France '98: Reality Dawns For African Dream

Nigeria, the Olympic champions, are hoping European experience can broaden their horizons. Norman Fox reports
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WHO in the end will come out of Africa and win the World Cup? Pele's prediction that one of that continent's countries would do so before the end of the century was enthusiastically promoted out of self-interest by the Fifa president, Joao Havelange, who cynically courted African votes. Neither is likely to see the forecast fulfilled. In France, Nigeria, particularly, will bear the burden of unrealistic expectancy.

Four years ago they took Italy to extra-time in the quarter-finals. This time they are equally gifted, more experienced and slightly less likely to destroy their own hopes with disagreements and poor organisation. They are also lacking in self-control on the pitch at a time when referees are going to play by the book, and not finishing positively enough to inspire belief that they can seriously threaten 68 years of European and South American dominance.

Politics and the ability to make enemies have always gone side-by-side with the country's enormous natural fountain of talented players. More than one hundred are with clubs abroad. The Nigerian federation tries to keep a degree of control but often without great success. Diplomacy at USA 94 was not their strongest point. The federation's president, Samson Emeka, went a shade over the top when he said that Nigeria were champions of Africa but Italy were famous for "the Mafia and Fiat, not for football".

As some indication of the footballing resources available, Victor Ikpeba, of Monaco, who was voted African Footballer of the Year for 1997 (the fourth Nigerian in five years to win the award), was not an automatic choice in qualifying games. Even so, Nigeria strolled through with only one defeat (against Guinea), and were the first country in the world to qualify, outside the hosts and the holders.

The pity is that far too many outsiders, including politicians, in this trouble-torn country have always felt it necessary to have their say in the running of the national team. As a result, almost as soon as the qualifying competition was over, the coach, Philippe Troussier, was dismissed. He had the temerity to demand complete control of selecting and coaching the side.

Strangely, in the circumstances, the Nigerian federation then went for a man not noted for his subservience, the Serbian Bora Milutinovic, who had been sacked by Mexico who have since qualified for the finals. Milutinovic is among the most experienced of coaches, having guided Mexico (1986), Costa Rica (1990) and the United States (1994) in three previous World Cup final competitions. His fourth will be a record that he will have to share with Saudi Arabia's Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. He made an early effort to come to terms with the interference that had so irritated his predecessor by reversing the usual condemned man's vote of confidence from the board.

After a few months he was disposed to say that the federation had given him every possible support. He has even talked them into letting the players' wives go to the World Cup. However, his main problem has been a lack of competitive matches since the Olympic tournament in Atlanta, which Nigeria won.

They have not been favoured by the group draw, having to play against Spain, who are tipped to have a successful World Cup, Bulgaria, who have great experience, and Paraguay, dangerously underestimated on the basis that they only to play to their full potential at home. Even so, the fact that their side is packed with players who appear with some of the highest- quality sides in Europe should, at the very least, allow them passage through to the second round.

Their midfield has considerable skill with Sunday Oliseh, now of Ajax but previously with Koln, and Austin Okacha, who also played in Germany, for Eintracht Frankfurt, before moving to Fenerbahce in Turkey. Finidi George, who in 1993 scored the goals against Algeria that took Nigeria into the World Cup finals for the first time, is still such a dangerous winger that Real Betis have had to fend of big offers from Real Madrid and Barcelona.

A great boost to confidence came when the 21-year-old Internazionale player who was the inspiration behind the Olympic success, Nwankwo Kanu, appeared in Nigeria's qualifying match against Guinea last August. It was his first international run-out since undergoing serious surgery in the United States for a congenital heart condition. After the initial diagnosis of the problem, his club, who had only just paid Ajax pounds 3m for him, said his career was over. Eight months later, he was allowed to resume training.

Two troubling aspects of Nigeria's play are almost certainly going to stand in the way of their progress towards leading Africa's challenge. A recent friendly against Yugoslavia, which they lost 3-0, exposed their continuing goalkeeping problems (Abiodun Baruwa missed almost every high ball and had little sense of timing) and any slightly controversial refereeing decision brought them rushing to argue. In most cases it was their own rash tackles that caused the problems.

In Internazionale's Taribo West, they possess one of the toughest defenders in the world, a player who can switch frustratingly from purple patch to red mist in a split second. They have the skill to avoid the conflicts but perhaps not yet the confidence to prove it.