Nigeria's Group B Opponents
April 1, 2010
When the December draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup was concluded, there were a number of people discussing where their team had been drawn, ruing their teams chances or smiling with delight... as was the case with Italian fans.
But while Group G, featuring Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire, Korea DPR and Portugal, was generally regarded as the ‘Group of Death’, the ‘Group of Banana Peels’ was Group B.
To have Argentina, Greece, Korea Republic and Nigeria in a group means four of the world’s most erratic teams playing for two spots. Added to that is the fact that all, but Korea were in the same group for USA ’94.
While that World Cup was Diego Maradona’s last of four as a player, the Nigerians will also remember it fondly. It was there that the West African country raised the continent’s football status to a level at which they were no longer seen as pretenders, but as peers. That said, they also have their own demons to exorcise!
Argentina has a most distinguished record, having won all FIFA’s major tournaments, the World Cup twice, the Confederations Cup once and the Olympic football tournament twice.
Add to that six Youth World Cups and you have a spread that not even the world’s most successful team, Brazil, has achieved. By all accounts, Argentina is a footballing giant... but they don’t necessarily look it in this group.
While Argentina remain favourites to progress as top of Group B, any one of the remaining teams could finish second, or even top of the pool.
Maybe you’d bat an eyelid if any of the other teams actually did, but Argentina scraped through qualification, only missing a play-off against Costa Rica to decide their presence at the FIFA World Cup thanks to a final day away win to Uruguay in the qualifiers.
And that’s where their strength lies. Argentina have a “never say die” attitude. Combine that with the abundance of enviable talent, from Tevez to Cambiasso to Zanetti to Riquelme to Messi and you have one of the most feared teams in world football.
Then again, that same strength, the talent, could prove la Albiceleste’s downfall yet again.
To get the team to gel is a must. Lionel Messi is not only the highest paid footballer in the world today, he’s officially the best.
Yet the 2009 World Player of the Year only scored 4 goals in his 18 appearances for his country during qualifying, a symptom of Argentina not playing as a unified team. Messi constantly looked frustrated and that is confirmed by his return, or lack thereof. And Messi is just one example.
Ultimately Maradona has not been able to organise his incredibly endowed squad to play as a unit and that will cost his team. You might be able to collect a few positive results on individual talent alone, but you won’t likely win a World Cup.
Perhaps the most glaring of Argentina’s weaknesses though, is their goalkeeping department.
Maradona used long-time number 1, Roberto Abbondanzieri, pretender, Juan Pablo Carrizo, Olympic hero, Sergio Romero and the very inexperienced Mariano Andujar during the qualifiers.
He has also used amongst others, Cristian Campestrini, Nelson Ibanez, Diego Pozo and Frederico Vilar in recent internationals, but has never seemed comfortable with any of them. Interestingly, Abbondanzieri remains the only gloveman with over 10 international caps. That hardly stirs defensive enthusiasm.
While Argentina didn’t need the play-offs to qualify, Greece did. The 2004 European champions eventually scraped past Ukraine, 2006 World Cup quarter-finalists, over two legs late last year.
Illustrating their inexperience at this level, however, this is only Greece’s second appearance at the FIFA World Cup.
The side were eliminated in the group stages following losses to Nigeria, Argentina and Bulgaria at USA ‘94. They even failed to score a goal. Their only appearance to date left a bitter taste in Greek mouths and they’ll be aiming far higher this time around. Simply qualifying isn’t good enough in 2010.
And even in qualifying, they didn’t simply qualify. While they didn’t finish above Switzerland in their group, they did put on a display.
They played well defensively, exhibited exciting counter-attacking football and Theofanis Gekas, with 10 goals, was the leading goal scorer in European qualifying.
While the Greek players are becoming individually more adept since their World Cup debut, they’re hardly the most feared opposition in the game. But on their day they can beat the best. That win over Luis Felipe Scolari’s Portugal in June 2004, while startling, was no fluke.
Unfortunately, there was no follow through from that Euro winning team and they subsequently failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
German coach, Otto Rehhagel, has brought a characteristic German discipline to the team since assuming the reins in 2001 and it has paid dividends, but will it bring a reward at the World Cup? I sincerely doubt it, but don’t underestimate Greece either... just think back to what happened the last time anyone did.
And then there’s Korea Republic, semi-finalists in 2002, a team capable of the largest upsets or the most demeaning losses.
Not a team that has performed with a great deal of consistency in recent years, they are the Asian giants topped their qualifying group and remain the Asian team with the most experience at the FIFA World Cup.
The Taegeuk Warriors are a proficient team, with more than enough ability to be more than simply competitive.
But they do not have the individual brilliance of the Argentineans, or even the Nigerians. What they do have is discipline, a singular mindset and then the trump card, pace. They will run at you all day and if you are not prepared, you will be found wanting.
Their star is Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung, a player credited as much for his humility as he is decorated. And led by respected tactician, Huh Jung-Moo, the Koreans are expecting to advance past the pool.
As for Nigeria, they’re a side with more than enough talent on the African continent. They lack the stars of years gone by. There’s no Okocha, Amokachi or Keshi, but they have a good balance of youth and experience to pick a squad of 23 from.
A series of disappointments in Africa Cup of Nations tournaments and failure to qualify for Germany 2006 has seen Nigeria labelled as chokers.
And their qualification campaign didn’t help dissuade their critics. While they qualified, they did so in the most unspectacular fashion. While not losing a match, they missed several chances in every game.
Plus their place in South Africa was only secured on the final day of qualifying following a desperate 3-2 win in Kenya, coupled with a Tunisian loss in Mozambique.
Shaibu Amodu, forever shuffling his players, kept his job after that qualifying campaign, but couldn’t hold on as Nigeria were eliminated in the semi-finals of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.
Replacing Amodu is Swede, Lars Lagerback, who led Sweden to the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup finals. His tactical acumen and his international experience is key for Nigeria, but with time against him, he has a significant amount of catch up to do in learning his players and what he can get from them.
They however, will remember Lagerback well, even on reputation, as he guided Sweden to the top of the ‘Group of Death’ in 2002, as they finished above England, Argentina and Nigeria.
Nigeria’s lack of administrative follow through and faith in coaches has led to a fair amount of discord amongst the players.
Constant squabbling at major tournaments, predominantly over financial remuneration, has often led to below par performances and the subsequent sacking of a coach. The ensuing lack of leadership and guidance has ultimately led to the Nigerian collapse.
While a decade ago they were among the most feared teams on the continent, that reputation is all but dead. Advancing past the Round of 16, where they were eliminated in 1994, will be their aim. And with a change in mindset, it is possible.
Submitted by Duane Dell'Oca