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Russia 2018 – Where prayers are (not) answered

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Nigeria’s German coach Gernot Rohr consoles Nigeria’s defender Brian Idowu after defeat during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Nigeria and Argentina at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on June 26, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS

Nigerians believe strongly in the efficacy of prayers to impact and even alter fate. So, they love to pray.

Confronted with every conceivable challenge they pray and pray and pray.

Last Tuesday, they prayed to defeat Argentina.

Only Nigerians believed it could happen that their national team of mostly good (not exceptional) players would upset the form books, defy statistics, damn the betting odds, prove expert analysis faulty, and make nonsense of history by defeating Argentina, the team projected by experts (except Nigerians) on the eve of the championship as one of the favoured teams to win the 2018 World Cup.

For some inexplicable reason, last Tuesday was not a good day for granting wishful prayers.

Nigeria was 10 minutes away from what would have been the country’s greatest moment in football at the highest level when the elements decided to ditch sentiments.

Argentina must have been praying fervently too. They too had run into storms in their first two games and needed to win this match to escape what would be an incomparable disaster – to be ousted by an African team in the first round of a championship they were tipped to win.

To demonstrate their faith in their mission they had come to Russia with an unprecedented army of some 40,000 fans.

Compare this to their Nigerian opponents.

With all the ‘noise’ of loving the game like a religion Nigeria went to Russia with a brigade of supporters 500-strong, with many of them joining the team to escape the country and become economic refugees.

Add to that number another 500 officials and foreigners supporting the team.

That is their own demonstrating of faith in their team to win the World Cup.

On the night, their combined voices could not rise above the deafening roar of the Argentine supporters.

Their beautiful stylish new green, black and white colours were like a speck of paint in an overwhelming ocean of the sky blue and white colours of Argentina.

What were at stake for both teams?

For Nigeria, there was nothing but the ambition to upset the applecart, halt the tide of defeat at this level by the same Argentina, get to the second round of the World Cup, and achieve these mostly through prayers for the elements to smile on their Super Eagles.

For Argentina, what were at stake were monumental burdens – they had never lost to Nigeria in five previous meetings at the World Cup; they were so good historically that they were considered one of the favourites to win it; they had in their team celebrated and exceptionally gifted players including the best player in the history of the game; and finally, they had come in faith with, probably, the single largest travelling army to a World Cup final.

So, under such conditions, what would the elements do? Which team would they favour? Obviously, they would not be partial and work against the grain of the divine order of things.

So, it makes sense to assume that the elements decided to take sentimental wishful prayers out of the equation and allowed nature to take its course.

If the elements took sides, how does one explain the two easy goal scoring chances lost by Nigeria?

Or the role of the VAR? Or the poor strategy Nigeria adopted with 10 minutes left of a game they could have wrapped up applying anyone of several known simple strategies of running down and ‘killing’ off a game with five minutes to go?

The Super Eagles took their foot off the throttle when they needed to do the opposite. They gave the Argentines the gas the South Americans needed badly to rev up their ‘coughing’ engines. And the Nigerians paid the ultimate price of their inexperience and lack of technical depth on the bench.

When you add up all these, it becomes clear that the prayers of Nigerians were drowned by the experience, the desire and the passion (and prayers too) of the fanatical Argentine followers that had travelled half way around the world to pack the 64,000 capacity, retractable-roofed, magnificent Zenit Stadium in St. Petersburg, like sardines in a can.

Such steps are the demonstration of faith that moves mountains. It worked against Nigeria last Tuesday night.

Had Nigeria won that match, with the sort of passion and emotions I saw at the end of that match, many Argentines would have ‘died’ in agony, pain, shame and humiliation of been halted by Nigeria.

It would have been the greatest disaster since their defeat at the Falklands War!

As a Nigerian, it was cruel and painful to have lost in the manner the Eagles did.

The reality, however, is that we were simply not hungry enough.

At least, in the last 10 minutes of that match, we did not demonstrate on the field that we wanted to win badly enough.

Nigeria must take away useful lessons from this Russian experience, particularly that a country doesn’t win the World Cup through prayers alone but through a combination of passion, hard work, planning and performance on the field of play.

The prayers follow only as the icing on the cake.


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