Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Nigeria: Answers demanded after 'unacceptable' 2026 World Cup qualifying results – bbc.co.uk


Nigeria had drawn all three of their previous qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup before Monday's loss to Benin
Nigeria's sports ministry has demanded an explanation for the country's poor 2026 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign, labelling it "unacceptable" after a 2-1 defeat by Benin left the Super Eagles winless from their opening four games.
Following draws with Lesotho, Zimbabwe and South Africa, Monday's result means Nigeria sit fifth in Group C with three points from a possible 12.
Only the group winners are guaranteed a place at the World Cup finals, which will be jointly hosted by the USA, Canada, and Mexico.
"Our supporters are passionate and devoted," senator John Owan Enoh, minister of sports development, said in a statement.
"They deserve an explanation for why our national team has not been performing to the expected standards since after the last Africa Cup of Nations.
"The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) must provide a comprehensive technical report explaining the reasons behind this poor showing and give cause why there mustn't be consequences.
"The recent results are unacceptable."
Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, losing on away goals to Ghana in the play-offs, but did reach the final of this year's Nations Cup under former boss Jose Peseiro, losing to hosts Ivory Coast.
Finidi George was appointed as Peseiro's replacement in April but failed to lift the team's performances against South Africa and Benin.
The Super Eagles have failed to win any of their past seven World Cup qualifiers dating back to November 2021 – a time when Gernot Rohr, now coach of Benin, was in charge.
The game against Benin, which was played in neutral Ivory Coast, got off to an inauspicious start for Nigeria when the the wrong national anthem was played.
Two weeks ago, President Bola Tinubu made a controversial decision to revert to the nation's former anthem, but organisers in Abidjan clearly missed the memo.
The NFF expressed its displeasure at the mistake and threatened not to take the field for the second period until the correct anthem was played.
Raphael Onyedika had put the Super Eagles ahead after 27 minutes but goals from Jodel Dossou and Steve Mounie gave Benin the advantage at the break.
Having returned to Nigeria on Tuesday, the team put out a statement on social media,, external admitting they were "unhappy about the way the two games panned out" and promising to "fight hard till the end" of the qualifying campaign.
One factor in the squad's underperformance could be the absence of star striker Victor Osimhen, who has missed all four Group C games so far with injury.
Yet, even without the reigning African Footballer of the Year, the Nigeria squad boasts enough attacking talent to have found the net more than four times in as many outings.
African World Cup qualifiers are set to resume in March next year, with 2025 Nations Cup qualifiers scheduled to be held in September, October and November.
Finidi George was appointed as Nigeria's coach in April and now faces huge pressure to retain his job
Concerns around the performance of the Super Eagles may not be limited to results alone but how the team has fared under new boss Finidi George.
Nigeria's build up to the recent qualifiers was marred by the late arrival of some players who were caught up in an industrial strike called by labour unions in the country.
Ademola Lookman, Atalanta's hat-trick hero in the Europa League final, Fulham pair Alex Iwobi and Calvin Bassey, and West Brom defender Semi Ajayi were among those affected.
All four players arrived in camp behind schedule but still made the starting XI for the game against South Africa in Uyo last Friday.
This has raised curiosity amongst fans who queried why the coach overlooked players already in camp and instead gave the nod to latecomers.
Analysis by Isaiah Akinremi, BBC Sport Africa reporter in Lagos
Supporters of three-time continental champions Nigeria have been left in shock and disbelief after taking just one point from what were described as “must win” qualifiers against South Africa and Benin.
The mood is tense between Finidi George and the media and fans, given many Super Eagles followers would not have chosen the former Ajax star for the national job and believed Emmanuel Amuneke would have been a better option.
Issues around his selection choices, tactics and formation were the talking points in a heated post-match press conference in Uyo, with George furiously reiterating that he needs to be allowed to do his job.
The embarrassing defeat against Benin, masterminded by former Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr, on a neutral ground has again raised questions about the decision to appoint George by the Nigeria Football Federation.
Some are asking for more time for the 53-year-old to right the wrongs of the past two games, but others are already calling for his resignation – stressing that predecessor Jose Peseiro should have been left to tinker with the team after a second-placed finish at the Nations Cup.
It is unclear what the verdict of Nigeria’s sports ministry will be, but the narrative on the streets of Lagos is that Nigeria cannot afford to miss out on an expanded 2026 World Cup.
The fans believe appearing at the finals is their birth-right, and missing out on the tournament twice in a row would be damaging to their proud tradition and reputation.
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