and Ndidi and Etebo held things together in that midfield. But up front we only had Musa to shine the light. Victor Moses spent his time diving/falling more than playing the actual game and Odion Ighalo came close to repeating the errors made by Yakubu in 2010. Unfortunately, Ighalo was humiliated on social media and we forgot he is also a human that makes mistakes. We had to bow out after the group stage of the competition once again.
Super Eagles at the World Cup in Russia (Google Photos)
What is the essence of all this? Another Nations cup starts today and this is the first time Nigeria is back in the tournament since being crowned champions in 2013. A lot has happened but I have always been a fan of the Super Eagles amidst all the moments of joy and disappointment. Sometimes they have appeared complacent and other times they have given it their best. Two great coaches, Stephen Keshi and Shuaibu Amodu died in the space of three days in 2016. They also had to deal with a football governing body that is as corrupt as any government establishment in this country. They have gone without pay sometimes and they still tried to show up and represent. It hasn’t been a rosy ride for the Super Eagles since that moment they became African champions in Tunisia 94 but this is a chance for them to prove themselves once more. So I say, GO SUPER EAGLES!!!!