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Nigeria’s young guns showed the spirit required to trouble leading football nations, which was a similar theme for South Africa four years ago


By Daniel Eslick

Despite failing at the first hurdle of the 2013 Fifa Confederations Cup, Nigeria leave Brazilians shores with a sense of hope after a string of positive performances. Their spirit on the pitch, while facing mounting obstacles, was akin to South Africa’s showing at the tournament four years ago.

South Africa and Egypt were the two African sides to compete in the 2009 Confederations Cup, with the hosts of the tournament providing the nation’s fans with a glimmer of hope for the 2010 World Cup after finishing fourth.

African champions Egypt could not overcome the group stages, after losing out on goal difference with three teams all locked on three points. It was another failure on the world stage for the Pharaohs and another blip on the potential of African football.

However, Bafana Bafana made it through to the semi-finals of the tournament despite drawing their first game against minnows Iraq. Doom and gloom gripped the nation after the result, but their 2-0 win over lowly New Zealand gave them a chance to book a spot in the next round. Bafana Bafana could not match Spain in the group stages, succumbing to a 2-0 loss, but a berth in the semis was on hand after Iraq and New Zealand played to a draw in their final group game.

A clash against the mighty Brazilians ensued. This was the chance for South Africa to demonstrate their mettle. The 1-0 loss against the Brazilians was no walkover and South Africa had shown the necessary spirit to combat their lack of ability against leading football nations. Brazil, packed with superstars and regarded as favourites for the tournament, had to fight tooth and nail to down the hosts.

This was closely followed by one of the national sides’ best performances, a dramatic 3-2 loss against Spain in the 3rd/4th playoff of the tournament. 2-1 down in the 90th minute, Katlego Mphela scored a magnificent goal to keep the hosts in the running. Xabi Alonso’s winner dispelled a shock victory for South Africa, but the team’s performance heralded a renewed sense of hope for the competitiveness of African football.

Four years later, African champions Nigeria have continued this trend. The young Nigerians displayed some admirable performances during the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, even though they were beset by injuries to key players and had a general lack of experience throughout the squad.  

Their 6-1 thrashing of the amateur Tahiti side may have been considered to be academic and a limp performance against a team which succumbed to a 10-0 humbling in their next match. Blaming fatigue, Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi was keen to look to the future and focus on a potential definitive clash against Uruguay.

La Celeste’s combination of attacking prowess and defensive steel helped them defeat Nigeria 2-1. Despite a spirited fight-back from the Super Eagles, via an eye-catching Mikel strike, the team made their journey to the next round of the tournament almost impossible by setting up a must-win clash against Spain. 

Spain’s calculated and ultimately easy 3-0 win on Sunday night, punished a profligate Nigerian side which troubled the World and European champions on occasion , but failed to disarm the locked and loaded La Roja.

It was a performance which did not lack passion or intent from the Super Eagles, but merely demonstrated the extent of the gulf in class on the pitch. The 3-0 win was not a true reflection of the game, with the Super Eagle’s pace and power upsetting the Tikki-Takka masters.    

Nigeria cannot believe that they will lead an African renaissance in Brazil next year.  Instead, like South Africa in 2009, there is a general sense of optimism surrounding the team and their future competitiveness. Even though Bafana Bafana have failed to live up to the heights of 2009 on many an occasion, Nigeria has a chance to build on their mistakes and utilize the Confederations Cup as a learning experience.