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Bafana must beat Nigeria, the great underachievers of African football

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Let me put it bluntly, the Nigerian national team are abject failures in this beautiful game, writes Thulasizwe kaMantshinga.

Nigeria players Issac Success battle with Bafana Bafana player Buhlebuyeza Mkhwanazi fight for the ball during the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Bafana Bafana at the FNB Stadium. Picture: Itumeleng English/Independent Newspaper

For the quality of players they have had over the years they should be far ahead of any other African country as far as AFCON glory is concerned.

By Thulasizwe kaMantshinga

With a few hours to go before South Africa and Nigeria square off for the second time in a matter of four months, this writer has mustered some inspiration to shed light on the failures of the opponent standing before our beloved Bafana tonight.

This time, Bafana and the Super Eagles meet in the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in the city of Uyo, Nigeria.

Let me put it bluntly, the Nigerian national team are abject failures in this beautiful game.

For all the quality of players they have had over the years, they should be far ahead of any other African country as far as AFCON glory is concerned. Yet, for all their ill-founded superiority complex, they only boast three AFCON titles since the inaugural tournament in 1957.

Even those titles are spread across many decades, specifically 1980, 1994, and 2013.

The reality is that the so-called Super Eagles are not as high flying and super as they imagine themselves to be and no, this is not a rant from a South African with wounded pride following Bafana Bafana’s semifinal exit following a penalty shootout defeat to Jose Peseiro’s men in February.

A short trip down memory lane back to that titanic AFCON semifinal battle at a packed Stade Bouake one can’t help but recall that while we, South African football fans, were lamenting the absence of our centre forwards Lyle Foster and Lebogang Mothiba from Hugo Broos’ squad through mental health issues and injury respectively, Nigeria had the luxury of leaving out of their squad one of the hottest young striking prospects in world football, Gift Orban.

Orban had been tearing it up in the Belgian Jupiler Pro League for KRC Genk, the longtime club of the late former Bafana right-back Anele Ngcongca, for the past year, before making a switch to French giants Olympique Lyonnais in January 2024.

Coincidentally Orban netted an impressive goal in a 2-1 French Cup Round of 16 victory against LOSC Lille on the same day his Nigerian compatriots laboured for 120 minutes before ousting Bafana from AFCON 2023 in a penalty shootout.

Orban is just one example amongst a range of attacking selection options available for Peseiro at the time, although they also had respected hitmen like the prolific Victor Boniface of German Bundesliga high flyers Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad’s Umar Sadiq, and Nottingham Forest battering ram of a centre forward Taiwo Awoniyi, who all missed the AFCON through injuries.

Victor Osimhen had been subdued for much of the tournament, but Peseiro kept his faith in him with the likes of Paul Onuachu and Terem Moffi hardly getting a look in

Throughout the modern era of football, dating back to the mid 1990s, they have always enjoyed the luxury of a huge selection pool of players plying their trade in the world’s biggest leagues for glamorous clubs with legions for global fanbases, yet this has not equated to the success they ought to have amassed.

In the six World Cup tournaments they have qualified for since they made their maiden appearance at USA 94, they have only managed to reach the Round of 16 thrice, in 1994, 1998, and 2014 despite the amount of talent within their ranks.

For a country with a population of 218 million they are the great underachievers of world football, even worse than the English, and although they have a population six times more than that of Morocco, the North Africans reached the semifinal of the last World Cup, a feat the Nigerians can only dream was theirs.

Over the years, theirs has been a roll call of African football royalty from the likes of the late Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Austin “Jay-Jay” Okocha, Daniel Amokachi , Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West, Emmanuel Amunike, Finidi George, and Nwankwo Kanu in a fearsome side of the 90s, to the likes of Julius Aghahowa, Obafemi Martins, Yakubu Ayigbeni, Vincent Enyeama, and Joseph Yobo in the 2000s who then passed on the baton to the generation of Ahmed Musa, Sunday Mba, Kenneth Omeuro, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho in the 2010s. ‘

The conveyor belt of talent has not seized to churn out talents as they still boast names that strike fear into the hearts of opponents in world respected players such as Calvin Bassey, Wilfred Ndidi, Frank Onyeka, Victor Osimhen, Odemola Lookman, and Nathan Tella.

Current head coach Finidi George, capped 62 times for Nigeria as a player in an international career spanning 11 years from 1991 to 2002, took over from Peseiro in March and will have a stellar cast of stars to call upon as they desperately look to get their qualification campaign up and running.

They have already suffered two disappointing draws against Lesotho and the now disqualified Zimbabweans in their opening two Group C encounters.

Tonight they look to put the disappointing failure to qualify for Qatar 2022 by jump starting their already faltering qualification campaign for the 2026 tournament in North America when they take on an old foe in Bafana Bafana.

Bafana sit in third place in Group C behind table topping Rwanda and Benin, who are both tied on four points after two matchdays. The Nigerians are fourth with just two points from their two outings so far.

Although they head into this particular battle against the Super Eagles as underdogs, victory in Uyo will only serve to embolden the belief in Hugo Broos’ charges that they can go on to qualify for their first World Cup tournament since they qualified for the Korea/Japan 2002 edition. As hosts of the 2010 world cup, Bafana gained automatic qualification.

However, it is in matches against the tricky group’s so-called minnows like Rwanda, Lesotho, and Benin that the South Africans should be gunning for all three points both home and away.

There is no question that any further slip-ups such as the one against Rwanda away last November, a 2-1 reversal in Kigali, will be severely punished by the Nigerians in the final stages of the qualifiers.

The reality is that Bafana should not be fazed as they have proven in the past that the Nigerians are there for the taking.

Although it was a victory earned by an older generation, the current Bafana team will draw inspiration from the fact that South Africa once silenced the crowd in Uyo with a 2-0 scoreline in AFCON 2017 qualifiers, courtesy of strikes by Percy Tau and Tokelo Rantie.

As Bafana look to blunt the claws and beaks of the Super Eagles in Uyo tonight, let us hope that they can also summon the spirit that saw them stand toe to toe with their adversaries for much of that taxing 120 minutes in Bouake, and like the Ivorians in the final.

Let’s hope our boys compound their misery so that they keep their arrogance in check.

* Thulasizwe kaMantshinga is a freelance writer.

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of IOL or Independent Media.

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