Nigeria Camp Focus – Death threats overshadow the fate of Nigeria’s tournament

Some things are more important than football. Sani Kaita, whose red card proved the pivotal moment of Nigeria’s defeat to Greece on Thursday, has received death threats. At occasions such as this, thoughts turn to the tragic Andreas Escobar, assassinated following his own goal against the USA which saw his native Colombia eliminated from the 1994 World Cup.

Naturally such threats have to be taken seriously, and Kaita has sought comfort from his religion, trying to deny connections to the murder of Escobar in 1994. ”They were sent to my email but I’m not disturbed about that because as a Muslim, only God decides who lives and who dies,” he said. “I won’t liken my case to that of Escobar because everyone has his destiny on this earth.” Regardless of Kaita’s commendable mental toughness in reaction to the threats, they threaten to put a cloud over a tournament which has celebrated African culture every bit as much as its football.

Kaita was dismissed after a confrontation with Vasilis Torosidis over a throw in. As the red mist descended, Kaita kicked out, raking his studs around the eventual match winner’s thigh. The contact was minimal. However, in a fit of gamesmanship which seems as much a part of football as a badly executed free-kick, Torosidis fell to the ground. The red card was as inevitable as it was needless, Kaita leaving the field with his head buried beneath his shirt to hide his tears. From a position of unassailability, Nigeria was submerged by the extra man of Greece. The red card breathed life into a game which Nigeria, one goal to the good, had taken the sting out of.

Aware of the potential ramifications of his mistake, Kaita has issued a heartfelt apology to the people of Nigeria. The incident was, he said; “Not in my character.” Indeed, as well as being Nigeria’s first red card at a World Cup tournament, it was Kaita’s first red card since he made his national debut for the Super Eagles in 2005. The red card blots a previously clean history with his national team at all levels. Even as part of the Under-20 team and the Olympic team which reached the final in Athens, 2008, he had received nothing so much as a caution. It was a moment of madness totally out of character – something which he sorrowfully, passionately regrets.

His mea culpa has earned him the compassion of his team mates he so let down. Kaita has acknowledged the support from within the Nigeria ranks, including from his coach Lars Lagerback. Although he believed the red card to be the right decision, Yakubu Aiyegbeni (who, with the scores tied at 1-1 missed a glaring one-on-one opportunity) said: “He was a little bit carried away, but will learn from the mistake.”

Whether the people of Nigeria are willing to be so understanding as their nation clings to its World Cup hope in spite of form, logic and reason is another question. Nigeria is an extremely vast country, its population exceeding 150 million inhabitants. The nation’s vastness is matched only by its extreme passion for the Super Eagles, and this is what has manifested itself in the death threats. “There are 150 million of them and all of them think they are a manager or a coach,” Yakubu added. Very few nations at this tournament have to deal with the level of expectation Nigerians have of the Super Eagles. Perhaps that sheer weight of expectation boiled over in the incident which saw Kaita red carded.

The serious nature of the threats, sent to Kaita’s email address, means that his suspension from Nigeria’s potentially crucial final group game pales into insignificance. Nevertheless, qualification for the final sixteen of the competition remains mathematically possible. A Nigerian victory over the Korea Republic accompanied by Argentina beating Greece would see one of the most unlikely tournament comebacks of recent times and see the hitherto pointless Nigerians qualify as the best placed team on three points in their group.

Thoughts therefore must remain optimistic – fears of an early exit assuaged by the Korea Republic leaking four goals to Argentina. “I couldn’t sleep thinking about what my action has cost my country,” Kaita apologised, “but I hope we will win our next game and qualify for the next round.” Kaita’s words of encouragement in the face of his death threats, if not his actions against Greece, must reinvigorate his Nigerian team-mates if they are to achieve the improbable.

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