Known as the Super Eagles, the Nigerian national football team has been one of the strongest African nations in the world of football. From triumphs against the biggest names in world football, to producing some sensational players, Nigeria has been a joy to watch on the pitch.
THEIR FORMATIVE YEARS
As a British colony, Nigeria was introduced to football in the early part of the 20th century. By the 1930s, they had been on the pitch as part of unofficial games. However, it wasn’t until 1949 that they finally got their first official game. The team came up leaps & bounds to win over English amateur teams such as Dulwich Hamlet, Bishop Auckland and South Liverpool.
The country began supplying players to English clubs in the 1980s and after their performance in the African Cup of Nations, they were truly a team to reckon with. Slowly gathering momentum through the 80s, Nigeria finally managed to qualify for the FIFA world cup in 1994.
THE WORLD CUP STORIES
Under Clemens Westerhof, Nigeria qualified for the 1994 FIFA World Cup in USA. In a tough group that had Diego Maradona’s Argentina, Greece and Bulgaria, Nigeria were considered as the minnows. However, they shocked everone with a 3-nil win over Bulgaria in their first ever world cup fixture. Despite losing 1-2 to Argentina, Nigeria went against all critics and topped their group with a 2-nil win over Greece.
In their very first World Cup, Nigeria were in the Round of 16. Facing Italy, Nigeria seemed unfazed by their illustrious opponents. They took the lead through an AMunike goal on the 25 minute mark. Looking all set to oust the three-time world champions (at the time), Nigeria held on to their one-goal lead. However, in the 89th minute of the game, Italy equalized through Roberto Baggio and the game went into Extra Time.
Baggio was on the mark again, as Nigeria went out of the 1994 World Cup with their heads held high.
Four years later, Nigeria were back again, with Bora Mulutinovic leading the team this time. Placed alongside Spain, Paraguay and Bulgaria, again, Nigeria were one of the favourites to qualify. The defending Olympic Champions went down 0-1 to Spain, before equalizing four minutes later. Raul made it 2-1 to Spain but a 72nd minute equalizer, after some consistent pressure, got Nigeria back on level terms.
5 minutes later, Nigeria got a third goal, one that wrote the script for a talented Spanish side. They went on to beat Bulgaria 1-nil for the second time in two successive World Cups. Spain could only manage a draw against Paraguay. With Nigeria already through to the second round, Spain needed a win against Bulgaria while hoping that Paraguay lose to Nigeria.
It wasn’t to be! Nigeria lost 1-3 to Paraguay while Spain, who hammered 6 past Bulgaria, crashed out of the competition. Nigeria topped the group and were through to meet Denmark. Led by the Laudrup brothers, Denmark were too strong for the Super Eagles and despite a strong performance, the final scoreline clearly showed the difference in class between the two. Denmark won the game by 4 goals to Nigeria’s one.
With the young team of 1998 coming of age, Nigeria would have been happy when they qualified for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan/Korea. However, the draw would have taken their smiles away. Nigeria were drawn into the proverbial Group of Death, alongside England, Sweden and favourites for the title, Argentina.
Argentina struggled to beat a strong Nigerian defence but managed to get one, in the end, through Gabriel Batistuta. They took the lead against Sweden in the second game, but two Swedish goals later, Nigeria had their second loss in a row. Needing a win in their final game, Nigeria dominated play but failed to score as the match ended nil-nil against England. Nigeria were out of the 2002 World Cup.
In 2006, Nigeria ended their world cup qualification campaign, level on points with Angola. Losing out on the head-to-head record, Nigeria failed to qualify for 2006.
In 2010, that wasn’t to be. They qualified and found themselves in a similar group to that in 1994. Argentina and Greece were there again while South Korea took the Bulgarians’ place. A goal by Gabriel Heinze gave Argentina the win although the game was known mostly for Vincent Enyeama’s heroics in goal. A red-card for Sani Kaita ended Nigeria’s hopes against Greece. Despite taking the lead, the Nigerians went down 1-2.
Again needing a win in their last game, Nigeria failed to beat South Korea as both teams were locked at 2-2 at the end of full-time. Nigeria were eliminated as bottom of Group B, at the 2010 FIFA world cup.
AFRICAN CUP OF NATIONS
Nigeria have enjoyed a fair amount of success at the African Cup of Nations, over the years. Having won the second-ever edition in 1980, they were crowned champions in 1994 as well.
However, Nigeria have reached the final on 4 other occasions, in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010 – losing each time.
Nigeria became known as the Super Eagles following their spectacular performances at the 1996 Olympic Games. They won the Gold Medal but it wasn’t their win, as much as who it was against, that got them the Team of the Year title as well.
Playing in a group that had Hungary, Japan and Brazil, Nigeria qualified second behind the South Americans. They went on to beat Mexico (2-0) in the quarter-finals before beating a Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Aldair and Juninho filled Brazil, 4-3 after Extra Time. Their crowning moment came in a 3-2 win over favourites Argentina.
An Argentine team lined up with stars like Roberto Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Jose Chamot, Claudio Lopez, Hernan Crespo and Ariel Ortega, lost to the Nigerian starlets.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Nigeria almost repeated their feat but fell (nil-1) to an Argentine side led by Juan Roman Riquelme, Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Angel di Maria.