Supporters still appear unconvinced by the national side despite qualifying for the Nations Cup with two games to spare
On paper, things went swimmingly for the Super Eagles on Saturday.
A draw between Lesotho and Sierra Leone meant that Nigeria qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations with two matches to play.
They then duly kept a clean sheet away in Benin, and defeated the Squirrels 1-0 to end the hosts’ eight years of invincibility on home soil.
It should be a cause for celebration, but why don’t Super Eagles fans appear to be happy?
In fact, the reaction was muted on social media platforms and forums in the aftermath of the victory…and that’s even without considering some of the eyebrows that were raised by the NFF’s decision to send the team to Porto-Novo on a flotilla of speedboats.
Twitter user @Harbiodinho described Nigeria as ‘unimpressive’, others argued that—having travelled to Benin by boat, they should be made to swim back to Lagos.
“We have so many improvements to make,” complained @ozo_chukwu, while @Dope_Kylee expressed the belief that he was wasting his data to watch the Super Eagles in action.
Throughout the contest, there were complaints about Nigeria being boring, about the contest being unwatchable, about the visitors lacking a cohesive plan, lacking structure, and failing to make the most of their talented options.
Are Nigeria fans being ungrateful to be complaining about such issues, while, in terms of the bigger picture, they didn’t break a sweat to qualify, and they also secured a strong result away from home?
Certainly, there are ample reasons for optimism.
Nigeria knew that Benin, tricky, organised and resolute, would be tough opponents—not least in Porto-Novo.
Yet the Eagles rarely looked troubled, and of course, while it wasn’t a magnificent display of attacking football, the pitch is to some degree to blame for that.
Similarly, the pre-match loss of Alex Iwobi due to a positive Covid-19 test surely impact the team’s creativity and their ability to forge coherent, cohesive attacking moves. Iwobi is the side’s nominal creator-in-chief, and without him, Kelechi Iheanacho—for all of his qualities—was unable to take on the playmaking mantle for the side.
Some may argue that—during a qualifying campaign—all that matters are the results; securing progression, getting the job done, and reaching the tournament proper. That’s where the real work begins.
Why can’t supporters just put these ‘minor’ concerns to one side, and instead focus on the bigger picture? Cameroon…here we come.
The reason is twofold; context and expectation.
In terms of context, the reason why fans demanded more from Nigeria against Benin, is because of what has come before in the qualifying campaign.
Sure, Nigeria got the job done with two games to spare, but they’ve hardly been convincing, shipping two to Lesotho in a 4-2 defeat and then drawing both games against Sierra Leone.
Failure to score in Freetown was worrying, shipping four at home against the Leone Stars after being 4-0 up was even more worrying.
In this context, Nigeria had a point to prove; it was imperative that the national side end their qualifying campaign with a hue of conviction, and give a sense that they were heading to Cameroon as one of Africa’s big guns.
They haven’t done that…regardless of Paul Onuachu’s intervention against Benin.
Where was the flair, the confidence, the colour that have characterised previous Nigeria sides?
Sure, Nigeria have got the job done, but after the unconvincing double-header against Sierra Leone—and a 2020 without an international victory—the context surely demanded something a little big extra from the Eagles…evidence that Rohr can get the best out of this squad.
Then there is point two, the expectation.
I’m not just talking here about the kind of historic expectation that comes from being the Super Eagles, one of the continent’s giants, responsible for producing some of Africa’s all-time greats, and one of Africa’s biggest nations.
There’s the expectation that comes with having a team rife of players featuring for some of Europe’s biggest clubs in the world’s major leagues.
Despite the absentees, this was not an Eagles team that was devoid of quality.
Iheanacho is in the form of his life at Leicester City, having had a hand in 10 goals in his last nine games, but he appeared to be a square peg in a round hole, while Joe Aribo, so influential in Rangers’ title success, was unable to effectively influence proceedings from the centre of the midfield.
While the switch to a back four was understandable, it meant that Zaidu Sanusi and Ola Aina were not able to offer the kind of thrust from wide that they would surely done had Gernot Rohr opted for three centre-backs.
There’s still a sense that Rohr is failing to get the best out of this collection of players; the style lacks sophistication, the structure doesn’t necessarily play to the stars’ strengths, and overall, they remain less than the sum of their parts.
Nigeria fans may be criticised for being ungrateful as they don’t cheer on the Eagles’ triumph with exuberance and glee, but their scepticism can be justified.
When the context and the expectations are considered, at this stage of Rohr’s tenure, Nigeria ought to be showing more.