Okocha refuses to bow to new order

Super Eagles prepare for their greatest rivalry as the pretenders wait to pounce
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Jay-Jay Okocha is not a man who really does intense. It would be ludicrous to think that the Bolton playmaker is not deeply disappointed that his international career will end in Egypt at the African Nations' Cup rather than in Germany at the World Cup, but his response to a question about Nigeria's failure to qualify for this summer's finals is a languid shrug. "I just have to accept it and make good use of my time. I'll have a real holiday to spend with my family. I've got to think of the positives, but it would have been nice to be there."

Others in Nigeria have been less sanguine. Christian Chukwu was unsurprisingly sacked as national coach, and his replacement, Augustine Egua-voen, accepts that Nigeria need an exceptional campaign. "We paid for underrating Zimbabwe and Angola by not qualifying for the World Cup," he said. "We'll only pacify Nigerians angered by our failure by winning the Nations' Cup in Egypt."

After three successive appearances at the World Cup finals, the Super Eagles had regarded their participation almost as a right, and, while others see the qualification of such debutants as Ivory Coast, Angola, Togo and Ghana as evidence of an emerging new order in African football, in Nigeria the talk is of top players becoming distracted by club commitments. "We have the chance to prove ourselves again and this is going to be the real test of our character," Eguavoen said.

Even qualifying from the group, though, will be a tall order. "We know that Ghana and Senegal are not weak opposition," he went on, his omission of Zimbabwe perhaps suggesting that the lessons of qualifying have not entirely been learned.

With Senegal wildly inconsistent these days, it is Nigeria's opening fixture against Ghana tomorrow that really stirs the interest, for there is no deeper rivalry in African football. The Black Stars may have only just secured their first qualification for the World Cup, but they are the traditional heavyweights of West Africa, having won four Nations' Cups. Nigeria may have made more global impact recently, but they failed to beat Ghana between 1987 and 2001.

Since then, Ghana's status has risen while Nigeria's has waned. "The first game is always difficult because of the pressure to have a good start," said Okocha, who is doubtful for tomorrow's game through illness. "The rivalry with Ghana is not so intense as it was. It's just because we were neighbours and over the years they kept beating us."

He acknowledges Ghana, though, as one of the major contenders. "There are a lot of good African teams," he said. "You have to be at the top of your game to win the Cup. I'd say three of the five World Cup qualifiers have a decent chance of winning - Tunisia, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Those three countries have more experienced players."

Experience is not something Nigeria lack, despite the presence of such young talents such as Stephen Makinwa, Obafemi Martins and John Obi Mikel. For Kanu and the Iraklis midfielder Garba Lawal as well as Okocha, this could be a last chance at glory. It is, after all, 12 years since the Super Eagles last won the tournament, and for the generation that won gold at the 1996 Olympics, time is running out.

"We were very unlucky to lose [on penalties to the eventual champions Tunisia] in the semi-finals last time," Okocha said. "Now, having failed to reach the World Cup finals, there is nothing left for us."

The question is whether the traditional powers can see off Africa's new guard. Like Nigeria, Cameroon have a point to prove after missing out on Germany, with Aston Villa's Eric Djemba-Djemba and Lille's Jean Makoun insisting they go to Egypt as favourites. Still, as the old joke has it, there is no better place to be than in de-Nile.