For the Super Eagles, the efforts to regain the confidence of their fans begin with having positive result against Sierra Leone on Thursday evening. Nigeria’s first match of the qualifiers for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) hold without fans at the MKO Stadium in Abuja.
Angered by the team’s ouster from the 2022 FIFA World Cup on 25th March, the fans went berserk vandalising the stadium facilities amidst chaos. And the world’s football authority, FIFA imposed a ban on fans at the stadium.
The fans were also obviously angered by the manner Nigeria exited from the from the last AFCON in Cameroon earlier in the year. After winning all group matches, including the titanic clash against Egypt, the Super Eagles crashed at the first knockout stage 0-1 to Tunisia. The former African champions have to therefore put up their best act this time.
They have vowed to put things right this time as they engage Sierra Leone this evening and São Tomé and Príncipe four days later in Marrakech, Morocco.
A cross-section of the team’s players told News Agency of Nigeria after the team’s training session on Tuesday in Abuja that they were fully prepared to begin their campaign on a winning note.
Captain Ahmed Musa said the Super Eagles were on a redemption mission to ensure that they restored the pride of the nation and the confidence of their teeming supporters.
“We know that we made a very big mistake by failing to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and definitely don’t have any excuse to give our fans.
“I know and understand that a lot of them (fans) are disappointed and as a result have dropped their support for the team.
“But we are working very hard to make them proud and happy again to support the Super Eagles.
“There is no other country we have and love than Nigeria. So, we are pleading with our teeming fans not to abandon their support for the team”, he said.
On the team’s preparation for the game against Sierra Leone, Musa said his teammates were battle-ready to redeem themselves after a poor outing the last time both teams met.
The Super Eagles gave away a 4-0 lead to draw 4-4 against the Leone Stars on 13th November 2020 at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium in Benin in a 2021 AFCON qualifier.
“In football, mistakes happen like what happened in our game against our opponents two years ago.
“This also will definitely give them a bit of confidence coming into this game.
“But we have learnt our lessons and worked on our mistakes and will do all we have to do to ensure we win the game”, Musa said.
Midfielder Alex Iwobi, who was suspended for the Nigeria-Ghana clash in March, admitted that not qualifying for the FIFA World Cup was a bitter pill to swallow, adding however that he was confident the team would bounce back stronger.
“I watched the games at home with my family and we were optimistic that Nigeria could do it, but we were just unlucky and it’s heartbreaking to know that we are not going to be in Qatar.
“I can’t fault the players because everybody gave their best. It’s just one of those things and we have to pick our heads up, go again and move on”, he said.
On the game against Sierra Leone, Iwobi noted that the Super Eagles were unfortunate the last time both sides met, adding that the team were desperate to set the records straight.
“Of course, we remember the game against the Leone Stars about two years ago which ended 4-4. But we are desperate now to prove a point that we should have won that game then.
“This game will therefore come with a lot of discipline as we have an understanding of what happened before.
“It was unfortunate and we are looking forward to putting things right this time around on home soil and hopefully we will get the result we want”, he said.
On the this evening’s game, Super Eagles defender Leon Balogun said the team could not afford to be complacent as there were no minnows any more in the AFCON qualifiers.
“We cannot afford to lose focus or give our opponents any chance in the game.
“We’ve learnt our lessons from the last time out after our opponents took full advantage of our little complacency in the game.
“So, it’s a big lesson for us never to underestimate any opponent in Africa.
“Having said that, we are looking forward to redeeming our image as a team, starting with the game against Sierra Leone on Thursday”, he said.
On the issue of playing behind closed doors, Super Eagles assistant captain, William Troost Ekong said it might pose a little bit of a challenge for the team in terms of the noise and support from the fans.
But he assured that this would not affect their performance.
“We are professionals and are used to this kind of situation, having played without fans in the stands all through the COVID-19 pandemic at our various clubs.
“It’s always nice to have the fans, but sometimes not having them there might even be an advantage because you know supporters can’t get impatient and put a lot pressure on the team.
“Not every player is able to deal with that. So, not having the fans might just be a blessing in disguise for us”, Ekong said.
This is head coach, Jose Peseiro’s first competitive game in charge of the Super Eagles. The Portuguese first two friendly matches ended in defeat – 1-2 to Mexico and 0-1 to Ecuador.