As the curtain comes down on Nigeria’s run at the World Cup in Russia, there are a number of contrasting emotions.
When the draws were made, Group D was pegged almost immediately as the ‘Group of Death’, but there was an undercurrent of optimism regarding the Super Eagles’ fortunes.
Going into the final group match against Argentina, all the factors that had lent courage to Nigeria were playing out on a grand scale: most notably, the dysfunctional nature of the two-time World champions.
The requirement was simple: win and go through. And, while the Super Eagles ultimately fell short, the mere fact that the youngest team in the World Cup went into its final game with its destiny in its hands was a welcome departure from the culture of permutation and ‘what if’ to which our football is so closely wedded.
It serves to emphasize the new, more professional, more business-like sense around the national team in recent times. As far as operational procedures go, this World Cup campaign was easily the least fractious ever. For that, kudos go to the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), who put together a proper training camp, concluded financial arrangements in good time, and arranged competitive warm-up games.
Sadly, these did not add up to a great outing once the tournament actually kicked off. However, with the base of talent available now, there is a genuine sense of something exciting forming.
Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho, William Troost-Ekong, Tyronne Ebuehi, Francis Uzoho, Alex Iwobi and Oghenekaro Etebo will no doubt form the nucleus of the team going forward; all are under 25, and now have the crucial experience of that rarefied World Cup atmosphere.
For so long, the national team handlers have been hung up on the idea of “rebuilding”; it is a buzzword for every new coach brought into the position. This time though, there may finally be more than just lip service paid to it.
There is an element of romantic idealism to a group of young lads maturing together, all the whole forging a bond of unity and gaining valuable experience together.
Also to the fore was the sterling leadership displayed by captain of the side John Obi Mikel, who finally delivered the sort of gritty, committed performance that many had ached to see from him for so long.
The former Chelsea man had divided opinion for so long, with his aloofness easily perceived as arrogance; the responsibility of leading a young team has finally brought him the understanding and acceptance he was missing for so long.
It was sad then to see him so emotional after the crushing late defeat to Argentina. While it may felt inevitable at the end, the loss represented a lot more than a simple loss of three points and passage into the next round. It was a microcosm of the one glaring failure in the tenure of Gernot Rohr: in failing to maximize the advantages of his own team, he was unable to cause a famous upset against the worst iteration of the Argentina national team in ages.
In Etebo and Ndidi, the Super Eagles have two of the most energetic, rangy midfielders in the competition, for instance. Yet both stood off the ball and did not consistently harry the opposing midfield much.
There is a sense with the German that he is a little too pragmatic, too averse to risk and passion. His sides invariably start games slowly, before easing into the encounter midway through the match, and on Tuesday there was almost a reluctance to alter the game in any meaningful way from the bench.
Rohr has vocally referenced the fact that this team got to the World Cup ahead of schedule, which is fair enough. However, they got there anyway and owe it to themselves to compete; Denmark weren’t even supposed to be at Euro 92, and yet they won it.
If anything, the fact that this tournament was a bonus should have been an even more convincing reason to go for it and make an impression, while winning hearts.
As it is, the likes of Mikel and Leon Balogun will likely not be available in 2022. As a way to go out, it can hardly have been satisfying.
All eyes now are on the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Rohr will have to prove he has learnt the crucial lessons from this World Cup campaign. If he cannot, he may learn one of the harder lessons possible: the only way to earn more time and patience, especially in Nigeria, is to keep producing results.