Without doubt, one of the most topical issues in Nigerian football at the moment is the Super Eagles 2022 World Cup qualifying group which many have concluded is a favourable one.
Such optimism is understandable considering that the six-time finalists have been grouped along with Cape Verde, Central Africa Republic and Liberia.
Football pundits have since tagged the trio as ‘slippery banana peels’.
While the Super Eagles made their debut appearance in 1994 in the USA, none of their group opponents have made any appearance at the highest level of world football.
On Tuesday in Cairo, the 40 teams remaining in the race on the African continent were drawn into 10 groups of four teams each. Eventual winners of the ten groups would head into the final phase of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
According to the records books, the Super Eagles have played against Liberia on 13 different occasions, winning 8, drawing 2 and losing 3 games.
Undoubtedly, the most memorable fixture between the two countries took place on May 5, 2001when the Super Eagles defeated Liberia 2-0 to qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan.
It is one defeat the present President of Liberia, George Opone Weah won’t forget in a hurry because victory against Nigeria would have made his dream of a World Cup appearance come through.
He had won the prestigious award of FIFA Player of the Year in 1995 so a World Cup appearance with a tiny country like Liberia would have been the icing on the cake for Weah.
Consequently, he gave his all for his country to pick the ticket ahead of the Super Eagles but the match played at the Liberty stadium in Port-Harcourt ended his dream.
In the case of Cape Verde, the Super Eagles have played against them just once and that was on January 9, 2013 in a friendly game that ended 0-0.
However, the Super Eagles are yet to play against the Central Africa Republic and it is expected that Nigeria who is ranked 31st in the world should comfortably defeat a team ranked 109 in the latest FIFA ranking.
Thus, in view of the uninspiring credentials of their group opponents, the Super Eagles have since emerged favourites to pick the final phase ticket from the group.
However, football pundits who know that there are no more small teams in world football have called for cautious optimism.
Such calls cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand because in 2006, the odds favoured the Super Eagles, yet they failed to qualify for the World Cup in Germany.
In the qualifying series, Nigeria was grouped with Angola, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Algeria and Rwanda. Angola edged out Nigeria based on the Head-to-Head rule.
Once again, the temptation to write-off Cape Verde, Central Africa Republic and Liberia is quite high but this is one enticement that must be resisted.
Although the trio has never qualified for the World Cup, they are without doubt slippery peels that can abort Super Eagles dream of qualifying for their seventh World Cup.
Furthermore, it is an open secret that anytime the likes of Cape Verde or Central Africa Republic come up against the Super Eagles, they believe they are playing a World Cup match.
Consequently, they dig deep in order to spring a surprise. This is something to worry about considering that as illustrious as they may be, the Super Eagles have the habit of struggling against their less endowed opponents.
However, there is a new spirit in the camp of the Super Eagles. The manager of the team, Gernot Rohr has injected new blood into the team and is believed that they would like to make a name for themselves and the nation.
It is therefore, expected that youngsters like Samuel Chukwueze, Victor Osimhen, Samuel Kalu and Joe Aribo’s dream of playing in the World Cup will inspire them to play key roles in Super Eagles qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
In addition, members of the 2018 World Cup squad like Ahmed Musa, William Troost-Ekong, Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi, Kenneth Omeruo and Chigozie Awaziem are very much in the frame to propel the Super Eagles.
Aware of the danger posed by group opponents, the Super Eagles have opted for caution as they prepare to face the hurdles before them beginning from October.
The General Secretary of the Nigeria Football Federation, Dr Mohammed Sanusi, who was present in Cairo during the draws is optimistic that Nigeria will top the group.
He, however, spoke the minds of many when he said the Super Eagles will not be taking anything for granted as they prepare to step on the ‘slippery banana peels’ before them.
“I have always been saying that football is 11 vs 11. There is no team we can underrate and football is now scientific in nature. If we underrate, we will be in for a shocker.
“Nigeria has respect for the teams but we are not afraid of any team. By the Grace of God, Nigeria will top the group. Looking at what Madagascar did in the last Nations Cup. Nobody gave them a chance but see how they performed,” he said.
A former Super Eagles star, Mutiu Adepoju who spoke to Trust Sports said as tricky as the group may be, Nigeria will move on from the group.
He said hard work and commitment will do it for the Super Eagles.
“It looks accessible, but we shouldn’t think everything will be done without playing matches. It is tricky group.
“It is not going to be an easy ride for Nigeria. If we don’t put in our efforts and we underrate any of the teams, we may be surprised. These are countries that can cause problems,” he warned.
Speaking in the same vein, other former internationals, Garba Lawal and Tijani Babangida cautioned the Super Eagles against underrating their opponents.
They both urged the team to tread cautiously once the qualifying series kick-off.
Lawal said “I am confident Super Eagles will pick the group ticket to move to the final phase but I am not writing off any of the teams in the group.
“We don’t have minnows in world football again. Anyone who knows how fast football is developing on the continent of Africa won’t make the mistake of undermining any team.
“So to answer your question, I believe Super Eagles will top the group but they will labour to get there.”
On his part, Babangida who tipped the youngsters in the team to propel the Super Eagles said “With due respect to our opponents, Nigeria will surely qualify from this group. There is no easy team in modern football but Nigeria now have a young team.
“This qualifier will prepare the boys for the final stage. We couldn’t have wished for a group better than what we got. I am very optimistic,” he said.
The immediate past Technical Adviser of Adamawa United, Coach Bello Mohammed also shared in the optimism of the ex-Eagles as he said Rohr’s men boast of the wherewithal to top the group.
He said “I wouldn’t want to use the word easily because there are no more pushovers in world football.
“Secondly, Super Eagles perform better when they are up against bigger teams. Most times, they struggle against the so called small teams.
“But I want the handlers to take this into consideration. They have to be serious with every team that they are going to face in the qualifiers. If they sit up, they will move to the next stage of the qualifiers.”
Just like they will fly westward twice in their remaining campaign for a place at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Freetown, Sierra Leone and Cotonou, Benin Republic), the Eagles will fly westward twice in the race to Qatar (Praia, Cape Verde and Monrovia, Liberia).
Super Eagles’ first game, coming up in October this year, will be against the Lone Star of Liberia, who reached this stage after shoving neighbours Sierra Leone in the first round.