Nigeria may have recorded an impressive 6-1 scoreline against the amateurs of Tahiti, but the Super Eagles underwhelmed in a contest that they never looked like losing.
Following the final whistle, I pondered how best to tell the story of a match that had roundly delivered what it had promised, but simultaneously provided a litany of shocks and surprises.
Sometimes, it’s best to focus on the emotions that string together the narrative of an occasion, and as sporting contests go, this one had its fair share of ups and downs.
The African Giants entered the contest in disarray, their tournament preparation being less than adequate. Confidence heading to Brazil was knocked by two unconvincing performances against two greatly inferior African sides in Kenya and Namibia.
While the Super Eagles managed to beat Kenya—after a late Ahmed Musa winner in Nairobi, they were unable to better Namibia in Windhoek. In a disappointing outing, Stephen Keshi’s team only managed a 1-1 draw when the victory, and a guaranteed place in the playoff round of African World Cup qualifiers, was its for the taking.
Normally, international sides could shrug off such disappointments, putting results down to fatigue, injuries or a lack of cohesion, but this Nigeria team are rife with young talent just making their way in the footballing world. There are times when I fear for their collective confidence, particularly with the broiling masses of Naija fans primed to praise and criticise in equal measure.
Their preparation was also affected by row over bonuses which, at one point, threatened to derail their entire participation in the tournament.
The dire financial state of the Nigeria Football Federation has, in recent times, predominantly affected the squad’s backroom staff, with a large number of the team’s entourage being laid off following the Cup of Nations triumph. The fiscal failings have once again affected the playing side of, however. After the team’s pre-agreed match bonuses were supposedly cut without notification, the squad saw fit to stage a protest.
The team refused to board the flight from Namibia to Johannesburg, thus missing the connection to Brazil. It was a very vivid demonstration of its dissatisfaction, and the, at times, shambolic running of what ought to be one of Africa’s most accomplished federations.
In the short term, the situation may have been resolved, but while Nigeria eventually made it to Brazil, the incident has once again shrouded the African giants in controversy and the kind of unprofessional headlines that many thought were consigned to the past.
Having taken to the field against Tahiti, however, the early signs were good. Nigeria looked focused and prepared, and enjoyed the perfect start, dominating the Pacific islanders with a flurry of goals.
The unfortunate Vallar deflected an Elderson Echiejile shot past his own keeper on five minutes, before Nnamdi Oduamadi added to the tally five minutes later, and then again before the half-hour mark.
From this position of numerical strength and utter control, Nigeria should have kicked on comfortably. That they didn’t, at least not initially, can be explained to an extent but will still be a concern for the Big Boss Stephen Keshi.
While Tahiti were dismal defensively, and also unlucky with a handful of key blunders, they looked progressive and menacing in attack.
The experienced Marama Vahirua, making his debut for the national side, was a constant probing threat, while the exquisitely named Steevy Chong Hue demonstrated the effectiveness of good, old-fashioned pace and direct running down the left side.
The crowd—supposedly neutral, but realistically, completely buying into the underdog narrative of the islanders—cheered Tahiti’s every move, celebrating the minutiae of their performance, while jeering Nigeria as though they were Argentina reborn.
This served to unsettle the young Super Eagles, and despite their superiority, they began to shrink; their defenders making silly lapses, their midfielders negligent in possession and their strikers remarkably lax and hesitant.
Injuries have also taken their toll on this Nigeria side, and their impact ought not be forgotten.
While Nigeria headed in to regroup at halftime, the Tahitian manager’s team talk was undoubtedly laced with words of confidence and encouragement.
Early in the second half, the unthinkable happened, as the team ranked 100 places lower than their opposition in the FIFA World Rankings scored an unlikely goal. The finish, as Johnny Tehau leapt above Efe Ambrose to head into the Super Eagles’ net, sent the fans into raptures and prompted ecstatic celebrations from Brazil right to the Pacific basin.
It didn’t put the result in doubt, but you visibly saw Nigeria’s nerve collapse as the players contemplated the humiliation and embarrassment that surely awaited them.
After a brief period of malaise, where nothing seemed to click, the side gradually pulled themselves together. To their credit, they put the shock and disappointment behind them, and began to focus, once more, on testing Samin in the Tahitian goal.
A late flurry of goals followed. Ideye Brown, who replaced Anthony Ujah, the striker who had usurped him ahead of the Namibia game, looked keen to make an impact and prompted a revitalised attacking threat.
Tehau turned villain by putting the ball past his own keeper, before Oduamadi and Elderson added a late flurry to transform a performance of malaise and misadventure into a glossy result.
The contest was an engrossing one, and a fascinating expression of an unlikely mismatch at this exalted level of competition. Tahiti were the story and created memories that will warm millions, but pragmatic observers will be keen to see the impact Nigeria can have against Uruguay and Spain in their upcoming fixtures.
This young and inexperienced collection of players will surely have grown a great deal from this encounter and can be buoyed by the final (emphatic) result.
The Super Eagles traditionally up their game for the crucial contests, a reality which was evident during the Cup of Nations, and Nigeria fans may well be quietly confident of pulling up an upset and sneaking into the semifinals.