My personal World Cup experience
Nigeria has been to the FIFA World Cup five times in history – 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014.
I have been to every one of them, but never as a player.
That may be the most painful part of my football career that had everything great and beautiful in it except that aspect of showcasing my talent before a global audience.
Probably, in order to compensate myself for that void that will never be filled again in my life, I have ensured, come rain or shine, that I went to all the World Cups involving the Nigerian national team since 1994, in one capacity or the other.
Before then, however, my story with the World Cup was a catalogue of failures.
My World Cup failures
Twice I was an integral part of Nigeria’s national team, the Green Eagles that got to the final hurdle of qualifying for the World Cup, when FIFA had only one slot for the entire country but failed to cross it.
Both experiences have left very painful memories that will not go away 40 and 36 years after.
In 1977, the Green Eagles had actually arrived at the gates of Argentina, with only Tunisia to play against on home ground (a hallowed ground where visiting teams were regularly ‘massacred’), to win that match and to become the first Nigerian national squad to go to the World Cup.
It was supposed to be a routine match until disaster struck and ‘Nigeria scored Nigeria’.
An unfortunate ‘own goal’ headed beyond the reach of his own goalkeeper, Emmanuel Okala, by most dependable defender, Godwin Odiye, sealed Nigeria’s fate.
Unfortunately, Godwin has had to live his life since that match with the ‘stigma’ of being responsible for Nigeria’s failure to qualify for her first World Cup experience.
Four years later in 1981, Nigeria got a second chance to qualify and participate in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. I was the leader of that campaign as captain of the Green Eagles.
We had arrived once again at the final hurdles – a two-legged match against a team we had defeated less than a year before to win the Africa Cup of Nations on home ground for the first time in Nigeria’s history – Algeria.
This time again, administrators took things for granted. Instead of preparing the best team for the final series of matches, sentiments crept into the choice of players, and disaster struck again!
We lost scandalously by 2-0 on home soil, thoroughly beaten by a very good Algerian team that did not have the distractions that bedeviled Nigeria’s team, a series of last-minute interference by politicians into the composition of the team to reflect sectional, political and ethnic interests.
The second leg in Algeria became a formality. No one went to the AstroTurf of the National Stadium in Algiers and came away unscathed.
That’s how my dream of appearing as a player at the World Cup was truncated for the second and final time.
Following that fumbling by administrators who did even share in the trauma that we suffered as a result, I left my role as a football player and embarked on a new life.
So ended by romance with the ambition to play at the World Cup. That pain subsists till now.
How African Football was rated at the time.
In those days, African football was not considered a major force. Only one World Cup slot was allocated the entire continent.
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