For all the tactical preparation, the training (or lack there of) at sufficient altitude to adapt to the atmospheric and climatic conditions during the tournament and the mastery of the oft-criticised Adidas Jabulani football used during the World-Cup,
As the Super Eagles approached their final group game still to get off the mark, one pinpointed their inability to defeat Greece to two specific moments. The first came with the score at 1-0 in Nigeria’s favour. With the ball having trundled out of play for a throw in, Sani Kaita inexplicably ran his studs down Vasilis Torosidis’s thigh. Greece subsequently levelled and deep into the second half, their playmaker Georgios Karagounis lined up a speculative shot at goal. Hitherto impregnable between the posts, Vincent Enyeama spilled the tame shot. Torosidis plundered an unlikely winner.
Yet still Nigeria clung on to hopes of qualification. Half an hour remained of Group B when Yusuf Ayila crossed from the left wing. The ball rolled across the face of goal, beyond Jung Sung-ryong in Korea Republic’s goal at to Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s right foot. Inexplicably, the ball cannoned off his right boot and span beyond the post. Although half an hour remained (enough time for Yakubu to characteristically deceive the Korea Republic goalkeeper with a sauntered run-up to beat him from the penalty spot) Nigeria’s fate was sealed. The tremendous misfortune which has followed the Super Eagles throughout the tournament had struck again. Had that chance (this column believes it to surely be the miss of the World Cup so far) hit the back of the net, Nigeria would have qualified for the last sixteen as the best placed team in Group B on three points. Yakubu’s penalty to equalise Lee Jung-soo and Park Chu-yong’s goals gave hope which was ultimately futile.
As it stood at full time, it was the Korea Republic’s players left exulting on the pitch whilst the distraught Nigerian’s collapsed onto the turf in agony. The margins between success and failure have rarely seemed so apparent at a World Cup game for a long time. Martin Palermo’s clinching goal for Argentina against Greece prolonged the hope and the agony. It meant that just one more goal would have clinched both victory and a place in the next round for Nigeria. It was not forthcoming.
The chances came and went. Obafemi Martins joined Yakubu in missing a chance he would ordinarily expect to score. Seeing the whites of Jung Sung-ryong’s eyes, he clipped a left-footed shot over the goalkeeper but agonisingly wide of the far post. In the dying seconds, Victor Obinna, on for Yakubu through the centre of Nigeria’s attack, fizzed a vicious shot inches wide. There is no doubt that a nation as vast and as passionate as Nigeria is about the Super Eagles will rue each and every misfortune, lapse in concentration, moment of madness and sheer ineptitude in front of the opposition’s goal.
These individual errors have been recognised by a devastated squad. Nwankwo Kanu decried Yakubu’s inability to convert from three yards: “As a striker I think it’s the easiest one to score,” he said. Kanu added: “If we didn’t create the chances we’d complain, but in fact we made them and didn’t take them.” Whilst lambasting the Everton striker’s incredible miss, Kanu’s comments also referred back to their games against Greece and Argentina. In the former, before the red card there were numerous opportunities to extend the lead. Even though Enyeama was undoubtedly Nigeria’s star performer against Argentina, as the game became stretched in the second half, the substitutes Obafemi Martins and Kalu Uche both missed good chances to equalise. Uche’s goals against Greece and the Korea Republic will remain tarnished by the missed chances.
Despite his disparaging comments about Yakubu’s miss at the end of the game, Kanu’s influence on the game was positive. It will leave Head Coach Lars Lagerback wondering if Kanu’s influence would have been better used earlier in the competition. Such regrets are characteristic of Nigeria’s exit from the tournament. The third African team to exit the South African World Cup, their solitary point from their three group games belies just how close they came to reaching the last sixteen.