Nigeria take on Bosnia and Herzegovina in Cuiaba this evening, playing not just for their own chances in Group F but for the broader hopes of African representation in the last 16.
It has not been an excellent tournament for Africa so far, with Cameroon already out, Ghana and Algeria having lost their first games and Ivory Coast, probably the continent’s best team, needing a result in their last match to progress.
Nigeria are African champions and came with high hopes of progress from a rather unbalanced group. However, Stephen Keshi’s side were frustrated by Iran in a 0-0 draw in their first game.
Iran, with far less firepower than Nigeria, were happy to sit deep. The Super Eagles, despite Em- manuel Emenike up front and Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa on the wings, could find no way through a defence as-sembled by Carlos Queiroz.
It was a poor performance and Nigeria legend Jay-Jay Okocha blamed the coach. “This was a must-win for Nigeria but we did not take it,” Okocha said afterwards. “We did not do enough, we were poor. Keshi did not do enough work on the team. The tactical play was so bad, I hold Keshi responsible for this.”
Nigeria need to improve tonight to beat Bosnia, and may bring Stoke’s Peter Odemwingie into their starting line-up. If they win, against a Bosnia side who looked organised and tenacious in their 2-1 defeat to Argentina at the Maracana, they will be well placed to qualify in second. But Bosnia deserve to be favourites.
If Nigeria do progress to the last 16, and face, in all likelihood, France, it would be good news for those valuing continental heterogeneity in the World Cup. Four years ago Ghana were one penalty miss away from being the first African team to reach the semi-finals. This time, it seems unlikely that any African side will do so well.
Ivory Coast started with a 2-1 win over Japan, but after losing to Colombia, they need a win against Greece in Fortaleza on Tuesday to make certain of progress and a likely game against Italy.
Cameroon were dismal in defeats to Mexico and Croatia, and are already eliminated. Ghana were unfortunate in their last-gasp 2-1 defeat to the United States but now need a result against Germany tonight to stay competitive in the difficult Group G. Algeria were leading Belgium 1-0 with 20 minutes left but could not withstand the late pressure. They do have the nous, though, to get results against South Korea and Russia in their last two games.
For those hoping to see a knockout stage with teams from beyond Europe and Latin America, Nigerian and Ghanaian success today, and a win for Ivory Coast on Tuesday, would be welcome.