Over a decade ago, I learnt a very useful lesson which I am going to share today with ardent fans of our darling Super Eagles. On February 13, 2000, Nigeria contested the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations with Cameroon at the now moribund National stadium Surulere in Lagos. It was a keenly contested finals and after a 2-2 draw in regulation time, the winner was to be decided by penalty shoot-out.
In the resultant kicks, something tragic happened. The then Prince of Monaco, Victor Ikpeba, inadvertently broke the hearts of millions of Nigerians. After Kanu Nwankwo missed his kick, Ikpeba hit the target but because he didn’t celebrate, the Super Eagles were denied their third AFCON title.
For those who were too young to understand the drama that played out that evening, this was what happened. Ikpeba’s well taken penalty hit the bar and fell behind the goal line. It therefore meant that he had just scored a beautiful goal. However, instead of celebrating his goal, he clutched his head as he broke down in tears. At the time of the incident, there was no VAR in football so the Indomitable Lions won after Rigobert Song converted their last kick.
It was indeed an agonising moment for millions of Nigerians who wanted the Super Eagles to win their first AFCON title with Cameroon in attendance. Till date, Nigeria is yet to win any Africa Cup of Nation attended by Indomitable Lions.
So when the Lions were left off the hook once again by that mishap from the spot, it was indeed a tragedy of monumental proportions.
It was indeed a sad evening for me and many other Nigerian football fans. However, after the match, when I went out to buy something. I saw a Hausa trader who was peacefully listening to news on his transistor radio. From all indications, he was not aware of the football tragedy that had just befallen the nation.
In fact, he didn’t even know if a football match was played that evening. There was no heartache for him. I then realised that what had taken away my joy meant nothing to him. There and then I asked myself why I was endangering my sanity by grieving over spilled milk. Life must go on.
As the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations gets underway today in Yaounde, Cameroon, I want Nigerian football fans, especially the die-hard supporters of the Super Eagles to learn from the lesson I learnt from the Hausa trader in 2000.
Without doubt, the desire of every Nigerian is for the Super Eagles to win their fourth AFCON title in Cameroon but like I advised here last week, there is the need to maintain cautious optimism.
In the Super Eagles final 27-man list for the 2021 AFCON, there is nothing really to inspire one’s confidence. The team is dominated by the same average players who have caused Nigerian fans so much discomfort in recent times. If not for the inclusion of fresh legs like Kelechi Nwakali, Chidera Ejuke, Olisa Ndah, Sadiq Umar and Tawiwo Awoniyi, maybe there wouldn’t have been anything new about the team. Most of the players who would take to the field against Egypt in the opening match of Group D on Tuesday, January 11 are not new to Nigerians.
As pessimistic as I may appear to be, I am still looking forward to great performances from some of the new boys. I have this strange feeling that if they would be given enough playing time, the trio of Kelechi Nwakali, Chidera Ejuke and Sadiq Umar would be the revelations at this year’s AFCON.
I am not trying to kill anyone’s confidence in the team but truth be told, we have big players only on paper. And most of them lack the required commitment and dedication to national assignments. This is why they often stray and stroll into the national team camp.
Talking about players’ commitment, I became envious of Senegal the day I saw a picture of Liverpool’s talisman, Sadio Mane and Chelsea’s reliable goaltender, Edouard Mendy, flying home to represent their beloved country. This happened a few hours after the duo had played against each other in the English Premier League.
Meanwhile, Super Eagles players were still straying into their Abuja camp. The captain of the team, Ahmed Musa, was busy motivating his former club, Kano Pillars against Enyimba in Kaduna. Of course, other players were also in the country but had private businesses to attend to before coming over to the camp where they knew the door would never be shut against them.
As I pondered over what was going on in the camp of the Super Eagles, another potential distraction for the team surfaced. It was the announcement of a ‘high-level and powerful’ government delegation to support the Super Eagles in Cameroon. The group of politicians to be led by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila is meant to boost the morale of the Super Eagles and “further demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to the team during the tournament.”
In the past, government delegations and a high number of supporters that Dr. Amos Adamu once called ‘supported’ club, had created needless distractions for the Super Eagles. Usually, they put unnecessary pressure on the team as everyone seeks relevance.
The same scenario is going to play out in Cameroon and the already depleted team would suffer the consequences. But since the Super Eagles are unpredictable, they might just shock the continent again. However, going by the team’s preparations, there every need for Nigerians to lower their expectations.
Personally, if the Super Eagles bring home the trophy, I will celebrate with them. If they decide to break hearts again, mine won’t be wreaked because it has a very big inbuilt shock absorber.