What Nigeria must prove this international window

Gernot Rohr - NigeriaBackpagePix

On Friday, the Nigeria national team will take to the pitch for the first time in 2020 – and indeed in 11 months – in a high-profile friendly against Algeria.

For fans of the Super Eagles, the long absence has only made hearts grow fonder.

Nigeria’s last outing came in faraway Lesotho, when a thoroughly engrossing Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against the southern African side yielded six goals, featured a swift comeback and an own-goal for good measure. The 4-2 victory showcased the very best of Gernot Rohr’s new-look Super Eagles: near irresistible in attack, tough enough to assert themselves even on an unforgiving playing surface, and capable of necessary adaptation to the opposition’s particular challenge.

It was a performance (and outcome) that kept the three-time African champions perfect in the hunt for a place at the 2021 Afcon, coming as it did on the heels of a 2-1 home win over Benin a few days prior. It also momentarily muffled a number of doubts over Rohr’s aptitude for the next phase of his national team rebuild.

The ensuing hiatus has brought rather more pertinent concerns to the fore, of course. Public health and safety in the midst of a global pandemic, for instance, and while the wisdom of playing international fixtures at such a time remains the subject of much debate, its return does seem to signpost a return to something approximating normalcy.

That said, a return to a putative status quo also brings with it a stirring of the dissent that, through inertia, had settled at the bottom; not to mention the fresh set of challenges it presents.

Nigeria, Super Eagles - Afcon 2019

Let us begin with the latter then.

Fifa’s most recent world rankings (as of September 17) saw Nigeria enter the top 30 for the first time since 2009, remarkably rising despite playing no matches. That announcement has sheared the local footballing community in two; while one side has assumed a historical perspective, stating it is nothing to fete on account of higher placements in the past, the other has taken a more pragmatic view, choosing to focus on the rise as a function of Rohr’s work over the last four years.

The latter view has popularized the use of the #ThankYouGernotRohr movement on social media, but whatever side of the debate one comes down on, one thing is clear: the stakes have clearly been raised.

A place in Fifa’s top 30 comes with a couple of advantages, not least of all a relaxing of the rules around work permit applications in England where Nigerian footballers are concerned – now, only 60% of national team matches over a two-year period are needed to qualify, as opposed to 75% previously.

Considering that, as recently as 2017, this proved a stumbling block for even a seasoned international like Ogenyi Onazi, who saw a deal to join Birmingham City fall through at the last minute, the ascent can only be construed as a positive.

So, while it gives some validation to Rohr(’s work), it also places added pressure on the German to, at the very least, maintain that high standing; not only to prove it’s no fluke, but in the knowledge that the futures of Nigerian footballers everywhere – not just those who have earned caps – may directly depend on it.

As does the increased goodwill he now enjoys.

Amaju Pinnick, Gernot Rohr

Those doubts over his ability to coach a team to play on the front foot and maximize its potential may have been assuaged by the results of late 2019, but they never went away entirely.

It is to his credit somewhat that he appeared to rise to the challenge following the disappointment of Afcon semi-final elimination, refreshing the team in key areas and quickening the play to exploit the pace of the likes of Samuel Chukwueze and Victor Osimhen.

This change of emphasis fed directly into the aforementioned victories over Benin and Lesotho, but also highly creditable draws against Ukraine and Brazil.

Rohr will no doubt rue the loss of that momentum, but there is little time to bemoan it. His very first assignment back sees him come up against Algeria, the last side against whom he suffered defeat.

It was against Djamel Belmadi’s side that concerns over his timidity in the face of adversity came to a head at the Afcon, and to this day his sin of inaction has yet to be expiated.

It may very well be a friendly, and Rohr may be able to point to the absence of a number of key personnel – Wilfred Ndidi and Joe Aribo, for example, constitute two-thirds of his first-choice selection in midfield, the very zone in which the Super Eagles were so utterly overrun by Les Fennecs.

Nevertheless, his decisions (or lack thereof) will be scrutinized, pored over for signs he has truly overcome his tremulousness. He, most of all, has it all to prove on Friday.