By Solace Chukwu
Nigeria have been handed a straightforward qualifying draw for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, and will face off against South Africa, Sudan and one of Namibia, Congo, Libya or Rwanda.
Having been one of the inaugural contestants of the competition in 1957, Sudan’s Falcons are bidding to make only their ninth appearance at the finals. Currently ranked 140th in the world by FIFA, they are not expected to pull up many trees. However, their club sides have a history of impressive performances in continental competition, most noticeably Al Hilal and Al Merreikh.
With these two clubs as a base, they may not be the cakewalk many predict.
The real story of the draw, however, is the pairing of the Super Eagles with Bafana Bafana. On the surface, there is little to create animosity, and this feud lacks the territorial and geographical undertones of Nigeria’s rivalries with Cameroon and Ghana. Instead, it is a product of a single moment that came to define the footballing trajectories of both nations.
Newly re-admitted into CAF, Bafana Bafana won the 1996 Nations Cup on home soil in true fairytale fashion, triumphing over Tunisia (incidentally the hosts of the previous tournament) in the final. For all the celebration, the victory rang hollow. Nigeria had pulled out of the tournament for political reasons, robbing Africa of a title defence from the team that had claimed the gold in 1994.
1996 | It might have been so different had Nigeria been there
It became easy for Nigeria to belittle South Africa’s win: if the Super Eagles had taken part, it reckoned, surely they would have retained their crown. The view, while a tad simplistic and presumptuous, had merit. The nucleus of the ’94 vintage was still active and in rude health; and a good number of them were part of Nigeria’s improbable run to Olympic gold later in that same year.
By virtue of that triumph, however, South Africa came to view itself as a new superpower on the continent’s football scene, the spunky upstart with a chip on its shoulder. They progressed to the final once again in 1998, losing to Egypt. This time, it was CAF that kept the Super Eagles out.
Therein lies the rivalry. Bafana Bafana will always point to that purple patch, and insist that was their rite of passage into the conference of African heavyweights, while Nigeria shrug indifferently. As the saying goes, when the cat is away, the mice will play.
This disdain is evident even in the results between both teams in head-to-head encounters. Upon Nigeria’s return to the continental showpiece (as hosts, no less) in 2000, the draw quickly contrived a meeting in the semi finals between both teams. This was South Africa’s shot at validation, a chance to make good on its boasting. Tack on the fact that the Super Eagles were without midfield magician Jay-Jay Okocha, who had been sent off in the squeaky-bum quarter final against Senegal, and it all seemed to be coming together.
The ease with which the Super Eagles swatted aside the ‘upstart’ Bafana side was downright arrogant, opening the scoring inside the very first minute. By half time, the game was over as a contest. The Super Eagles had given a lesson to 'the Boys'.
Amazingly, to this day Bafana have never beaten the Super Eagles in a competitive fixture. Their sole victory in eight outings came in the 2004 Mandela Challenge Invitational, when a ridiculously under-prepared Nigeria team lost 2-1 in Johannesburg.
Nigeria has won six meetings, the most recent in August 2013 in the same Invitational.
The rivalry is one borne of envy more than anything else. Since that 1996 Nations Cup win, Bafana have done little to disprove the Nigerian perception of them as lucky upstarts to be repeatedly put in their place. They have faded out of the picture slowly but surely, the nadir being the farce that was their misguided on-pitch celebration of ‘qualification’ for the 2012 Nations Cup, a notion swiftly snuffed out when they realised they had misread the rules!
Nigeria go into this qualifying round as defending African champions, having won the gold on South African soil in 2013.
Gordon Igesund’s charges will look to end their hoodoo against Nigeria, and also some much-needed respect. Judging by their dire performance against Brazil in March on home soil, it will be just as big an ask as it has always been.
The rules state that the top two teams progress outright from the group to the main event which kicks off on the 17th of January, 2015. Bafana Bafana would do well to heed this and avoid the sweats (from needless gyration) late on.
Then again, would it not be just typical for the Super Eagles to put them in their place once again?