Sun May Have Set on Nigeria’s World Cup but Tournament’s
When Football365’s Daniel Storey wrote about England’s first game of this World Cup against Tunisia, and implied that if one doesn’t get that country feeling when one’s nation plays, then there’s something wrong, I met that with a bit of scepticism. You can watch the World Cup without holding an ounce of support for your country, I believed, and as a Nigerian, an ounce of support for the national side is more than enough recipe for heartbreak.
Storey may be English, and they may have had their fair share of tournament disappointments, but at least they have the consolation of reminding the world that they won the World Cup long before the big bang. Nigerians don’t have that same luxury on the big stage, from open goal misses that denied us a spot in the last 16, to amateurish lapses in concentration that cost us a spot in the quarter-finals, it’s always been ‘outlandishly get your hopes up and see it realistically get shot down’ when the Super Eagles took the world stage. Hence, my scepticism, or rather cynicism, towards Nigeria at the global tournaments.
So to Argentina v Nigeria in St. Petersburg. Argentina’s World Cup hanging a by the tiniest of threads, a win was a must, while Nigeria simply needed a point for qualification into the knockout phase. Even against my country, it was hard not to root for Lionel Messi, one of the finest players to have ever graced the game surely deserved more, after coming out of retirement to haul his team to the World Cup, than a tame exit in the first round. If I had any allegiance towards anyone before that game, there it laid, or so I thought. Then on to the actual watching of the game, seeing the turnout on the streets, social media and basically everywhere else in support of the Eagles, then Storey’s saying started to make sense. This country has its problems, from the ludicrous government’s lax attitude towards the well-being of its people, to its emphasis on placing more importance on trivial issues, and what not; but all those would have to wait. This was about us against Argentina, about finally getting them back for every time they’ve made us sullen in previous World Cups, four times we’d met previously in this competition, four times they’d beaten us; surely the gods of football owed us one. We were due our pound of flesh. And from then on, from the turnout of Nigerians prepared to see us advance to the next phase, to the noise they made, I stopped thinking, and started feeling.
I didn’t know when I felt glum after Lionel Messi scored, the man I supposedly wanted to root for, I didn’t know when I yelled at Kelechi Iheanacho for ruining a Nigerian counter-attack until I did, didn’t know when I yelled at the screen in frustration after Marcos Rojo’s alleged handball wasn’t penalised until someone beckoned on me to calm down, didn’t know when I had my heart in my mouth when Gonzalo Higuain skied one over our bar from close range; and I certainly didn’t expect to slump in anguish after Rojo bagged that late Argentine winner. I saw friends who were passionate about football, friends who weren’t really passionate, and friends who hardly took interest in the game, all go through the rollercoaster of emotion, uncontained euphoria when Victor Moses equalised, and utter dejection when Rojo scored- heads in hands, faces covered by shirts. This was football. This was the World Cup.
Despite our enormous differences- political, social, sexual, religious, economic- here the goal was common, to will Nigeria into the next round. The same silence of despair after Messi put us behind, the same joyous cheer after we equalised, and the same hate we bore when they snatched qualification from our grasp. Messi is the one of the world’s greatest ever players, we’ll accept that in a few days’ time. Here, though, he was nothing more than the little man who aided in stealing our dreams once again, one who we now hope will face a humiliating exit against France in the next round, just to quell our angst. The sense of injustice- whether valid or not- was collective, as was the wonder over what might have been, what should have been. In those moments, we had everything in common, nothing apart, the sense of togetherness was laudable.
It’s the hope that kills us, but at least it brings us together first.