Eagles gear up for World Cup test – Punch

For the next one month, the eyes of the world, wearied by disasters, wars and rumours of war, will shift rivetingly to the FIFA World Cup Finals taking place in Brazil. The eagerly anticipated gathering of the best 32 football teams in the world begins on June 12 and ends on July 13 with the championship game that will determine the world champions for the next four years.

The finals – the 20th in the series after the inaugural competition in Uruguay in 1930 – promise thrills, record-breaking moments, and joy for the victors and pains for the teams that fall before reaching the final hurdle. Significantly, all the past (seven) world champions, including hosts Brazil, are in the World Cup fray, making for a rich brew of football tactics, temperament and traditions. The Economist of London, in its World Cup preview, says “…the game’s true beauty lies in its long reach, from east to west and north to south.” We agree.

The hosts are joined by Spain, victorious for the first time four years ago in South Africa, and other one-time winners in England (1966) and France (1998). There are also two-time champions, Uruguay and Argentina, while Italy and Germany share seven titles between them.

For the Nigerians, the so-called African giants, who, as continental champions, will be making their fifth appearance at the global stage, it will be an opportunity to improve on their performance. Having made it to the second round twice in the past, the Super Eagles would want to soar some distance further.

The host country has been experiencing protests on the streets over its prohibitive $11.3 billion infrastructure bill to host the fiesta. Yet, the Selecao Brasileira – the only team to have played in all previous 19 finals – are firm favourites to win their sixth unprecedented title on the pitch. Victory for the Samba Boys will be a pleasant departure from 1950 when they first hosted the World Cup and lost the diadem to Uruguay.

The International Football Federation, beset by allegations of fraud in awarding the hosting rights for the World Cup, is however, basking in the limelight, backed by fans’ insatiable appetite for football. FIFA has sold about three million tickets for the finals, and each finalist is guaranteed a minimum of $8 million, while the winners will receive $35 million from the football body.

From its humble beginnings in 1930, when only 13 teams participated, the tournament has grown to 32 teams. This time, 736 players have been named by the finalists, with Cameroon’s Fabrice Oliga, 18, the youngest and Colombia goalkeeper, Faryd Mondragon, 43, the oldest. The Germans are pulling out all the stops with the announcement that each player will receive $407,000 if they win the coveted trophy.

The Russians, playing alongside South Korea, Algeria and Belgium in Group H, have the distinction of being the only team with all the squad playing their football at home. Miroslav Klose has scored 14 World Cup goals; the German needs only one more in Brazil to match the record held by Ronaldo as the highest all-time goal-scorer.

Africa’s World Cup hopes are being carried in the Latin American sun by five teams – Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast. In the class of 2014, only Cameroon and Ghana had made it to the quarterfinals before.

While the Indomitable Lions lost to England in the quarterfinals in Italia ’90, the Black Stars of Ghana were undone in the last eight in South Africa 2010 by Luis Suarez’s blatant handball on the goal line. The images of Asamoah Gyan booting the resultant penalty wide are the pains etched indelibly in the minds of football lovers. With Ghana losing in the eventual penalty shootout, the debate it triggered raged even after the tournament, whether the Uruguay striker should not have received stiffer sanctions apart from the red card that ruled him out of Uruguay’s 3-2 semifinal loss to the Netherlands.

In spite of the buoyant optimism generated by the Super Eagles, arising from the fact that they are the African champions, the Nigerians enter the Group F in contest against Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and their nemesis, Argentina, shorthanded in terms of playing personnel. Most of the Nigerian players did not feature in top European clubs in the outgoing season, with Mikel Obi, our marquee representative, relegated to the substitute bench at Chelsea, his English Premier League club.

Lack of a coordinated pre-tournament programme and a deficit in key areas on the pitch point to the fact that the Eagles will struggle to surpass the second round status they attained on their debut in USA ’94 before losing to Italy, and in France ’98, when Denmark clinically decimated them 4-1.

Although Stephen Keshi, the coach, who captained the Eagles at USA ’94, is sanguine about the team’s chances, his confidence is tempered by a near-chaotic preparation and the return of the usual altercation over bonuses. This saw the Eagles making a hash of last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup when the players refused to board a flight to Brazil for the tournament over a bonus row.

Nigerians, apprehensive over the state of electricity at home, are also contending with the high insecurity generated by the Boko Haram insurgency. On May 24, Boko Haram terrorists bombed a viewing centre in Jos, Plateau State while about 40 football fans were killed on June 1 at another viewing centre in Mubi, Adamawa State.

This makes it critical for fans, operators and security agencies to adopt some security measures as they converge to watch the unfolding football spectacle for one month so that the murderous insurgents won’t cut short their lives or maim them.

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