Tonye David-West, Jr., Ph.DTuesday, June 10, 2003
[email protected]
Political Scientist


Eagles train for Brazil encounter
or those of us who are diehard soccer fans, the coming duel with Brazil on Wednesday, June 11th in Abuja gives us both an unhealthy dose of anxiety and optimism that the Super Eagles will prevail. This match, against the five-time and current World Champion, which is by all means the biggest Nigeria will play in a long time to come will be a litmus test for the tenacity and veracity of our team under an indigenous coach, Christian Chukwu. A lot is at stake in this encounter which is being brought to Nigeria for the first time. For the Brazilians, they have been longing to avenge the '96 Atlanta Olympics semi-finals defeat [4-3 in overtime] by Golden Boy Kanu and his compatriots in the persons of "The Bull", Daniel Amokachi, left winger Emmanuel Amunike, central defender Uche Okechukwu, "Pastor" Taribo West,Victor Ikpeba, Tijiani Babangida, the able Joseph Dosu in goal whose playing career was cut short by an errant cow, the maverick Celestine Babayero, ex-skipper Sunday ! Oliseh, playmaker Austin "JJ" Okocha, workhorse Garba Lawal, scorer of the equalizing goal against Spain in the '98 World Cup in France [a goal the Spanish keeper Zobi would never forget] and many more talented players.

Ronaldinho is interviewed at Abuja airport

Since that defeat of the Brazilian U-23 team which included world class striker, Ronaldo, Bebeto, keeper Dida and many of their current players, who have since graduated into the senior team, the Brazilian FA has been trying to arrange a match with Nigeria to avenge the defeat. But then ruler, Sani Abacha, denied them the opportunity saying that Nigeria needed to enjoy the victory and that Brazil should suffer the agony of defeat for as long as possible. Therefore, this June 11th meeting will afford the Samba Boys the golden opportunity they have been seeking to avenge that defeat on the home turf of their conquerors seven years ago.

For the Super Eagles, pride and honor are at stake. When was the last time a team strolled into Nigeria to beat the Super Eagles? The last team to do so in 2000 was Cameroon, 'breaking' Nigeria's world record of unbeaten home streaks for nineteen years. In all honesty, Cameroon could not say aloud that they beat Nigeria at home in the Nations Cup finals in light of the controversy surrounding their victory given that Victor Ikpeba's penalty kick was ruled not a goal by the Tunisian referee even as video replays and all the spectators confirmed it was a goal. Before this, the last team to edge the Green Eagles [the old name before it was changed in 1988 by Babangida] was the Desert Warriors of Algeria who dismissed Nigeria by a 2-1 margin in 1981, a year after the Chairman Christian Chukwu led Green Eagles waved aside the same team in the Nations Cup finals in Lagos by a 3-0 margin, claiming the highest continental football honors for the first time. This feat was to be re! peated fourteen years later [1994] in Tunisia against the Zambians who drew first blood in the energy-sapping hostilities before succumbing to the mighty left foot of Emmanuel Amunike who put an abrupt end to their dreams as Nigeria claimed a 2-1 victory.

Ronaldinho waves to dancers of the Great Odenigbo Cultural Troupe as he arrives at Nnamdi Azikiwe Abuja Interantional Airport

Besides all of the aforementioned, there is a lot of personal pride at stake as well. At least, three of the players who played in the U-23 gold-winning Atlanta Olympics team have been shortlisted for this epic match. Austin "JJ" Okocha, Garba Lawal and Nwankwo Kanu remember all too well how they manhandled the Brazilians in Athens, Georgia in that semi-finals duel and would very much like to reaffirm their supremacy even at the senior level. It is a well known secret that Taribo West and Ronaldo are good friends having both played at Inter Milan in the late 90s. During this time, Taribo, it has been reported, gave Ronaldo a mouth full at every opportunity he had. Taribo [and Kanu who also played at Inter Milan] have had the bragging rights for many years and Ronaldo is itching to avenge that defeat in Taribo's home turf.

To this end, the Brazilian ace has been begging his Spanish club to release him to play this crucial match so he would have the opportunity to "teach" Taribo [if he plays] a lesson in football. The Nigerian team, currently ranked 32nd by FIFA, [Brazil is ranked 1st] is not a team that can be easily dismissed even by the likes of a five-time World Champion playing with the full compliments of its first team players. In the '98 World Cup, Nigeria was eyeing a quarter-final match-up with Brazil, ignoring little known Denmark, its opponent in the second round, when Denmark crushed the Super Eagles and sent them packing from the "Big Dance" without much fanfare. The Super Eagles at that time were licking their chops, playing to the drama that attended the moment in their expected match-up with the Samba boys, a match that was dubbed the World Cup finals itself.

This time, there is no Denmark to stand between Nigeria and Brazil. The two soccer giants, representing their respective continents, so to speak, will be locking horns in Abuja in less than forty-eight hours. With so much at stake, even if it is dubbed an "international friendly", the Samba Boys should be thanking their lucky stars if they walk away from the newly built N50 billion Abuja stadium with an even score. They might very well suffer the same fate as the Black Stars of Ghana and the Flames of Malawi who were walloped by the Soaring Super Eagles by margins of 3-1 and 4-1, respectively, at that same venue only in the last few days.

The members of the Super Eagles are hungry. They are bent on reasserting themselves and proving not only to their individual clubs, but to their teammates and the world at large that they are still a team to be reckoned with regardless of their shortcomings in the last two World Cup finals. The likes of "JJ" who has been bastardizing the Premier League in England with his artistry and quality goals for Bolton Wanderers will not like to settle for a mere draw. Many of our boys, including homeboy Joseph Yobo, who captained the Super Eagles to a 3-0 demolition of the current African Champion, Cameroon, in the LG Cup only a week or so ago, will be seeking to claim the spotlight as it is not everyday a five-time World Champion and current World Champion strolls into town.

In the midst of the anxiety and tension that has gripped Abuja and Nigeria in anticipation of this match-up, there is another facet [to this encounter] that might indeed bode well for indigenous coaches seeking that big break. Depending on the outcome, it might very well put an end or at least douse even momentarily the well ingrained belief that indigenous coaches are not of the same pedigree as their foreign counterparts. If head coach Chukwu, who since his appointment has had very remarkable successes having won more than a dozen matches suffering his first defeat only a couple weeks ago in the hands of the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica in Kingston, could make the Samba Boys taste defeat yet again, he would have made a strong case for the recruitment and retention of indigenous coaches and dispel the notion that indigenous coaches cannot perform at the highest levels of the game when juxtaposed with foreign coaches. Evidently, there is something at stake for everyone, players! and coaches alike. Chukwu will be seeking to change a few minds about his own abilities as will the players about theirs.