Afolabi Gambari       

Having had their pride bruised and battered by a strange slide from being African champions in 2013 to failing to qualifying for two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations finals, the Super Eagles of Nigeria should have been overawed. Ordinarily, therefore, the Eagles should not be faulted if they come out smoking as the World Cup 2018 qualifying games get underway across Africa this weekend.

What best suits the Nigerians than the fixture that pits them against apparent minnow Chipolopolo of Zambia in this Match Day 1 in a group that also has World Cup veterans Algeria and Cameroon? Nigeria will be host of Zambia and pundits are already tipping the visitor for the maximum points, no minding that the Zambians are also not pushovers, being African champions at the AFCON 2012 finals.

It is interesting to hear the top shots at the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) say “Zambia will fall at home” as it suggests that the Eagles are battle ready. But it is even more interesting that the battle-readiness is merely on paper, as it were. For the Nigerian team is still at best “work in progress” and would have to work so hard to earn the only ticket available in the group. It is just as well that as tricky as the fixture with the Zambians looks, a victory in the game would set the Eagles on a cruise to Russia, regardless of the result of the other fixture in Algiers between host Algeria and Cameroon.

But as bright as the chances of victory for Nigeria may be, two major factors could form a formidable opposition.

One, the players’ form is not as portrayed by analysts and NFF officials. Take the Eagles’ captain John Mikel Obi, the Chelsea midfielder who has so far seen no action on the pitch for the London club in what has been inexplicable. He was not even dressed for some games, suggesting that he is out of the coach’s reckoning. Same goes for Mikel’s assistant, Ahmed Musa, who has so far endured a bit part role at Leicester City, in addition to also missing in action in some games. Safe for a few others like the trio of Ogenyi Onazi, Kenneth Omeruo and Musa Mohammed who ply their trade in the Turkish top league, Chelsea’s burgeoning winger Victor Moses as well as Watford forward Odion Ighalo and English second tier Wolverhampton Wanderers’ goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, others are still either trying to find their feet in the Eagles or just about to start the chase for spots. Only the duo of Manchester City and Arsenal forwards Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi possess the biggest promise in the squad and it is not surprising that Nigeria will rely on the youngsters’ form to crush Zambia. Even then, both players will have to prove their mettle instantly in the encounter. Essentially, the Nigerian team that must edge especially high-scoring Algeria to the group’s ticket has a herculean task of surmounting its goal scoring bogey, while also overcoming its “bad traveler” tag.

Two, motivation has been lacking for the Eagles since the advent the new government in Nigeria in May last year. Perhaps, it is safer to admit that the austere government of Muhammadu Buhari at the centre has yet to unfold its policy for sports with emphasis on athletes’ motivation. Indeed had the Eagles needed anything out of the last AFCON 2017 dead rubber group game against Tanzania’s Taifa Stars played at the Uyo International Stadium last month, it would have turned out a tall order, considering how the hosts laboured to a 1-0 victory over the visitors. Yet, the players filed on to the pitch without any motivation whatsoever from the federation which already had unpaid allowance issue to settle with the team. Reports that a donation of N10million (about $4,000 at the time) from the Akwa State government to the team brought the players and football federation officials to near physical combat was not particularly dignifying. It was only hoped that the lingering crisis would be sorted before the World Cup qualifiers kick off. But latest reports have suggested that the crisis could dovetail to the team’s preparation for the Zambian trip.

A CNN report aired with only three days to the start of Eagles’ camping in Abuja, quoting “sources”, revealed that the NFF lacked the fund to fly the team to Zambia for the crucial game.

The NFF refuted the report almost immediately, charging that “idle minds” had orchestrated the report, although the football house also admitted that it was facing financial challenges which it attributed to the current recession in the country. But even as the camp is expected to record a full house today, no financial commitment has yet come forth from the federation to the players. The silence could well lead to tensed atmosphere in the camp in the days ahead as preparation intensifies. The fact that the World Cup ticket means everything to Nigerian football also suggests that this is not how to give a target its best shot as this can as well be Nigeria’s last card at world reckoning in a year that can be described as forgettable in international football.

Meanwhile, the Zambian authorities are mobilising every means at their disposal to ensure a good start to the World Cup ticket chase. Contrary to what pundits think, the Zambians are not underrating their modest status. After all, they say, “we are also former African champions as Nigeria and, in fact, both of us failed to qualify for the AFCON 2017 finals and we are now operating at the same level.”

Reports from Zambia also revealed how the Chipolopolo players are united in the quest to make the country’s people forget the AFCON miss and renew their trust in the team. What is hidden is how much they have been motivated to battle. What is not hidden, however, is their determination to stop the Eagles. But can the Eagles afford to be stopped and then have their chase for the Russia 2018 ticket subjected to permutation this early?

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