Beginning from today, the eyes of the world will be on Russia as the world’s top footballing nations gather to battle for which among them will take home the coveted FIFA World Cup trophy in 2018.It is that time every four years when the best players in the world gather in one country to display their football artistry and skills.
In this ‘beautiful game’ – as the legendary Brazilian footballer Pele calls it, the world will witness beautiful passes and dribbling runs that are going to make many football lovers fixated on their television sets. There is no singular sport that brings Nigeria and the world together like football. Not even the Olympic Games. The championship has been awarded every four years since the inaugural tournament in 1930, except in 1942 and 1946 when it was not held because of the Second World War.
The current format of the competition involves 32 teams, including the automatically qualifying host nation(s) who compete in the tournament phase for the title at venues within the host nation(s) over a period of about a month.
The nations in Russia for this year’s championship include five-time winners Brazil, defending champions Germany, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, Egypt, England, France, Iceland, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia and Uruguay.
Only eight national teams have won the World Cup diadem, all from South America and Europe where the game has the strongest footing. Brazil has won five times, and they are the only team to have played in every tournament. The other World Cup winners are Germany and Italy, with four titles each. Argentina and inaugural winner Uruguay won twice apiece, while England, France and Spain have one title each.
Even though no African country has ever won the World Cup, African representatives in this year’s World Cup – Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco – are expected to do well this time. This optimism is informed by the growing array of talents that the continent parades, who are mostly plying their trade in the best leagues in Europe and elsewhere around the world.
Nigeria is in Group D alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland. The Super Eagles of Nigeria has been adjudged the youngest team at the World Cup, but that has not dampened the expectations of Nigerians. This much was acknowledged when President Muhammadu Buhari received the team at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, few days before their departure for the Mundial. He reminded the Super Eagles that it is the youngest team in the tournament, which means they are likely the most inexperienced team, a fact that will not be lost on their opponents, but which the team could turn into advantage.
Since Nigeria’s memorable World Cup debut at U.S. 1994, the Super Eagles have not gone beyond the Round of 16. As one of the powerhouses of African football, the country is expected to have done better in its five previous appearances, especially considering the number and quality of footballers Nigeria has produced over the years and the numerous age-grade tournaments the country had won in the past. Nonetheless, three African nations – Cameroun, Senegal and Ghana – have reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
This Super Eagles have a duty to surpass this mark by reaching, at least, the semi-finals in Russia.
The team has been adequately prepared for the tournament. It has played quality international friendly matches, including one with their perennial opponents at the World Cup, Argentina, which the Eagles won by 4-2. It was a victory that gave insight to the depth, quality and potential of the team to surprise the world in Russia. While subsequent friendly matches have left a sour taste in the mouths of football lovers, the team is expected to have learned from the mistakes observed in the friendlies.
Aside preparations on the field, unlike past experiences, there are no monetary or logistic issues that have not been addressed by the federal government, through the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF).The Super Eagles captain, John Obi Mikel, admitted that this was the best preparation he had ever witnessed in all his years with the national team.
When the Super Eagles players file out for their first World Cup match against Croatia on Saturday, they should display the highest levels of patriotism and be rest assured that all Nigerians are behind them.
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