By Ed Dove
As relationships go, it’s pretty love-hate. You might describe it as ‘rocky’, or ‘stormy’, or, if euphemisms aren’t your thing, downright tumultuous. But now they are back together, Nigeria and the Semi Final, and from here on in, it’s make or break, do or die, heartache or glory. One evening in Durban, and a future on the line.
As love stories go, this is not a happy one; the statistics make for underwhelming reading. 12 times Nigeria have found themselves in the Semis, six victories, six defeats, 14 goals scored, 14 conceded, a 50% progression rate: about as average as you can get.
Five times, Nigeria have come up against fellow West African opponents, only winning once, against the Ivory Coast in ’94. Mali will provide the 4th different opposition from our home region.
While the statistics serve to put things in context, giving us a historical basis to consider Wednesday’s match, what they don’t do is convey the heartache, the anguish, the agony – the missed opportunities, the glorious failures, the wasted evenings, and forgotten dreams.
Four times, Nigeria have taken the contest to penalties. Penalties, the cruellest way to lose a game of football, particularly at such a stage, especially with the stakes so high – three times Nigeria have been the heartbreakers at this stage, defeating Egypt in 1984, Algeria in 1988, and Cote d’Ivoire in 1994 to advance to the final.Nigeria's Semi-Final History
|NIGERIA IN THE SEMIS: A Love Hate Relationship
||2-2 (8-7 Penalty) Victory|
||1-1 (9-8 Penalty) Victory|
||2-2 (4-2 Penalty) Victory|
||2-1 (AET) Defeat|
||1-1 (5-3 Penalty) Defeat|
The most recent semi-final shootout, in 2004, is the one that will surely hold the most emotional weight with readers. Having taken the lead against Tunisia through Jay-Jay Okocha, the Nigerians’ nerve failed them, and Khaled Badra drew the hosts level in the last ten minutes – keeping the tie alive. Peter Odemwingie was the fall-guy that evening, missing his penalty, Nigeria’s second, allowing the hosts to qualify after converting all five of their spotkicks. The Radès crowd wailed in delight, as a hundred million Nigerians broke down in disbelief.
However, while Nigeria have a 75% success rate over the four semi finals that have been settled by penalties, the eight others have only yielded three victories – a meagre 37.5% success rate.
The first loss came in the Green Eagles’ first semi final date, against Uganda in Kumasi at the 1978 tournament. After that, it was another 14 years before Naija lost another semi – however, when that next defeat came, it was as traumatic as any that had preceded it.
Picture the occasion, after besting Zaire in the quarter-finals in Senegal, a field of four West African nations contested the two semis; Ghana took on Nigeria, while Cameroon battled Cote d’Ivoire. Despite taking the lead through Mutiu Adepoju, the team, coached by Clemens Westerhof, were stunned as Ghana responded emphatically either side of half time, first through Abedi Pele, and then via European-based striker Prince Polley. The brace was too much for Naija, who failed to muster a retort.
It took victory at the 1994 championship to finally exorcise the memories of that crushing defeat.
Two of the continental powerhouses met each other in the 2000 edition, which Nigeria hosted along with Ghana. Drawn against South Africa, the National Stadium was awash with optimism and anticipation as the teams took to the field. The 60,000 in attendance were rewarded immediately as Tijani Babangida scored within the opening minute, before adding a second half an hour later. Cue the carnival, as the Super Eagles booked their place in the final against Cameroon.
The same stadium was the stage for that match, a fierce bout between local rivals with a point to prove. It was meant to be Nigeria’s greeting to the new Millennium, a new dawn for West Africa’s giants, a victory at the continental high table – their third, heralding them as Africa’s dominant force.
Few will ever be able to rationalise the defeat of the day, and how the culmination of a decade of development came to a harrowing halt. Raphael Chukwu and Jay-Jay Okocha prevented Nigeria from falling into disarray after Cameroon raced into a 2-0 lead, however the Eagles were unable to score that crucial third goal. Penalties were once again Naija’s nemesis, and Victor Ikpeba and Kanu broke a nation’s heart as they missed from the spot.The images of the Indomitable Lions celebrating in our own backyard prompted a hangover that would last a decade. It was to be Cameroon’s third Cup of Nations triumph, not Nigeria’s. That crop of outstanding individuals gently faded away and dropped off, withered and wilted, as the national side’s fortunes took a turn for the worse.
The Noughties were a devastating decade for Nigeria and the semi-final – they were the murky split, the ugly separation, and the devastating divorce all rolled into one.
Against Senegal in Bamako in 2002, an extra time defeat after Julius Agahowa had afforded hope with an 88th minute equaliser; the aforementioned penalties against Tunisia in ’04; the clash with the Ivory Coast in Alexandria in ‘06 (look who’s laughing now); and finally, Luanda, three years ago, when Asamoah Gyan’s goal on 21 minutes was enough to eliminate Shaibu Amodu’s much-fancied unit.
The squad today has five surviving members of that defeated outfit, and doubtless, for Vincent Enyeama, Elderson, John Obi Mikel, Austin Ejide, and Joseph Yobo, the clash with Mali will hold even more significance – the chance to rid the demons of defeats and heartache gone by, and an opportunity for the Super Eagles to make up for a decade of underachievement and devastation.
People keep saying that time has a way of healing, a way of drying tears from eyes. They don’t mention the empty feeling, and hard as that might be to disguise, there are few remedies more effective than winning in Durban on Wednesday night.
Perhaps the stats will make for fonder reading come Thursday morning.