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World Cup 2014 Expert Interview: Why are expectations low despite Nigeria being African champions?

As part of our World Cup coverage, we have interviewed journalists, correspondents, experts & writers representing each of the 32 countries to give you, the readers, a better understanding of the 32 nations participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Here are the list of interviewees.

Nigeria World Cup Interview

For this interview, focusing on Nigeria, we spoke with Samuel Audu, award-winning journalist with Agence France Presse, German News Agency, KickOff magazine, FourFourTwo (among others). Follow him on Twitter @SammAudusoka.

A lot of Nigerian’s ply their trade in Europe. Do you think that doing so brings them an unfair share of attention, and hence greater chances of selection? Or is their experience in Europe deserving of a spot in the World Cup squad?

 The truth is that playing in Europe will more often than not give you a better chance of catching the attention of the national selectors. This has been more the rule than the exception over the years. However, coach Stephen Keshi has been bold enough in his three years in charge to give players from the domestic league a more decent run in his team so much so that the home-based players are no longer just mere “training materials”.

The domestic league is lagging far behind on many fundamentals, from players’ welfare to training facilities, and so it is not as professional as the organisers would want us to believe. In such a situation, a move overseas would most likely improve considerably a player from the local league.

 John Obi Mikel enjoys a lot more freedom in midfield when he plays with Nigeria. Do you think this brings out the best in him, or is he more suited to the deeper role he plays at Chelsea?

Mikel was first and foremost an attacking midfielder and it was in that role that he was voted as the second best player at the 2005 FIFA U20 World Cup in the Netherlands behind a certain Lionel Messi. It was at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho that he was converted to a holding player in midfield.

He has played with a lot more freedom in the middle of the park under Keshi and the result is that he is one of the key players Nigeria will be counting on at Brazil 2014. This is his best role especially if he could get another midfielder to win the balls for him.

Nigeria are the defending African champions but expectations seem to be more from other African sides as opposed to the Super Eagles. What could be the reason for this and can it be used to their advantage?

Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire are widely believed to have a better chance than Nigeria at the World Cup. You would have to go back to the 1998 World Cup in France when Nigeria last won at the World Cup – 1-0 vs Bulgaria in Paris – and they have since featured in two other World Cups, in 2002 and 2010.

Besides this disappointing record,  Nigeria over the years are known more for their individual players like Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha and Rashidi Yekini than for playing as a team. This has limited the huge potentials in the team.

As such Nigeria will not be one of the fancied teams in Brazil, but they have proven that they could deliver when they are least expected to, a case in point was last year’s Africa Cup of Nations, where even their die-hard fans did not give them much of a chance only for them to go all the way and win a third continental championship.

 It’s not often that we see African sides appoint coaches from the continent and certainly not for a World Cup, opting for more experienced & dynamic foreign based ones. What sort of a coach is Steven Keshi, and what can we expect from his tactically? Is not taking a foreign coach a risk?

Keshi is a lucky man, a lucky coach and he has proved himself by qualifying little Togo and now Nigeria to the World Cup. He will only be the second Nigerian coach to lead the country at the World Cup after Adegboye Onigbinde was in charge in 2002.

Nigeria hired former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback at great cost and the result was a first round exit at the 2010 tournament. So, it cannot be much of a risk to now entrust the country’s World Cup hopes on one of their own. Questions though persist as regards his tactical know-how, but as long as he is getting the results, he will keep his job.

The top scorer during qualifying was Emmanuel Emenike with just three goals. The entire team scored just seven goals, besides the play-offs, which is nearly half of the other teams that have qualified. Are goals a problem for Nigeria?

Nigeria have always been known for their attacking football and Emenike proved he knows his way to goal at the 2013 Nations Cup, where he emerged top scorer with four goals. Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa are also expected to weigh in with a fair share of goals.

Rather the worry would be how this team could keep out the goals from the other end of the pitch. Keshi’s teams have struggled defence-wise and if something is not done before the World Cup, that could again be the team’s weakest link in Brazil.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group F

 We at Outside of the Boot track the progress of youngsters under our Talent Radar feature. We’re focusing on two players who have caught our attention, Ahmed Musa & Ogenyi Onzai. What sort of role do you expect them to play at the World Cup? What sort of an impact will they have in Brazil?

 Ahmed Musa is a speedster, who could be an even better player if only he was less predictable, improves on his crosses and be more composed inside the box. Injury stopped him from being part of the final training camp for the 2010 World Cup while he was still playing for Kano Pillars in the local league.

Four years after he has matured and has been exposed at the highest level in Europe, first with VVV Venlo and now with Russian champions CSKA Moscow. He fell short of his high standards at the 2013 Nations Cup, but he has since fought back to be a starter, playing on the right side of attack.

Onazi, on the other hand, has established himself in the Eagles first team. He works very hard and has formed a great combination with Mikel in the midfield. He is on the shop window as he is coming to the end of his contract with Lazio and he knows that a good showing in Brazil would open many new doors for him. Both players may not be regarded as key players for Nigeria, but they could improve their stocks considerably with what they show at their debut World Cups.

Besides the Argentinians, Nigeria shouldn’t face too much of a problem to compete with the other two teams. Bosnia are newcomers while Iran look comparatively weaker. How far do you see Nigeria going in Brazil? What are expectations in Nigeria like?

Football is the national sport in Nigeria and so we have 180 million coaches for the national team. Both the country’s President as well as several government officials have already urged the team to make history and become the first African team to win the World Cup.

There is most certainly a lot more belief in this team than was the case leading up to the last World Cup. The first big step for Nigeria would be to reach the knockout stage (something they last achieved in 1998) and from there, anything is possible. Why not a place in the semi-finals?

Read all our World Cup Interviews here, and all other WC2014 related content here.

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