Nigeria Remain Outside Africa's World Cup Elite After Exit to France

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Nigeria Remain Outside Africa's World Cup Elite After Exit to France
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Another day, another destiny for Nigeria, as the dreams of a first-ever spot in the World Cup quarter-finals slipped away from them with defeat to France.

The Super Eagles held their own in a tight contest, but they seemed to lose the initiative at the end of each half. While they went into the break level, their lapses toward the end of the 90 minutes proved costly.

A Paul Pogba header in the 79th minute and a Joseph Yobo own goal in the 92nd proved fatal and ended a decidedly mixed summer for the West African powerhouse.

With regard to positives, the now-departed Stephen Keshi broke two hoodoos that had held a long dominion over the Super Eagles.

Before this summer, it had been 16 years since the Nigerians beat a European side at the World Cup, and 16 years since they had featured in the tournament’s knockout stages. Continental recognition, as Keshi brought with the fantastic Cup of Nations triumph, is all well and good, but there’s nothing quite like making it to the latter stages of the grandest football competition there is.

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In this sense, then, the Big Boss succeeded.

In beating Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 in their second Group F match, the Eagles not only picked up three points from European opponents, they also eliminated the Dragons and all but secured their place in the last 16. Confirmation came some days later as the Bosnians themselves eliminated Iran.

Two objectives down, but another, the big one, remains unfulfilled.

Nigeria is sometimes considered as the Giant of Africa, and it’s not a claim that needs too much justification.

The country is, by far, the most populous in Africa, with a population that is almost double that of Ethiopia, who stand next on the list. Beyond the nation’s borders, Nigeria can boast of an extensive diaspora that extends across the world.

Recently, the country overtook South Africa as Africa’s biggest economy and its literature, culture, music and film spread across the continent and beyond.

In terms of football, however, the Super Eagles are still lagging behind some of their bitter continental rivals.

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Nigeria have made the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations on 14 occasions—as much as any other nation, however, while Egypt stand at the pinnacle of the continent with seven victories, Nigeria’s three titles puts them just behind local rivals Ghana and Cameroon.

Similarly, with regard to producing players, Nigeria may have produced three Champions League winners, but so have the Ivory Coast, while Ghana have four. Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu were superb footballing talents, but neither managed to translate their natural abilities into the kind of status enjoyed by the likes of Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o and George Weah, for example.

In terms of Africa’s continental club competitions, the performances of Nigeria’s sides pale in comparison to some of their rivals.

North African nations Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have produced 14, five, four and four winners, respectively, while Cameroon have produced five and Ghana have produced three. Nigeria, by comparison, only have two.

The Super Eagles did claim Olympic gold in 1996 as a magnificent generation beat Argentina 3-2, but then Cameroon went and repeated the trick four years later, beating Spain following a penalty shootout in Sydney.

That claim to fame didn't last long!

So, Giants of Africa, indeed, the nation certainly dominates the continent and is capable of holding the destiny of the West African region in its hands, but Nigeria's footballing achievements tell a different story.

Most galling, surely, is the fact that the Super Eagles have never made it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

David Cannon/Getty Images
Senegal, 2002 | Unforgettable

This is the big one.

While many Africans would struggle to tell you the makeup of the terrific Egyptian team that claimed three Cup of Nations titles in a row in the middle of the last decade, images of the World Cup achievements of Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana are etched on the minds of anyone who was fortunate enough to have witnessed them.

In making it to the last eight of the World Cup, in 1990, 2002 and 2010, respectively, this trio walked themselves into immortality.

Cameroon lead the way here. Despite their current problems, no other nation can compete with the Indomitable Lions’ seven appearances at the World Cup. They missed out in 1986 and 2006, but have been ever-presents beyond that.

The Central Africans changed the perception of African nations with their defeat of holders Argentina and their run to the quarter-finals in 1990. The fact that Nigeria share an extensive border with Cameroon only makes this reality harder to bear.

Ghana needed only two attempts at the World Cup to make it to the last eight and, lest we forget, to within a handball from the semi-finals. While Nigeria struggled to overcome Greece and South Korea in their 2010 group, the Black Stars emerged from a taxing pool containing Germany, Serbia and Australia before beating the United States to make the last eight.

That generation are still revered as heroes.

Even Senegal, who have never even seen a team into the final of the CAF Champions League, who have never had a player win the UEFA Champions League, who have never won the AFCON, have their own World Cup legacy, having beaten holders France before tearing their way to the last eight in 2002.

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Enyeama | A Foray too Far

The Super Eagles can only look on enviously at the achievements of these three nations; there are seven times as many Nigerians as there are Ghanaians, over eight times as many as there are Cameroonians and the nation’s population is approximately 13 times as big as that of Senegal.

The legacy of a quarter-final showing is what separates this trio, these three unforgettable generations, from Nigeria. The Super Eagles’ emotional World Cup identity is lacking when compared with the achievements of Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal.

It could all have been so different had Nigeria made the most of their early promise against the French. At times, they looked menacing, a cutting edge was worryingly absent, but the Super Eagles' pace in wide areas and their desire to engage the full-backs and make them think about their defensive duties looked effective in stages.

As has been the case for several critical African performances this summer, it has been the little differences that have ultimately shaped the outcome of the match.

How different would things have been for Nigeria had Ogenyi Onazi got up from Blaise Matuidi’s horrible second-half tackle? The SS Lazio man was stretchered off, and the Super Eagles lost one of their most influential players.

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Onazi, Influential but Ill-fated

How would it have been if Matuidi had received a red card for this challenge, instead of the yellow that he did?

The song of “what-might-have-been” gets repetitive after a while, but it surely has a compelling melody.

At times during the contest, as Hugo Lloris looked unsteady, as Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud looked anonymous up front, as the Super Eagles matched their more illustrious counterparts, one could almost have reached out and touched the quarter-finals.

The goal never came, however, at least not at the right end, and as the previously unbeatable Vincent Enyeama attempted one heroic foray too many, things fell apart.

The final whistle blew and Nigeria head home.

They remain outside the house, in the rain, peeking through the windows at Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal, huddled in the warmth, watching their “World Cup Greatest Moments” DVDs.

The opportunity to join them won’t come around again for another four years, and when it does, there’s no guarantee that it will be as inviting as a fragile France were on the fields of Brasilia.

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