By UbongAbasi Ise
As far as World Cup qualifiers involving Nigeria are concerned, it won’t be easy for me to forget the AKBC’s Sports Arena edition of Wednesday 12th October 2005, anchored by late Billy Bassey Ekot, whose solemn, rhetorical recitals, made football lovers listening to the programme grieving after Nigeria failed on Saturday 8th October 2005 to qualify for the 2006 mundial in Germany. Billy Ekot’s well-chosen, packaged words that evening had gotten the best of me, and had exuded so much emotions and feelings of disappointment; it brought to bear the interplay of regrets and depressions that wringed the heart of devoted sport listeners. The words expressed, poetically, how mighty Nigeria had fallen in the hands of the minnows. It then dawned on me for the umpteenth time, the pains of having to watch the World Cup matches in Germany for the first time since 1994 without hearing the Nigeria’s national anthem, or seeing the green-white-green flag in the air. It was a grueling anticipation that I’m not going to watch the likes of Okocha, Kanu, Martins, Aghahowa, Obodo, Osaze, Odiah, Oruma, Enyeama and several other stars in the Nigerian jerseys in Germany. On that fateful Saturday of October 8, 2005 when the Super Eagles were busy in Abuja walloping Zimbabwe 5-1, we were at the same time praying hard that Palancas Negras of Angola fell to Rwanda in Kigali. But with Fabrice Akwa’s 79th minute goal for Angola, it was all over for Nigeria. And Billy Bassey Ekot made it a memorable one for me.
Indeed, most Nigerian fans were imbued with anguish over the infamous FIFA’s head-to-head rule that saw Nigeria missing out in Germany. Both Nigeria and Angola stood at the table with 21 points apiece. It was Nigeria, with superior difference of 14 goals to Angola’s 6 that was disqualified because of the fact that Super Eagles pulled a 1-1 draw with visiting Angolans in Kano, while failing to score a goal against Angola earlier on in a 1-0 defeat in Luanda on 20th June, 2004. Therefore the situation, before now, gave way to the stress of having to count the fingers in order to see if Nigeria would be in Germany.
However, it is imperative here to bring to light what happened in Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano where the Super Eagles managed a draw in a crucial tie which Nigeria needed to beat Palancas Negras of Angola ruthlessly to be guaranteed a place in the finals. In general plain and simple terms, Kano wasn’t a home enough for the Eagles at the time; it was more or less a neutral ground, hence a 1-1 draw. There were truckloads of complaints trailing the outcome of the match ranging from scalding weather, bad turf, unenthusiastic home supporters, players’ individualistic tendencies to poor technical inputs, and these went ad infinitum.
But in regards to Russia 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Uyo, in all aspects, presented a scenic, warmth and electrifying atmosphere. The home supporters were passionate, vibrant and civilized. They would not have any regard to silence or boo their beloved team in times of panic and outright frustration, although they would occasionally taunt and jeer the visiting team, only the visiting team because football is a game of rivalry. It was the street support for the Eagles all the way: it was the kind of support that emanated from the mass of common people, something unrestrained, something raw and undiluted. It was the kind of crowd every team needs as an advantage to excel at home games. In front of the overwhelming home crowd at Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, the highly-rated Algeria had to fall flat, the indomitable Cameroon had to collapse like packs of cards, and the stubborn Zambians had to bow at last to the fireworks of the Super Eagles combined with the intense pressure unleashed by the teeming home fans. And at the end, it was guaranteed that Nigeria would be in Russia, even before the last game away to Algeria.
In real terms, qualifying to the finals is one thing, and reaching the advanced stage of the World Cup is another, and this is where there is grave concern. We don’t expect to have a glorious entry only to get a humiliating early exit when the chips are down in Russia. Nigeria may parade the best selected legs at next year’s soccer fiesta; the players may be exposed to the most sophisticated technicalities, and get trained in the world class facilities, but the absence of cheerful fans akin to Uyo crowd might be a huge minus to the Super Eagles.
Sincerely speaking, supporters, mostly low-income earners, who backed the Eagles in Uyo would not afford a trip to Russia to cheer Eagles. It would now be left for some of the rich who would only go there to have a feel of Russia, and stay reticent during matches. If Nigerian national team could perform extraordinarily in front of ebullient, exciting spectators, then this remains a strategy that the handlers of sports in the country should utilize in propelling the Nigerian team to the higher rung of the ladder in next year’s world soccer competition. Super Eagles would need that street, raw and uninhibited support. In fact, if Uyo’s experience would be reenacted for the Super Eagles next year in Russia, I can see Nigeria within the reach of Jules Rimet trophy.
Yes! I am UbongAbasi Ise. For comment, send SMS to 08189914609 | email: firstname.lastname@example.org | twitter: @ubongabasi_ise