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Nigeria World Cup fans still believe in their national team

Nigeria's Super Eagles will need to overcome inconsistent playing to impress at this summer's soccer games.

A painted fan supports the Nigerian soccer team during their World Cup qualifier match against Algeria in Oran, Algeria on September 4, 2005. (STR New/Reuters)

Nigeria World Cup Team Statistics: Group A

Status: Knocked out round 2

World Ranking: 21

World Cup 2010 Results: 0-2-1

Total goals scored: 3

Total goals scored against: 5

Nigeria World Cup Schedule: June 12 - Argentina (0-1 loss); June 17 - Greece (1-2 loss); June 22 - South Korea (2-2 draw).

Nigeria World Cup Soccer 2010

In a splintered country, divided between North and South, Muslim and Christian, the Super Eagles are the one unifying force. And they have thrilled and frustrated all Nigerians in equal measure.

The team has long been loaded with talent, but its play was marred by huge inconsistencies. It stunned powerful Spain 3-2 in its ’98 World Cup opener and went on to win one of the tourney’s toughest groups, only to turn into a sieve in a 4-1 second-round loss to Denmark.

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Some see the soccer side as an apt metaphor for the nation. Nigeria, with its oil wealth, should be a global, economic power but its muddled politics and perpetual unrest has kept it from realizing its potential. Troubles continue in the oil-rich Niger Delta and the country is still mourning the death of its president in April.

Nigerians no longer seem to cling to the conviction that their Super Eagles will inevitably make history. But a successful World Cup, at the very least, might provide a badly needed morale boost.

Nigeria World Cup History: Nigeria first qualified in 1994 and has only missed out once — in 2006 — since then. In ’94, it survived the first round and had Italy on the ropes before it lost in overtime. Four years later it won its group only to go down in flames to Denmark as dissension over bonuses crippled the team.

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Nigeria World Cup Conventional Wisdom: Nigerians have always believed their Super Eagles would be Africa’s breakthrough team. The pedigree is there, but lately not the performance. They sealed qualification with a goal in the final minutes of the final game. And the team bowed out to Ghana in the semifinals of the African Nations Cup. Still, the draw is reasonable and anything less than a second-round berth will be viewed as a colossal failure.

Nigeria World Cup Team Coach: Lars Lagerback

The disappointing qualifying campaign and ANC tournament cost homegrown coach Shaibu Amodo his job. Hoping for a tactical upgrade, Nigeria turned to Lagerback who brings a lot of experience — 11 years with the Swedish national team — and some modest big-tournament success. But he only took over in March and will have little time to effect changes in a team that appears somewhat set in its ways.

Nigeria World Cup Team Strength: Team boasts a stalwart defense backed by a solid, if undersized, goalkeeper in Vincent Enyeama. Enyeama won player of the year honors in Israel. He not only patrols the nets, but takes his turn in penalty shootouts; he scored the game-winner against Zambia in the ANC.

Nigeria World Cup Team Weakness: Despite talent on the front line, it has displayed very little in the way of a coherent attack. At 37, Nwankwo Kanu, Nigeria’s captain and greatest player ever, deserves respect, but could prove a liability if he commands too much playing time.

Nigeria World Cup Key Player: John Obi Mikel

At 23, Mikel is already a rock in the midfield defense for English champions Chelsea. But Nigerians were not impressed with his performance in the ANC and criticized him for saving his best efforts for the club that pays him. Any problems tend to revolve around Mikel’s maturity on or off the field. Chelsea reportedly threatened to dump him during his first season over his excessive social life, and he has been known to squabble with coaches. For the Super Eagles to fly, Mikel will need to be at his best, which means rebounding quickly from minor knee surgery performed in early May.

 

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