Football: Nigeria's unlikely alliance

Andrew Warshaw in Paris discovers Bora and the Super Eagles are bonding at last
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The Independent Online
"BORA, English please" ... "Bora, francaise, s'il vous plait" ... "Bora, Espanol, por favor."

The multi-lingual man of the moment, whose mother tongue is actually Serbo-Croat, tried to oblige all three requests. "I am very proud of this team," said Bora Milutinovic after Nigeria had made it to round two of the World Cup. "It's a great achievement."

Nothing very revealing in that. But then trying to get Milutinovic to say much about his team is about as hard as it is for last Friday's opponents, Bulgaria, to score goals.

And yet, 24 hours before his team's 1-0 win, at a shambolic press conference in the bowels of the same Parc des Princes stadium, Bora made a joke which, perhaps unwittingly, divulged much about the troubles Nigeria had endured in the build-up to what has become a euphoric tournament for the Super Eagles.

"See this," Bora told a bunch of reporters as he pointed to a black holdall he was carrying. "This can be packed overnight in case they sack me."

It was a typical piece of Milutinovic mischief. But it was not altogether a dismissive comment. Whether he knows it or not, the only man to have led four different countries to four successive World Cup finals was only days, possibly even hours, from dismissal before the start of the World Cup.

Heavy warm-up defeats against Holland, Yugoslavia and even Grasshopper Zurich did not augur well for Milutinovic. After all, Nigeria had already had seven previous managers since USA 94 and had summarily dismissed the coach who had guided them to France 98. Philippe Troussier - now the coach of South Africa - was considered too inexperienced for the big stage.

The Nigerians, banned from the African Nations' Cup by Fifa, the sport's world governing body, for prior misdemeanours, needed morale-boosting victories to take into the World Cup. Instead they were thrashed by all and sundry.

It came to a head just before the Spain game. With the taste of defeat becoming a regular occurrence, dissent had spread to such an extent that the players demanded Bora change his tactics, perceived as too defensive.

"He was about to be sacked," said Danusa Ocholi, of the Lagos-based Champion newspaper group. "Even a week before the World Cup, the Nigerian FA had told Bo Bonfrere, the coach who had led them to the 1996 Olympic title, to stand by for a recall."

Then three things happened simultaneously to keep Milutinovic in the job. According to Ocholi, at an emergency meeting the players were paid bonuses they had been owed for months. At the same time Milutinovic agreed to modify, if not radically change, his tactics, a compromise to let the players express themselves more on the field. More crucially, the only man who could actually sack the coach, the Nigeria president Sani Abacha - unofficial boss of the nation's football team - died.

All the infighting turned to collective grief and a desire to pull together for the former head of state. "Milutinovic got a reprieve," Ocholi said. "Now he is a hero. If you can survive the local politics in Nigerian football and stand your ground, it's the easiest place to get recognition. But if you fail..."

Failure, after successive wins over Spain and Bulgaria, is the furthest thing now from Milutinovic's mind. "He's like a professor," said Victor Ikpeba, Africa's player of the year and scorer of Friday's goal against Bulgaria. "Psychologically he's been able to motivate us. He knows so much about the game."

Ikpeba did not exactly say that all was forgiven but it is clear there is now a growing respect between players and coach.

How did they manage to turn things around? "Listen, you have to understand that we had played in a very attacking way for a decade," Ikpeba said. "We needed a couple of weeks to get used to Bora's way of playing."

There is clearly still work to do. The Nigerians, for all their bewitching unpredictability, were far too casual in the second half against Bulgaria and would have been punished by sharper opposition. At least Ikpeba proved he could play up front with Daniel Amokachi even if they are not the greatest of friends off the pitch.

But the drums roll on. Both literally, with that intoxicating atmosphere provided by Nigeria's loyal followers who keep up a searing rhythm for 90 minutes, and figuratively, with the team's surge into the knockout phase where they are confident of beating anyone but the hosts, France.

But beware. The last time a team won over so many friends so quickly in the World Cup finals was in 1986. Denmark were as mesmeric as Nigeria are now. Then what happened? They were thrashed 5-1 by Spain. The Super Eagles are flying high. But there is still an awfully long way to go.