Nigeria had the youngest squad at the World Cup, and that should be remembered. As they prepared to face Lionel Messi and Argentina in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday night, the narrative, and the majority of neutrals, were against them. Messi was on the brink of an early exit, and there is no shame in losing to him when he is in the mood; he certainly was, too.
His goal set the tone for Argentina, who needed to win. Whenever they need him, he’s there, but this goal was straight out of the top draw, even if people are used to seeing otherworldly moments from him on a regular basis. Ever Banega, one of the brighter sparks in a dark campaign, played the ball through, and Messi controlled it from behind him with minimal effort before smashing the ball past Nigeria’s teenage goalkeeper Francis Uzoho. Victor Moses equalised from the penalty spot before an equally spectacular strike from Marcos Roja won the game. Now La Albiceleste, not the Super Eagles, will face France in the last 16 on Saturday afternoon.
But, again it must be stressed, Nigeria came into the tournament having named the youngest squad; hope, rather than expectation, drove them forward. A new era is underway, with many more chances for glory over the next few years, starting with the African Cup of Nations next year. That is the difference; where new beginnings are dawning for Gernot Rohr’s side, the end is nye for Argentina and Group D winners Croatia. For Messi, Sergio Agüero, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, world renowned stars now all over the age of 30, this is probably their final chance to make a real impression on a tournament.
Of course, the definition of ”impression” is different for Messi, Modric and co. than it is for this Nigerian generation. No African side has ever gone further than the quarter finals, despite Ghana’s best efforts in South Africa eight years ago; the likes of Moses, Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa and Wilfred Ndidi have so much more to give; they could easily head to Qatar in 2022, off the back sustained success, and become the most successful team in their continent’s history.
They failed to show their best against Croatia, managed the game perfectly against Iceland and struggled to avoid what felt like the inevitable against Argentina; Nigeria showed every side of their mentality across the three games and there are still a lot of lessons to be learnt In the months and years to come. Without doubt, though, they are on the right track; their system plays to their strengths, allowing their pace to drive them forward from the wide areas outside an extremely solid midfield unit. Up front, they have much more than speed; Musa and Iheanacho link up perfectly, both able to drop deep and go long, helping the direct approach become even more potent.
Squad depth is another positive going forward; while they approached the Croatia game all wrong both on and off the pitch, playing within themselves and with fear, they had enough quality outside the first eleven to change it. Iheanacho and Musa both came in, whiile Alex Iwobi, one of those to make way, has a bright future ahead of him on the international stage. He could become a the team’s talisman; there aren’t too many players with his ability to create something from nothing within the squad.
Perhaps the most telling development during their campaign was the change in the captain, John Obi Mikel’s role. During 11 years at Chelsea, he became known as a defensive midfielder, but such was the lack of quality in the team over the years, he had to play a more advanced role as the creator. It was clear that he struggled to make anything happen against Croatia and played a deeper role in the ensuing games, thriving with more players ahead of him. He has never been a star man, instead building a career as a crucial team player; perhaps in this new age of Nigerian football, Mikel could play his football in the latter years of his career.
In the end, Senegal have carried the African hopes this summer; they are all but through in Group H and can confiirm their place as the only team in the last 16 on Thursday. There can be no doubting they benefitted from a more evenly split group than Nigeria, but overall they have been more consistent. Morocco and Egypt have also fallen at the first hurdle.
Timing, and the luck of the draw were perhaps against Nigeria this summer; facing Lionel Messi in the mood he was in, and in the situation Argentina were up against was always going to be tough. The result says more about the five-time Ballon d’Or winner than it does the Super Eagles, and this young squad will undoubtedly grow stronger for their collective experience.