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Super Eagles - darkness at dawn

Last weekend was one of celebration all over Nigeria.

I have not seen such spontaneous feel-good reaction on the outcome of any football match by Nigerians in a long time. It was a mixture of relief and joy rolled into one.

It is understandable. Nigeria has not won a football match with such a wide margin of goals (6-1) since the defeat of Ethiopia in 1993 at the main bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, with the same score line.

That was a different team and a different era.

I recall that was Sunday Oliseh's first match for Nigeria. I also recall that some of the greatest names in the history of Nigerian football were just emerging on the football scene around that match. It was the beginning of Clemens Westerhof's best period as manager of the Nigerian national team. That team had Rashidi Yekini, Victor Ikpeba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Finidi George, Ben Iroha, Mutiu Adepoju and Peter Rufai. That match was the beginning of the assembly of Nigeria's most successful team ever.

Such was the impact of that match on the psyche of the national team players and the country as a whole that, beyond it, and within the space of one year, the country set new records that have remained unmatched in her history.

By the end of that year Nigeria had won the Fifa Under-17 championship in Japan, qualified for the African Cup of Nations and, for the first time in its history, qualified for the World Cup.

For the next four years, world-class football was played by a Nigerian squad that flew on two wings and mesmerised the world. The Green Eagles, as the national team was then known, won the 1994 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia, produced its first African Footballer of the Year (Rashidi Yekini), went to the World Cup in the USA and played some of the most unforgettable and electrifying football by any African country before and since then.

The Eagles were so good they were re-christened 'Super Eagles', ranked fifth (the highest ever by any African country) in the world and declared the most entertaining football playing nation on earth that year.

Two years later, in 1996, its Olympic team, including several members of the Super Eagles, became the first African country to win the Olympic gold medal in a series of stunning victories against some of the best football playing countries in the world, including Brazil and Argentina.

For political reasons, the country did not go to the African Cup of Nations in South Africa in 1996 and had to wait two more years to appear again on the world scene. By the start of France '98, evening had started to set once again on Nigerian football but not before the Super Eagles defeated one of the most gifted teams in the world at the time, Spain, in a stunning display of attacking football that saw them win by 3-2. The Spanish would not forget that defeat in a hurry.

Thereafter, night fell and the Super Eagles went to sleep. It’s been 12 years since then and the team has been groping in the dark.

Last Saturday brought back memories of that day long ago in 1993. So, it is okay for Nigerians to celebrate. Having being starved for this long why not!

Everything put together, Nigeria won handsomely on the night, scoring many goals, more goals than they have been doing for years. Yet a close scrutiny of the match reveals that until the goals started to pour in the Eagles looked raggedy, unorganised but dangerous on the break. So, does this mark the beginning of an authentic new era in Nigerian football reminiscent of the 1993 to 1998 era?

Even as there is a new dawn in Nigerian football the darkness of night still lingers, its contents hidden from all. Even as day eventually breaks out into glorious sunshine it is only the unrepentantly optimistic Nigerian that believes that the Super Eagles are back to their great old ways.

For all others it is a cautious but optimistic expectation of a new Eagles whose qualities will be judged only when full daylight eventually shines on the team in South Africa next January.

Until then Nigerians can continue to savour the victory of their beloved Super Eagles last weekend.

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