Russia 2018: Let the hard work start now – Punch

Lacing the boots in the FIFA World Cup Finals is the dream of every footballer. That dream will soon become a reality again for a select group of 23 players that will represent Nigeria in the next finals holding in 12 Russian cities between June 14 and July 15, 2018. With the Super Eagles drawn to face Argentina, Croatia and Iceland in Group D, the hard work begins now.

But it is disturbing that football administration in Nigeria is still chaotic. This is evident in the embarrassing news on December 12 that FIFA sanctioned Nigeria for fielding an ineligible player, Shehu Abdullahi, in the qualifiers, and awarded three points to Algeria. How this escaped the technical team in the dead rubber is astonishing. It could have been costly, if the Eagles had been thrown out of the World Cup because of administrative ineptitude. The NFF should get to the root of the matter and ensure that whoever was responsible is punished.

Having been to the World Cup five times since their USA ’94 debut, the finals are no more uncharted waters for Nigeria. Except for Japan/Korea 2002 and South Africa 2010, the Super Eagles, who are joining 31 other finalists, including Germany (defending champions) and Brazil, have always made it through to the second round. The Eagles lost to Italy in 1994; Denmark in 1998 and France in 2014. So, the target before the current group being coached by the Franco-German, Gernot Rohr, is to make the quarterfinals.

Only three African teams – Cameroon in Italia ’90, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in South Africa 2010 – have reached the quarterfinals. But having conquered the African qualifying “Group of Death” that paraded Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia, the Eagles, captained by Mikel Obi, should not be altogether overawed in Russia.

Nigeria team is expected to face their toughest test against two-time world champions, Argentina. In Lionel Messi, Argentina have a talisman, who will be supported by a strong cast. In all the four previous meetings at the Mundial, Nigeria had lost to Argentina, twice by a slim 1-0 margin. But with the impressive manner the Eagles outflanked their opponents in the qualifiers, and the 4-2 win against Argentina in November’s friendly international, there is a cautious optimism that Nigeria will not be a pushover this time.

The Eagles and their technical crew will do well not to underrate Croatia and Iceland. Iceland made a strong showing in the 2016 European Championships, defeating England in the second round before losing to France in the quarterfinals. Interestingly, Iceland topped the same European qualifying group of the Russia 2018 World Cup in which Croatia had to settle for the playoffs. Croatia, with the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, cannot be underestimated.

With the fulcrum of the team – Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses and Kelechi Iheanacho – garnering international experience in Europe, it is expected that the Eagles will be competitive. Often, Nigeria’s undoing is off the field of play. Preparations are poor – very poor – and uncoordinated, and coaching is haphazard at hastily organised training camps. There is no motivation for the players to excel, therefore. The NFF should correct this. For a start, those who allowed Abdullahi to be fielded should be made to give account.

Usually, players fight the NFF officials over bonuses. This ugly phenomenon has become entrenched. The Eagles made a mess of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil over a bonus row. They refused to board a scheduled flight to Brazil from Namibia, claiming that the NFF had not agreed to their terms. When they eventually landed in Brazil, they could not perform well. A similar distraction occurred during the 2013 Nations Cup triumph in South Africa.

In the 2014 finals, the Eagles refused to train for their second round match against France over bonuses. It got so bad that the Goodluck Jonathan government had to fly a load of cash to Brazil to meet their demands. Predictably, they lost the match 2-0 to France. The NFF must purge itself of this malady to save the team from another self-immolation.

This is why it is commendable that the Amaju Pinnick-led NFF has put its best foot forward by inking a detailed agreement with the players on the bonuses due to them during the finals. This should motivate them to give their best. With the distraction over money settled, the NFF should implement its writ and not allow players to arm-twist it in the event that they advance beyond the second round in Russia. This model is the global best practice.

If implemented, it is the difference between success and failure. The latest agreement between the English Football Association and its players will see each player picking up a bonus of £215,000 if they win the World Cup, but the bonuses will only kick in if the team makes it to the quarterfinals. The German Football Association has upgraded its new bonus system for Russia 2018. It kicks in from the quarterfinals. German players earn €125,000 each in the semifinals, €200,000 for the final and €350,000 for a win.

With Rohr signing an extension to his contract in the wake of the World Cup qualification, it is imperative that the NFF secure a good base for the Eagles in Russia early. Quality friendly matches, like the ones being mooted with Poland and England, will give the Eagles a feel of what to expect against Croatia and Iceland. A South American team similar to Argentina will also come in handy.

In this wise, money should not be an obstacle. The Federal Government should release the budget for the preparations on time to guard against the distraction that would come from opportunistic businessmen, state governors and charlatans, though it should hold the NFF accountable. This way, Nigeria should have a worthy appearance at the World Cup.

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