Super Eagles are becoming ‘Super’ again

When Victor Osimhen won the African Footballer of the Year award, it certainly became a huge boost to the Super Eagles as a team. That was the way it used to be with this national team in the 1990s and 2000s. The team always had huge names on board. The Eagles were Super and their awards off the pitch complemented their achievements.

Before Osimhen ascended the throne, the Super Eagles squad had become the nearly squad. For a long time Nigerians were off the winners list for Africa’s most prestigious individual award.

Since 1999 when Kanu Nwankwo won the award, the closest had been Austin Okocha and Mikel Obi being the ‘nearly winners’ by getting to the top three until Osimhen got it back for the country. Osimhen’s crowning indeed put back Nigeria into the picture.

Super Eagles are becoming 'Super' again
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The long absence of the country from the continent’s prestigious award was indeed a reflection of the quality of the Super Eagles' squad. There were sparks of wonderful victories here and there, like the majestic win over Argentina in the build up to the 2018 World Cup, but it was hardly a Super Eagles team you could bet on.

For this reason too, hardly anyone could boldly rate the Eagles to win the Africa Cup of Nations through this period, compared to how the world believed that the Eagles would win the 1994 AFCON.

Lookman’s three-goal thriller

On 22 May, Ademola Lookman won the Europa League with Atalanta in a most audacious manner, scoring all three goals against Bayer Leverkusen who had not lost any match in the season until that night.

We can also remember that before that game, Victor Boniface and Nathan Tella had won the German Bundesliga in what became Leverkusen’s first ever league trophy. And they were not the first to have made some huge marks in the just-ending season.

Troost-Ekong had won the Greek Super League. When you look across to England, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheacho and Joe Aribo have also returned to the English Premier League where the real class is. And this the way it used to be – a team with a lot of champions and individual award winners.

In 1995, new Super Eagles coach Finidi George and former two-time African Footballer of the Year Nwankwo Kanu won the UEFA Champions League with Ajax Amsterdam.

It was in those days when Nigeria always had one or two players going into the last five of the CAF awards. And that was how the country was able to get Kanu, Emmanuel Amuneke, Victor Ikpeba and the late hitman Rashidi Yekini on the podium with Kanu winning the award twice.

Finidi George wants Super Eagles to emulate Manchester City’s attacking football
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Super Eagles of stars and trophies

So it was a Super Eagles team of stars and trophies that could stand tall against any team in the world. Nigeria had a memorable outing at the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

Their run from the World Cup qualifiers and through the 1994 AFCON in Tunisia was so good that the whole world kept them in view, and of course they showed in the USA, beating Bulgaria 3-0 in their very first World Cup match.

After the World Cup, they got an invite to Wembley Stadium to play the Three Lions. England won the match by a lone goal, but Jay Jay Okocha dribbled everybody including his own teammates. It was worth the trouble for everyone that paid to watch that match.

But after the AFCON 2000 final in Lagos, which Nigeria lost to Cameroon via a penalty shootout, their status gradually began to fade. The team gradually began to lose the top stars as the country began to play less than they did that left the universe in awe.

The team no longer had an African Footballer of the Year. A few stars came up here and there, like Mikel Obi in a mighty Chelsea team, Vincent Enyeama as a quality goalkeeper, and a few others things had changed.

Super Eagles fixtures and results
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No more tournament favourites

The Super Eagles were still qualifying for some major competitions but were never favourites. They would miss two consecutive AFCONs and then topped it off by missing the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

But after such a long while, the Super Eagles are becoming a real collection of stars as they used to be when they dominated Africa in the 90s. From a team that lost 4-1 in the opening match of Algeria ’90 to a narrow 1-0 to the hosts in a well-fought final match – an outing that saw their name changed from Green Eagles to Super Eagles.

Some Nigerians made the Team of the Tournament in the last AFCON: Troost-Ekong was the tournament’s MVP, Nwabali was almost the Goalkeeper of the Tournament, coupled with the fact that Osimhen is the reigning African footballer.

Boniface is a league champion, and Lookman’s new status has added up to the list of individual stars in the lineup as it used to be. The new trend should give the Super Eagles added confidence to face any team.

A top Nigerian coach told Afrik-Foot last month that the calibre of players in the current squad is quite attractive to coaches. No matter the skill set of a team, a lack of confidence will always affect their approach to any match.

Super Eagles are becoming 'Super' again
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One fact that can draw more fans to the stadium to watch the Eagles play is the presence of those seen as superstars. A team that has the AFCON's Most Valuable Player, African Footballer of the Year, the star of the Europa League final, and also one of the best goalkeepers on the continent will surely be attractive to football fans. A typical fan wants to identify physically with individuals they value as stars.

Marketing the Nigerian team becomes a whole lot easier when everyone is attracted to the team. The 1994 set of Eagles made selling the product quite lovely for marketers. Indeed it was the business world that sought the Super Eagles brand more than the Eagles marketers sought them.

The corporate sponsors of the Eagles dwindled largely when Nigeria failed to qualify for two AFCONs and the 2006 World Cup, but the team became very attractive again after Nigeria won the 2013 AFCON in South Africa.

We could be heading in the post-2013 direction again as the players assert themselves individually. The combined individual output of these players this season is certainly making these Eagles look super again.

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Pius Ayinor

Pius Ayinor started his football writing with Complete Sports/Complete Football. He has served as the Sports Editor of The Comet newspaper; Deputy Sports Editor of Thisday/Editor Global Soccer and Sports Editor of The Punch.
The World Cup and Olympics are familiar terrains having covered the Korea/Japan World Cup; Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018 as well as the Athens 2004 Olympics, London 2012 and the Rio 2016 Games.