By Ed Dove
2014 will doubtless be a major year for Nigerian football.
An exciting generation is enjoying a settled spell under a talented coach and they will head to the World Cup as the champions of Africa, keen to represent a continent with pride and passion.
The Super Eagles have enough about them to prosper at the World Cup, whatever that means exactly, but must be aware that finer teams than they have floundered beneath the spotlights on the globe’s grandest stage.
Read on to discover the five key questions in Nigerian football to be answered during 2014. We look forward to your answers and predictions in the comments section or on Twitter.
Can Nosa Igiebor be the playmaker we crave?
Somewhere, deep within Nosa Igiebor, there is a talented playmaker waiting to emerge. Stephen Keshi clearly saw enough in the midfielder that he planned for him to be the Super Eagles’ key creative force during the 2013 Cup of Nations.
That one didn’t work out. Nosa was anonymous for Nigeria’s first game-and-a-half before being ignominiously replaced by Sunday Mba. He wasn’t called upon for the rest of the tournament and cut a fairly isolated figure.
For the rest of the year his international career was in limbo. Igiebor was overlooked until the World Cup Qualifier with Malawi in August but is yet to demonstrate why he should continue to receive opportunities to impress.
There is certainly a spot in the first team open to him, an attacking element alongside John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi, but the time is running out for Nosa to prove that he deserves this role.
Can he do it?
Is Joseph Yobo set for a recall?
Yobo, like Igiebor, was axed after only one full 90 minutes during the Cup of Nations. The veteran defender missed out on the draw with Zambia and was only used as a substitute for the rest of the competition.
Since the final, he hasn’t been called-up by Stephen Keshi, although the Big Boss has indicated that the door is still open to Yobo, his nominal captain, should the centre-back impress ahead of the World Cup.
While the former Everton man could be a valuable asset to a squad not rife with quality in the heart of the defence, the issue of his inclusion brings us to a much broader issue and one that may become more-pressing as the year moves on.
Keshi has built his success on doing things his way, on forging an excellent team spirit and on excluding the egos from the camp. However, what he has gained in morale, he has sacrificed in experience.
While the likes of Francis Benjamin, Juwon Oshaniwa and James Okwuosa may be better for the complexion of the group, Taye Taiwo, Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins would surely be more effective World Cup competitors.
Will Sunday Mba ever redisover that AFCON form?
The main beneficiary from Igiebor’s decline and Keshi’s squad policies has been Sunday Mba. None of us will ever forget the midfielder’s name after his pertinent contributions during the AFCON last year. Mba’s goals against the Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso brought the title back to the motherland.
But the 25 year old was thoroughly unable to build on that success. A transfer wrangle between two Nigerian sides, Enugu Rangers and Warri Wolves meant that Mba was forced off the field, losing momentum and fitness in the process.
The rest of his year was a write-off.
Thankfully, 2014 has begun with a move to Ligue 2 side CA Bastia. The Corsican team face a battle to remain in France’s second tier, but the transfer at least gives Mba the opportunity to return to action in time to thrive in Brazil.
Many of us will be hoping he can rediscover that AFCON form sooner, rather than later.
Will any players make their Nigeria debut before the World Cup?
With a World Cup on the horizon, there is typically a clamour among players keen to jump on the gravy train and take the opportunity to perform on the grandest stage of all. As the pressure cranks up on Keshi, he too may be inclined to cast the net far and wide in search of the best-possible players available to him.
Werder Bremen defender Leon Balogun has long-been tempted by a spot in the German national team, but has recently revealed that he would be open to an approach from the Super Eagles. Similarly, Heerenveen centre-back Kenny Otigba is another that may merit acknowledgement by Keshi. The defender has turned out for Hungary U-21s, but may well be tempted to commit to Nigeria should a World Cup spot be on offer.
Could we find the likes of Nedum Onuoha, Tiago Ilori and Hope Akpan also appear in a Nigeria shirt before Keshi makes his final World Cup selection?
How will the Super Eagles prosper in Brazil?
This is obviously the ‘Big One’. It is the question upon which our year hinges, regardless of what else goes on, Nigeria’s three matches in the World Cup group stage will decide how all of us remember and look back on 2014.
The World Cup draw has, in many ways, been favourable, but it is not one we should approach with complacency.
Argentina possess one of, if not the, most fearsome forward lines in international football. Beyond the unparalleled skills of Lionel Messi, the likes of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Angel di Maria will keep the Super Eagles backline preoccupied for the full 90 minutes.
Bosnia may be tournament debutants, but they too possess players of excellent qualities with experience of elite European fixtures. Miralem Pjanic is a fine creative influence while Edin Dzeko is a forward with the pace, the power and the finishing ability to devastate our backline.
Finally, Iran, not the trickiest possibility from Pot 3, perhaps, but they are the Super Eagles’ opening fixture—anything will be possible and the Princes of Persia will be desperate to avoid defeat.
Various different expectations have been tossed about for the Super Eagles.
Unlike Ghana, the quality of the group stage opposition means that elimination at the first hurdle would be an embarrassment. Various figures within the federation have eyed the quarter-final and semi-final as targets, but doubtless, unexpected factors will emerge between now and June which will affect and alter our expectations.
Either way, it should be a fascinating ride.