When the World Cup draw is made next week Friday, it will dominate discussions in the lead-up to the main event next summer, and yes, the Super Eagles of Nigeria will not be left out of the conversations of how favourable their group might be.
So we ask, on what scale is a good and a bad World Cup group gauged – is it by the perceived superiority, rankings and the antecedents of the countries one is drawn up to play against? It certainly is.
However, for a country like Poland who are at No.6 on the World rankings, would Nigeria fancy their chances against them, knowing that if they curtail services to Robert Lewandowski, they have as well tamed their rivals?
We have seen situations where in the peceived group of death, the favourites don’t end up going through to the next round, crashing out after three games.
For the Super Eagles of Nigeria, they haven’t attained the reputation of a world power, so most of the favourites wouldn’t mind being drawn against them, although they would have second thoughts after seeing the heroic 4-2 comeback against Argentina in Krasnodar.
Although Nigeria have been to just five World Cup tournaments, let’s look at the three worst groups the Super Eagles have ever been in, although some of the outcomes tell a different story altogether.
Group D 1994 World Cup (USA)
Being Nigeria’s debut at the World Cup, there was this trepidation that the then African champions were going to be given a resounding beating, having drawn Argentina, Bulgaria and Greece.
Although Nigeria was going to the tournament having conquered the continent, facing the world was a true test of their mettle.
However, it was the Super Eagles who took the world by storm, showing no fear as they went toe to toe with their opponents.
Not only did the Clemens Westerhof tutored win two out of their three games comfortably, they won with flair and aplomb, drawing accolades across the globe with their impressive display.
Some still argue that the 2-1 loss against Argentina wouldn’t have happened if Diego Maradona who had tested positive to drugs then, was sent home earlier, and also if that second goal from Claudio Cannigia had been ruled out by the Swedish referee Bo Karlsson.
In all, Nigeria surmounted the initial fear of the group and prevailed.
Do you know that the Nigerian 1994 team not only topped their group, but also outperformed an Argentina side that had Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta, and also a Bulgarian team that had Hristo Stoichkov, scoring 6 goals in three games?
Group D 1998 World Cup (France)
This was another World Cup group that looked tough on paper for the Super Eagles when the draw was made. However, it was Nigeria who made it look so easy going by how well they dominated the group.
Facing a Spanish side that had the likes of Raul, Fernando Hierro and Luis Enrique, Nigeria stunned them in their opening game, handing the Europeans a 3-2 defeat.
Who would forget that thunderous strike by Sunday Oliseh from a long range to beat Andoni Zubizarreta and put Nigeria ahead when the game was tied at 2-2 all?
It was the sort of performance that brewed confidence going into the second game against Bulgaria who were out to avenge that 3-0 mauling from four years before. Victor Ikpeba’s brilliant nutmeg of the goalkeeper helped secure that 1-0 win.
Although Nigeria lost their last game to Paraguay, it came largely as result of Nigeria knowing that qualification was assured and didn’t want to gamble with their first team players.
Do you know that Nigeria, although finishing top of their group with six points, finished with a goal difference of 0, scoring 5 goals and also conceding 5?
Group F 2002 World Cup (Korea/Japan)
This is actually the worst World Cup group Nigeria has ever been drawn in. In fact, it consumed the Super Eagles and they finished at the bottom of the group after the first round with just one point.
Billed as the group of death and rightly so, Nigeria struggled going up against Argentina, Sweden and England.
In Nigeria’s first game against Argentina, a 1-0 loss made the next game against Sweden a must-win. It looked like it was going to pan out that way when Julius Aghahowa headed Nigeria into the lead, until Henrik Larsson broke the hearts of many Nigerians with his brace.
With Nigeria knowing their fate already, they fielded a second string team that held their heads high against England in their last group game which ended 0-0.
Making its third World Cup appearance, one can’t say that inexperience caused Nigeria’s early exit from the 2002 World Cup, but rather, the quality of teams they faced.
Do you know that of Nigeria’s five World Cup appearances, the 2002 edition was the one they scored the least number of goals? Just one!
***Note: By Worst groups ever, we actually meant when the draws were made, not the outcome of the group matches.