Nigeria’s Super Eagles’ World Cup campaign ended after three games in St Petersburg in their encounter with perennial World Cup rivals Argentina. One of the few Nigerian fans at the venue, who were outnumbered by Argentinians about ten to one, recalls how his country’s World Cup bid fizzled out.
There was peace and tranquility in the camp. The team walk was interesting to see. The team and handlers usually went for a wal on the morning before a match and were sometimes joined by fans. Tyronne Ebuehi and William Troost-Ekong spoke Dutch the entire time and kept their interaction to themselves. John Mikel Obi’s reputation as a snob is unfounded. Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Ogenyi Onazi are what you would call in Nigerian parlance “correct guys”.
Odion Ighalo is such a nice, warm and humble fella. The team rep had to drag him away from fan interaction prior to the game. After the game, he was a mess. He missed a couple of sitters that would have surely seen Nigeria through to the second round. But he had good support later. An unnamed agent told a story of how Ighalo was on his hands and knees praying to God before coming into the game in the locker room. He was “speaking in tongues”, etc.
The story about the Nigerian fans in St Petersburg is rather murky. There were thousands of Nigerians in the city. We were everywhere. But on game day, there were only a few inside the stadium. Now, I met a guy named Ibrahim from Istanbul. He was complaining bitterly about the Nigerian Supporters Club.
He followed the team from Kalinigrad to Volgograd and now to St Petersburg. He was looking for tickets to the game. He informed me that mobile phone provider Glo had donated in millions of dollars to the Supporters Club but the organization still asked its members to provide 350,000-400,000 naira ($969-1108) for tickets before they could travel. Needless to say that this led to a small size in attendance.
The members who made it were complaining of maltreatment and a lot of them ended up selling their tickets to Argentina fans and watching the game at the fan fest instead. Then you hear stories from the players. One of the players informed me that they were each supposed to get five tickets each. The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) provided them with just two. The NFF-allocated tickets were on sale for thousands of dollars on the black market. Argentina fans gazumped them.
To twist things even more, Amaju Pinnick, the president of the NFF, and I were on the same flight to Moscow from St Petersburg after the game. I confronted him about it. He told me he paid with his credit card for about 150 NFF affiliates to attend the game because when he arrived from his Fifa assignment, there were no tickets available. So someone somewhere was doing some sabotaging. It is his job to find who.
A lot of Nigerians were upset at coach Gernot Rohr’s tactics. A person really close to the team, told me that this was a great loss for Nigeria because Rohr does not believe in attacking football. The source said he had watched training sessions all the way back to a couple of years and Rohr just did not care much for attack. The Ahmed Musa/Kelechi Iheanacho combo had only been tried in practice once before the Iceland game. Make of this what you will. I personally thought this person’s influence on the team was waning hence his gripe but I’m not so sure anymore.
I spoke with former Nigeria international striker Victor Agali after the game. He was adamant that the loss was all down to Fifa. He blamed it on the traveling Argentina fans putting pressure on the ref and FIFA not wanting to lose Messi so soon in the tournament. There were two clear penalty calls that the ref didn’t give against Argentina, despite consulting the VAR system.
Personally, I think Rohr should be left alone. I did see one or two things that were kind of troubling but I hope my instincts are wrong. Some of the players know their time is up. Elderson Echiejele cut a lonely figure but finally warmed up when singers 2Baba and Sound Sultan showed up. Mikel Obi took time to intentionally say goodbye to the Nigerian fans at the stadium. At first, I thought he was retiring then maybe he was just thanking us because the World Cup was over. I don’t know.
We have a good young core developing. We hope Victor Osimhen at Wolfsburg develops well to become a great striker. We need that and other young players to join the team. I’m hoping Rohr can mould them into a nice group. The NFF hierarchy are in for a fight. I’m not sure they are all on the Pinnick wagon. The elections will be interesting.
Rohr’s fate is tied to Pinnick. If he wins, you can almost bank on Rohr staying.
A version of this diary first appeared on the Cybereagles website.