Where the grass is greener on other side for Nigerian Super Eagles

Nigeria’s consistency at World Cups is a fitting reply to claims that Asian and African teams just make up the numbers.

Published: 27th June 2018 07:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th June 2018 07:47 AM   |  A+A-

Nigeria football team, Obi Mikel

Every game they play on these surfaces, Nigerian players are risking serious, even careerending injuries

Express News Service

ST PETERSBURG:  As The referee blew the final whistle on Nigeria’s victory over Iceland, the Super Eagles celebrated wildly. The win had not only kept their hopes alive, but had — probably unbeknownst to them — set a new World Cup record. This was their sixth win in the event, and no African or Asian team has won as many. Nigeria’s consistency at World Cups is a fitting reply to claims that Asian and African teams just make up the numbers. Even if you count CONCACAF teams, only USA and Mexico have a better record. Nigeria’s defeat of Iceland marked the fourth straight World Cup in which they won a match (not counting 2006, they didn’t qualify).

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In three of their past five appearances, they have made the Last 16. Even more remarkable is the nothingness this comes from. “We have one proper grass pitch,” says Dairo Enoch, a Nigerian journalist from Port Harcourt. “That is where our team plays. Others are either synthetic or lack a proper grass coating. This is the biggest obstacle for players in our country. Every game they play on these surfaces, they are risking serious, even careerending injuries.”

Yet, Nigeria continue to punch above their weight. Petroleum may be the country’s top export (they produce 2.7% of the world’s oil) but football isn’t far behind. A 2017 report by CIES Football observatory found they were the top African exporters of players and the ninth largest in the world — ahead of traditional powers like Portugal, Netherlands, Italy and Uruguay. But, there is a school of thought that believes that this is exactly what holds Nigeria back. Footballers in Nigeria are well-paid. They earn a minimum wage of 150,000 Naira per month, as opposed to the 18,000 for blue-collared workers. But the exchange rate — one US dollar is 360 Naira — means young footballers are itching to make a fortune abroad. Many go out the first chance they get, end up making the wrong move, and return home in their early twenties, their promise snuffed out by stagnation.

The 2009 U-17 World Cup in Nigeria saw a number of future stars — Neymar, Mario Gotze, Isco and Granit Xhaka — but the Best Player award went to Sani Emmanual, a Nigerian. “They called him Little Messi then. We all thought he would be the next big thing in football,” says Enoch. Right after, Emmanual moved to Swiss side FC Biel- Bienne. After trials with a bunch of Premier League clubs, he joined Serie A side Lazio. In two years, he did not get a single game.

Now aged 25, he is back home. “Sani should have been playing here,” says Enoch. “That is the problem with a lot of our young footballers. They go out chasing easy money two years earlier than they should. Even the few thousand you get for sitting on a reserve team bench is big. Once you’ve failed and returned home, it is impossible to go out again.” Twenty-two of Nigeria’s 23- men squad in Russia play abroad; the ones who somehow made it. Imagine if the thousands of other precocious Nigerian teenagers had been able to do their talents justice as well!


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