Sports minister Solomon Dalung has warned Nigeria’s Russia 2018 World Cup opponents, saying they will only have themselves to blame if they rated the Super Eagles with their recent friendly matches, which has largely been unconvincing.
The Eagles are in Group D of the World Cup alongside two-time champions Argentina, Croatia and Iceland.
After a fine outing during the African qualifiers, which saw them book their World Cup ticket with a game to spare, the Eagles beat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly match in Krasnodar, Russia, last November to further raise confidence in the team.
However, recent pre-World Cup friendly matches have sparked mixed reactions as the Eagles stumbled to three defeats, one win and a draw in five games.
In fact, the most recent friendlies versus DR Congo (1-1) England (1-2) and Czech Republic (0-1) saw the Eagles struggling to play as a unit, thus eliciting opinion that the Nigerians, who are appearing at the World Cup for the sixth time, might put up a below per outing in Russia.
But Dalung dismissed the fears with a wave of the hand, saying the Eagles played with “strategic plans” in those friendlies, saying it would be unjust to judge their performance at the World Cup with the preparatory games.
“From the performances of the Super Eagles (during the friendly matches), I appreciate the concerns of Nigerians. The last two matches seem not to meet the test of our passion, but I think the matches were played with lot of strategic plans,” Dalung told newsmen
Speaking further, he added, “The ultimate performance is (at) the World Cup; if in the course of playing friendlies we incapacitate our great potential, then the essence of going to the World Cup is defeated. I think our team played the friendlies with a lot of caution.
“They just behaved like true Nigerians. When Nigerians go to competitions or war it’s akin to shuffling of cards; they will always remove the joker and put it under their thighs and keep shuffling the cards and you’ll think you’ve seen the best from them. Sometimes you will be disappointed that you’ve not seen the best, but the joker is still there. Once they pull the joker, they will spring the surprise.
“That was what happened during the competition for the (2018 World Cup) ticket, nobody thought that we were even going to win a single match but we shuffled the cards, removed the joker and left everybody in suspense. When we pulled the joker,
Nigeria qualified with a match to spare and it became historical.”
The sports minister added that the sold-out Eagles World Cup jerseys was a testament to the team’s large followership globally.
He said fans were still confident in the ability of the Nigerian team, made largely of youngsters attending the World Cup for the first time, to perform well in Russia, thus the rush to buy their jerseys produced by sportswear company Nike.
“Today, the manufacturers of the Eagles jerseys are facing a big challenge because they took the risk of investing in production. It looked not profitable but today they are not only enjoying the gain but also harvesting the commercial goodwill as a company. Now, cannot meet the demands of people looking for the jerseys. I’m also looking for the jersey,” Dalung added.