Nigeria handed unexpected chance to end generation of missed opportunities

The Super Eagles were once Africa’s greatest hope in international football but have had a lean decade since their last Africa Cup of Nations triumph

Karl Matchett
Wednesday 07 February 2024 08:58 GMT
(AFP via Getty Images)

Rewind to the mid- and late-1990s and there was just one African nation widely expected to become the big challenger to European and South American countries on the international football landscape: Nigeria.

The Super Eagles reached the last 16 in both ‘94 and ‘98, the iconic team of Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Finidi George and Daniel Amokachi, later added to by Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West and Celestine Babayaro. With a significant section of the latter squad aged 24 and under, it seemed they should only go from strength to strength, particularly after winning the Africa Cup of Nations in ‘94 as well.

It didn’t quite happen that way.

Nigeria withdrew from the following Afcon after Sani Abacha’s coup d’etat, then were banned from the ‘98 edition as a consequence. It was 19 years until they won their next (and so far last) Afcon and - more notably perhaps - it is now a full quarter of a century since France ‘98, during which time they have won matches on just two further occasions at World Cup finals.

An entire generation of supporters, of citizens and indeed of playing talent have grown up since that early promise and had to watch on as Nigeria squander chances or fall short - but perhaps this time around the stars have aligned for the modern Super Eagles to reach their potential and fly to glory in Ivory Coast.

This year’s Afcon has already seen them somewhat cruise through five matches unbeaten, almost unnoticed at first; while pre-tournament storylines centred around Mohamed Salah, around the hosts, around Morocco’s attempt to equal their exploits at Qatar ‘22 and around Senegal’s quest to retain their title, Nigeria have simply turned up and done largely what they have needed to.

Three group games yielded seven points: two victories by a 1-0 scoreline and a 1-1 draw. Low key, largely, no fuss, not setting the tournament alight - but not setting fire to their own hopes either, as Ghana managed to do in the groups and Senegal did likewise in the round of 16. Their own first knockout encounter was Nigeria’s most impressive outing yet; they created more chances than Cameroon, certainly a lot more high-quality ones, prevented a single shot being taken on their goal and ultimately had the cutting edge through Ademola Lookman to win 2-0.

Lookman scored twice as Nigeria beat Cameroon (AFP via Getty Images)

And having seen Lookman also score in the quarter-final 1-0 win over Angola, now it’s impossible to argue anything other than the route to success having opened up for Nigeria. They were already the highest-ranked nation left in the 2023 Afcon by the last-eight stage - not always a great yardstick, but at least indicative - while none of the eight quarter-finalist countries from two years ago in Cameroon made it that far this time around. Nor are there any of Africa’s five representatives from the men’s World Cup a little over 13 months ago left in the tournament.

Not that it will be easy at any point: Angola matched Nigeria’s record in the group stage and next is South Africa, who have already seen off the much-fancied Morocco and beat Cabo Verde on penalties. Looking ahead to a potential final? It could now easily be the hosts Ivory Coast, who they’ve already beaten in the groups.

Nor is it typically easy to point to star names for the Super Eagles and say that’s where wins should come from: Lookman, Victor Osimhen and Moses Simon should present a formidable attacking line but it’s four clean sheets in a row which have instead seen them progress this far. Angola had been relatively free-scoring during the tournament, but Nigeria still have the lowest xG conceded: just 2.5 for the entire tournament so far, despite now having played two games more than many nations.

Nigeria kept clean sheets against Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau and Cameroon (REUTERS)

Solidity, then, will doubtless remain their first port of call - but if the heat of battle makes them resort to an effective shootout of attacking talent, the Super Eagles have to again be highly fancied. They’ve created 18 big chances at the Afcon, more than anyone else, but they’ve also missed 13 of them - again the highest in the category.

Osimhen, an elite striker with Napoli for the past few seasons, has been the biggest culprit. But given his track record and his strike record of 21 goals in 33 caps thus far, there’s again reason to suspect he’ll revert to the mean if chances keep coming his way.

Of the teams left fighting it out, Nigeria have the history, the recent form and the best No.9 striker. International success has been a long time returning for those in the famous green; now it’s up to them to seize this unexpected chance and start writing new reasons, new chapters, of valid hope for the future.

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