The similarities and coincidences existing between the Super Eagles classes of 1994 and 2014 are more than skin deep; can Stephen Keshi's men emulate their celebrated predecessors?
By Solace Chukwu
The legendary manager Bela Guttman, whose Benfica side had just eviscerated the mighty Real Madrid 5-3 in the final of the 1962 European Cup, felt he deserved a raise for his success. The management declined and the colorful Hungarian walked, but not before declaring that the Portuguese giants would never again win the continent's top title.
Seven finals later, the curse of Bela Guttman is a clear and present reality. Once, twice, even thrice may be viewed as coincidence, but when a club loses all seven European finals since 1962 (as Benfica have), you have got to admit that you don't have all the answers.
Guttman | The trophies soon dried up for Benfica...
Not convinced? Let's just explore some other 'coincidences' then.
With the World Cup in Brazil drawing ever closer, minds have inevitably been drawn once again to Nigeria's 1994 vintage which surprised the world with fine attacking football and daring. They earned praise, but ultimately did not earn progression to the World Cup Quarter Finals. The question on everyone's lips: Can Keshi's boys go one better?
Keshi himself was a part of that team in 1994, at the twilight of a distinguished career as team captain. He is well aware of what is required on the world stage.
This crop may not be as talented in a technical sense as their '94 counterparts, but in tournament football, that may ultimately count for little. The unlikely manner in which Greece won the European Championship in 2004 taught us that.
There are amazing parallels between the current generation of Super Eagles and the one which put Nigerian football on the world map 20 years ago. Truth be told, however, study the patterns closely enough and the similarities start to get quite eerie.
In 1994, Dutchman Clemens Westerhof helmed the team. His relationship with his 'employers' at the defunct NFA (now NFF) was frequently strained, and he was blessed with a cast-iron will and thick skin that kept the bureaucracy of the Glass House from crashing in around him. He also enjoyed the backing of the Federal Government, which enabled him to call the NFA's bluff on many occasions.
Westerhof | Endured a fractuous relationship with the NFA
Keshi has been similarly undermined and frustrated in his current spell as manager. The news of the NFF purchasing return tickets for the team before their Cup of Nations Quarter Final against tournament favourites Ivory Coast last year was greeted with consternation, as was the revelation that he was owed eight months' worth of salary. The Federal Government intervened, first to convince him to rescind his resignation after winning the AFCON and then to pay half of the salary arrears.
It is to his credit that he has held fast and not allowed himself be derailed; lesser men would have wilted.
This is the first time since '94 that the Super Eagles have gone into a World Cup as African Champions. In 1998, Nigeria was banned by CAF from participating in the Nations Cup, and that tournament was won by Egypt. In 2010, a forgettable outing was crowned with a third place finish. That tournament was also won by Egypt.
On both occasions (1994, 2013) the Super Eagles have had to overcome less-fancied opposition in the final in the form of Zambia and Burkina Faso respectively.
It gets better.
In 1994, Nigeria also went to the World Cup as defending World U-17 champions. That group of Golden Eaglets produced such players as Nwankwo Kanu, Wilson Oruma and Celestine Babayaro, who would all go on to become mainstays in the senior side.
Nigeria will go to Brazil in June as World U-17 champions, and it would take a brave man to bet against the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Musa Yahaya, Chidiebere Nwakali and Musa Mohammed, who dazzled in the UAE, forming the core of the Super Eagles in the not-so-distant future.
Class of 2014 | Can Keshi's crop create their own iconic World Cup moments?
For the coupe de grace, here's a further 'coincidence'.
Nigeria went on to win the Olympic gold medal in 1996, two years after the sterling performance in the USA. The Olympics in 1996 were hosted by Atlanta, Georgia in the USA. So, an U-17 World Cup win in Asia (Japan) was followed by a groundbreaking performance in the World Cup and an Olympic win in the same country that hosted the World Cup.
The heroics of the Golden Eaglets in Asia (UAE) in 2013 precede a World Cup in Brazil. Guess who hosts the 2016 Olympics. Rio de Janeiro. You don't get a prize for guessing what country that is in.
There is, of course, more to football than omens and portents. That said, you also have to admit: it would take a desperately dour sort of person not to get excited, or at least wonder at these 'coincidences'. If tempted to dismiss them, remember the curse of Bela Guttman. To this day, Benfica supporters lay flowers at his grave whenever a final comes around.
2014 may prove to be another seminal moment in Nigeria's football history. A further coincidence is rather more unsavoury: Westerhof left the managerial post after the '94 World Cup. Nigerians will hope THAT portion of history does not repeat itself.