Bizarre decisions leave Nigeria in World Cup qualifier chaos

Super Eagles in World Cup disarray after qualifying loss to Benin.

Nigeria‘s loss to Benin has left the Super Eagles’ chances of qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup in tatters. The Super Eagles, looking for most of the game as if they would rather be anywhere but Abidjan, lost 2-1 on Monday to finish the second qualifying window with a measly three points of a possible 12 from four their games.

This may not have sounded a death knell to their hopes of qualifying, with six games still to play, but it is tough to see them making much headway without a significant turnaround in performances.

The Super Eagles must now win all six of their remaining games to guarantee themselves a place at the World Cup; on the basis of their performances in these two games, vs. South Africa and Benin, that is as wishful as thinking gets.

Nigeria head coach Finidi George made three changes to his starting line-up after the disappointment of a home draw to South Africa, and things looked like they were going according to plan when Raphael Onyedika scored from just inside the box in the 27th minute.

But that was as good as it got. Benin took over the game completely, and were level not long after. Calvin Bassey‘s error let in Jodel Dossou, who beat Stanley Nwabali from close range, and Steve Mounié took advantage of a defensive walkabout in the Nigeria box to fire home from close range as the first half came to a close.

The Super Eagles offered no thing in threats for the next 45 minutes, and the Cheetahs held on for their first victory over Nigeria at this level to go top of the group, at least for a day. For Nigeria, it is time for the recriminations to begin as the once-feared giants of African football are now whimpering their way out of a place at the first 48-team World Cup.

Don’t fix (or break) what isn’t broken

Nigeria were propelled to the Africa Cup of Nations Final earlier this year by an uncharacteristically strong and disciplined defensive structure; to achieve that, however, they had to sacrifice their attacking instincts.

George was handed the job as head coach, in large part, because of his work with the team at close quarters during that time; with the defensive structure set, there was an expectation that minor tinkering would follow up front to make the team more efficient at converting the chances they created.

George largely stuck to that formula in his two friendly games as interim coach, but this World Cup qualifying window saw him abandon Jose Peseiro’s solid back three base and replace it with the previous back four.

Three goals conceded in the two games suggests the change did not go well; perhaps it might have worked better had players not been deployed in various degrees of unfamiliar positions, but George had to scrape the bottom of his defensive barrel given William Troost-EkongKenneth OmeruoZaidu SanusiJamilu Collins and Bruno Onyemaechi were all absent.

Bright Osayi-Samuel, a right-back, was deployed at left-back, and Benjamin Tanimu, a centre-back, played at right-back. None of which worked. Only when Osayi-Samuel pulled up with injury in the latter stages of the Benin game, did George revert to something resembling normality — sending left-footed Bassey to left-back, moving Tanimu central, and bringing in the natural right-back Sodiq Ismael.

It is unclear whether George was trying to distance himself from Peseiro’s tactics with his formation changes, but smart money says he should have stuck with what was not broken.

Lessons unlearned

George said after the game vs. South Africa that the team would carry the lessons learned from an inspiring second-half performance into the game vs, Benin. That proved to be wishful thinking. Barring the first half half-hour, when they bossed the game and got their goal, the Super Eagles were on the back foot for all but the final five minutes of added time. There was no spirit, no sense of urgency, no attempt to fight back.

With time running out, players passed the ball all the way back to the goalkeeper, and then stood around looking lost. When Nwabali hoofed the ball all the way up front, they could barely win it back let alone keep possession.

The insipid nature of the performance, more than anything else, is what has left fans with the stunned disbelief that this team can turn things around even with six games to play.

The team showed a shocking lack of character or belief, and questions have to be asked of the players. The coach will take the blame for everything, of course, and rightfully so, but the players must also accept accountability for their listless displays.

George indirectly called it out in his post game comments.

“We have to see how the players will start the new season, and see how we can the best out of them,” he said. “Everybody must be committed. With that commitment, we will win games. I believe we are going to win games, and if we can win games the battle will still be there. We can’t throw in the towel because we have only three points. We have to find a way to get these payers back in a way for them to perform.”

Baffling substitutions

George made a number of substitutions across both games in his attempt to steady the ship. Against South Africa, they worked a peach and Nigeria were unfortunate not to win. Against Benin, the substitutions did not work quite so well; hooking the duo of Alex Iwobi and Samuel Chukwueze did not appear to be the best decisions from the bench.

Iwobi has taken plenty of flak from Nigerians, including some especially horrid abuse after the Nations Cup, but it was clear over these two games that he was the most energetic of the players whom George had sent out on the pitch.

The Fulham midfielder was involved in almost every play by Nigeria, closing down channels, making tackles, hunting down the opposition in possession, winning balls, and making passes.

In one passage of play against South Africa, Iwobi went from deep left to chase down a misplaced pass, won the ball back, found Chukwueze with a pass then made himself available for a return ball up in an advanced position. When it did not come, he slipped back into midfield then rotated deep into defence to receive the ball and progress it, all in a 40-second spell. No other player did that. He carried that running into the Benin game. So it came as a surprise when he was hauled off in the second half as Nigeria made a rash of changes.

Without Iwobi, Nigeria lost any semblance of midfield ball circulation and resorted to route-one football.

Gernot Roht gets his pound of flesh

In the final days of his five-year tenure as Nigeria coach, Gernot Rohr got the Super Eagles to the last round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup but was fired before he could play for a chance to take them to Qatar 2022. Now Benin coach, he made a point of not dwelling on any thoughts of revenge, and specifically said he was not going for it, but this must feel really special for him. And the manner in which he was picked up and carried around the pitch in celebration by his players after the final whistle showed just how much this result meant to the coach.

There are Nigerians who are now definitely wishing Rohr was on their side of the touchline.

How does Finidi George survive

This is the big question.

Finidi George could end up serving the shortest tenure of any Super Eagles coach, as Nigeria has already entered panic stations. Immediately after the game, national sports minister John Owan Enoh demanded an explanation from the Nigeria Football federation (NFF), saying “the Super Eagles have underperformed”.

The tone of the demand was anything but unambiguous.

“The recent results are unacceptable,” the minister said in a statement. “The NFF must provide a comprehensive technical report explaining the reasons behind this poor showing, and give cause why there mustn’t be consequences.”

The ominous tone suggests the minister himself is under fire from the presidency, which means George will be in some hot okro soup himself from the NFF.

Whether he survives in the job is touch and go; expect a lot of movement over the coming days.

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