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Nigeria gave itself an unexpected chance to to end generation of missed opportunities

  • The Super Eagles were once the continent of Africa’s best chance to succeed in international football, but it has been ten years since they won the Africa Cup of Nations.

When we go back to the mid- and late-1990s, Nigeria was the only country in Africa that was largely predicted to pose a serious threat to South American and European nations in the world of international football.

The legendary Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Finidi George, and Daniel Amokachi squad, later augmented by Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West, and Celestine Babayaro, helped the Super Eagles make it to the round of sixteen in both 1994 and 1998. Given that a sizable portion of the latter team was under 24 years old, it appeared as though they would only get better, especially after winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994.

That isn’t exactly how it happened.

Following Sani Abacha’s coup d’état, Nigeria withdrew from the subsequent Afcon and was thereby barred from the ’98 edition. More significantly, it has been a full 25 years since France ’98, during which they have only won twice more in World Cup finals. It took them 19 years to win their next (and so far final) Afcon.

Since that initial promise, a whole generation of fans, citizens, and even players have grown up and had to watch as Nigeria wasted opportunities or failed; however, perhaps this time the stars have aligned for the modern Super Eagles to fulfill their potential and soar to glory in Ivory Coast.

Nigeria has so far gone through five games in the Afcon without losing, almost unnoticed; while pre-tournament narratives revolved around Mohamed Salah, the hosts, Morocco’s attempt to match their exploits at Qatar ’22, and Senegal’s attempt to hold onto the title, Nigeria have essentially shown up and done what has been required of them.

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Seven points were earned from three group matches: two wins by a 1-0 margin and a 1-1 tie. Low key, mostly uneventful, not igniting the tournament, but also not extinguishing their own ambitions, as Ghana and Senegal both accomplished in the group stages and the round of 16.

Nigeria’s performance in their first knockout match was their best to date; they outperformed Cameroon in terms of chances generated, especially higher-quality ones, stopped a single shot on goal, and in the end, thanks to Ademola Lookman, had the advantage to win 2-0.

It’s also hard to argue against Lookman’s goal in Nigeria’s 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Angola, which cleared the way for the country’s eventual success. By the last eight rounds of the 2023 Afcon, they were already the top-ranked country remaining – not always a good indicator, but at least a sign – and none of the eight Cameroonian quarterfinalists from the previous year advanced that far. Furthermore, none of the five African players that competed in the men’s World Cup a little more than 13 months ago are still competing in the competition.

Not that it will be simple at any point: South Africa, which defeated highly anticipated Morocco and defeated Cabo Verde on penalties, will go up next after Angola equaled Nigeria’s record in the group round. Anticipating a prospective final? Given that they had previously defeated the hosts, Ivory Coast, in the groups, it may very well be them.

It’s also not always simple to point to the Super Eagles’ great players and claim that’s where the team should win: Lookman, Victor Osimhen, and Moses Simon should make a strong offensive line, but their success has come from keeping four straight clean sheets. Nigeria has the lowest xG conceded in the tournament thus far, at 2.5, even after playing two more games than many other countries. Angola had been scoring freely throughout the competition.

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Therefore, solidity will undoubtedly continue to be their first option. However, if the intensity of the match forces them to turn to a potent offensive skill shootout, the Super Eagles must once more be strongly favored. They have more huge chance creation than anyone else at the Afcon, with 18, but they have also missed the most, 13, in the category.

Osimhen, a talented striker who has played for Napoli in recent seasons, is the main offender. However, considering his history and strike total of 21 goals in 33 appearances so far, there’s yet more reason to believe that, given enough opportunities, he’ll return to the mean.

Nigeria has the strongest No. 9 striker, recent form, and history among the remaining nations battling it out. For individuals wearing the renowned green, international success has been a long time coming. Now it’s up to them to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity and begin writing new justifications, new chapters, and genuine hope for the future.

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