Twenty years ago, Nigeria qualified for the World Cup for the first time. There were no expectations, but that tournament turned out to be the stage for the golden generation of an unlikely cast of green and white superstars. Nigeria were drawn in Group D with an Argentina team stocked with legends and a Bulgaria team led by Hristo Stoichkov.
To say that Nigeria were underdogs would be a criminal understatement. African teams have never excelled in the World Cup, and factoring in the fact that the Eagles were newcomers and placed in a group alongside some major powers and you have a recipe for an early elimination. To win one match and put in promising performances would have been considered a success. The Super Eagles ended up blowing everyone's expectations away.
The first match against Bulgaria took place on the 21st of June in Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas. Steven Keshi, now manager of the team, was at the time was a non-playing captain due to his advanced age. The Eagles won that match 3-0, easily dispatching a Bulgaria squad that many had picked to finish second after Argentina. Had that been all that Nigeria did in the USA, that would have been more than enough. But there would be more to come..
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Nigeria lost to Argentina in their second match, Samson Siasia's quick goal being undone by the quick thinking of Diego Maradona and the clinical finishing of one Claudio Caniggia. Defiant, the team bounced back to defeat Greece in the next match (with Keshi on the field) and finished the group stages with 6 points, a goal differential of +4 after winning two and losing one, leaving them as the winners of the group, followed by Bulgaria who finished over Argentina after Diego Maradona was ejected from the tournament for drug use.
Nigeria were paired off with a Roberto Baggio-led Italian side in the second round and, for most of the match, it looked as if the Africans would celebrate another unprecedented victory. Emmanuel Amunike scored twenty five minutes after kick-off and the team battled the Italians relentlessly, keeping the Europeans at bay in an impersonation of their own defensive performances. But it was not to be. Two minutes before time, Baggio, ever the heartbreaker, scored to take the game into extra time. He would then go on to score the winner in extra time and eliminate Nigeria from the World Cup.
Though it was a gut-wrenching way to exit the tournament, USA '94 marked the start of a Super Eagles team that would go on to achieve surprising levels of success. They won Olympic gold in their return to the United States two years later, defeating Argentina once again and alerting the world that they were here to stay. Many of the 1994 team would go on to have illustrious careers after the tournament: Sunday Oliseh -- a famous hothead -- would play for Ajax and Borussia Dortmund; he also scored the winning goal in the group stage match against Spain at the 1998 World Cup tournament. Amunike featured for Sporting CP and Barcelona; Uche Okechukwu would become Deniz Uygar as he obtained Turkish citizenship while making his name at Fenerbahçe and Jay-Jay Okocha's legend deserves its own stand-alone feature.
Fast-forward twenty years and Keshi is leading another unlikely cast of Super Eagles to another World Cup group stage after being drawn in the same group as Argentina. It's a familiar premise. Argentina, littered with attacking talent as always, is being led by another Diego Maradona in Lionel Messi, every bit as dangerous as his predecessor but far less likely to be suspended over illegal drugs. The difference now is that Nigeria, winners of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, are no longer unknown underdogs, and with the rest of the group fileld out by Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina, they have every chance of making it out of the group.
Back in 1994, Nigeria were playing a flamboyant style of football, thanks to the mind of then manager Clemens Westerhof, and a team composed of players with the courage to try the audacious -- and sometimes reckless. They were a team with nothing to lose, so they were able to play without the cautiousness that comes with heavy expectations. Now in 2014, the feeling is one of impeding disappointment rather than optimism.
This current team lacks the style and fervor -- the type reserved for Ghana now -- that has defined Nigeria for generations; choosing to play more of a passing game that lacks penetration and purpose. In the warmup friendlies for the World Cup, Nigeria tied against Scotland, who were more than happy to let the Eagles pass the ball around aimlessly, and were then beaten by a United States team that employed almost the same tactic but were stout enough defensively to prevent an equalizer.
It's perhaps not a surprise that this current team seems destined to disappoint. Most of its key players are not even starters for their club teams: John Obi Mikel has long been relegated to the Chelsea bench and is used in an ultra-a defensive role when he does play; Victor Moses was loaned to Liverpool but couldn't get playing time there either, Shola Ameobi is without a club at the moment, and Emmanuel Emenike (close but no Amunike) has hardly been scoring since his return from his last hamstring injury at Fenerbahçe.
But there is still hope. Keshi has seen what it takes for a team to rise from the shadows of small expectations to win a group and make a competitive run in the tournament. Unlike his predecessors, he's far less into playing up hype and more concerned with results. As a player, he was rumored to be the head of the "mafia" that was in charge with deciding who managed the national team and the players that were selected and it worked out then. Now as a manager, he has had the opportunity to pick his own players and though many of the inclusions and exclusions -- Obafemi Martins -- are difficult to comprehend, he has proven that he can win with these players.
This team might not be the same Super Eagles that took the USA by surprise twenty years ago but with some guidance from "Big Boss" Keshi and a renewed enthusiasm for the game, they have as much of a chance at history as the old guard.