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 May 10, 2002 | 1503 IST

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Nigeria face uphill battle at World Cup

Nigeria's role as African soccer's superpower has been usurped and the giant country, with a population of more than 100 million, faces the potential of further reversals at the World Cup finals.

Not only have Nigeria been drawn in the toughest group at the competition, battling for the top two places with Argentina, England and Sweden, but they also underwent a coaching change just three months before the finals.

The failure of the team to reach the final at the African Nations Cup in Mali, where Nigeria finished third, led to the sacking of coach Shaibu Amidu and his replacement by Festus Adeboye Onigbinde, who last worked as a national coach 18 years earlier.

But the new coach was unfazed by the challenge.

"Who says we cannot win the World Cup?" Onigbinde asked in a newspaper interview. "I have set a target and the target is to win the trophy."

Nigeria had to watch for a second successive time as Cameroon won the continental championship in February.

The Super Eagles made it through to the semifinals before losing 2-1 to Senegal, a result which cost Amodu his job.


The change caused uncertainty over the role of many of Nigeria's more prominent footballers, often accused of little interest in the national cause as they ply their trade with their clubs in Europe.

Onigbinde made a raft of changes in the run-up to the World Cup, dropping top names Sunday Oliseh, defender and former captain, and Findi George.

Nigeria's team and players have consistently suffered from the pressure of an over-expectant public and demanding media, with controversy never far from the team.

Even their qualification for the World Cup finals was mired in allegations of corruption with the admission last year by Ghana's coach that he and his players had accepted cash gifts from a Nigerian state governor after Ghana had lost their last World Cup qualifier to Nigeria 3-0 in Port Harcourt.

That result ensured Nigeria's progress to a third successive World Cup finals appearance as they finished top of their group ahead of Liberia who had led for much of the group phase.

Nigeria looked a spent force halfway through the qualifying group but were handed a lifeline when George Weah's Liberian team suffered an unexpected home defeat and opened the door for the Super Eagles to slip through.

Nigeria were long held up as Africa's best hope for an eventual World Cup success given the fact that more than 200 of their leading footballers play at clubs in Europe.


They showed their potential at the last two World Cup finals but then imploded after easing through the first round and into the knockout stage.

Nigeria blew a 1-0 lead against Italy in 1994, giving away a last-minute goal before going out 2-1 in extra time.

After finishing top of their opening round group four years ago, and eliminating highly fancied Spain, they were thoroughly outplayed by Denmark in the second round.

Many of the key players from France 98 should return this time.

Two-time African Footballer of the Year Nwankwo Kanu is their leading striker and comes back to the World Cup campaign after helping his club Arsenal to win the league and FA Cup double in England.

Africa's most expensive footballer, Austin "Jay Jay" Okocha of Paris St Germain, is the midfield kingpin.

But the team's Achilles' heel has always been the goalkeeping department, with this year being no exception.

First choice is Ike Shorunmu, recently signed at Swiss club Lucerne following nine months out of the game after a contractual dispute with Besiktas of Turkey.

His lack of form showed at the African Nations Cup finals with costly mistakes which ultimately saw the team fail to reach the final.

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