Nigeria braces for reckoning after World Cup gamble fails to return dividend

ABUJA, Nigeria -- Nigeria gambled everything on qualifying for the World Cup. The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) sacked Gernot Rohr on the eve of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, betting on passing up the chance to compete for the title for the big prize of World Cup qualification.

As chaos descended on Moshood Abiola Stadium in Abuja after the final whistle that signaled Nigeria's elimination from World Cup qualifying, it was clear the gamble had failed.

Abysmal crowd management made it difficult to get into the stadium, but still a full capacity crowd packed into the venue, hopeful and expectant of going home in celebration after seeing the Super Eagles come away with a 0-0 draw from Kumasi on Friday.

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It came down to the goalkeepers. Francis Uzoho found himself beaten from long range by a snap Thomas Partey shot while Joseph Wollacott made a big save from point-blank range late in the second half, from a Leon Balogun header, to add to his game-saving heroics against Moses Simon in the first leg.

Those margins proved fine and as Ghana claim the high-stakes triumph, heading to Qatar with 31 other countries, Nigeria must now brace for the inquisition that has already begun and will continue up to the NFF elections later in the year.

Such is the pall that descended at the end that nobody showed up for the post-match press conference. Despite that, nearly two hours later, the team bus was yet to leave the stadium.

As they stayed cooped in the dressing room, many outside were already asking: "What next?"

And it is a valid question. One that is at once simple and complicated to answer.

Very little will change among the players, albeit a few players are on the wrong side of 30 and may decide to jump before they are pushed.

Captain Ahmed Musa told ESPN on the eve of the game that he intended to play at least one more Africa Cup of Nations before calling time, but he might now find it may be better to just do it. Balogun, who shone brilliantly through the qualification campaign, especially the two playoff games against Ghana, may also decide to retire from international football, but his service will be much harder to let slip considering what he brings to the table. Odion Ighalo is unlikely to return. Outside those three, things may not change significantly.

For the coaches, it is even more simple.

Austin Eguavoen held the job only in an interim capacity and will in all likelihood return to his position as the NFF technical director. Celebrated just a few months ago, when his team wowed fans as they breezed through their AFCON group, much of that goodwill has evaporated after the events of Tuesday night.

Some in the NFF had questioned his tactics and choice of player personnel after the draw in Ghana, and those murmurs increased once his lineup for the return game in Abuja was announced.

All of which meant Eguavoen was never likely to lead the team to Qatar, even if they had qualified. His staff will also be let go as the NFF returns in search of a foreign coach.

But which NFF exactly? And therein lies the rub.

There is symmetry aplenty in the events and circumstances surrounding this failure to qualify for the World Cup, for only the second time since Nigeria's first appearance in 1994.

It was at the same venue that Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. Then, as now, the Super Eagles needed to win to secure their place. Instead, just like on Tuesday night, they could only draw their final qualifying fixture, on that occasion against Guinea.

When they lost the ticket to the 2006 World Cup, to Angola, they were coached by a Nigerian, Christian Chukwu, with Eguavoen as his assistant.

In 2012, they were also coached by a Nigerian, Samson Siasia. Siasia, like Eguavoen, is a member of Nigeria's fabled Class of '94, the team that put the Super Eagles on the map and whose members have grown to become Nigerian legends. But they have failed to replicate that success from the bench.

Off the field, there are also parallels.

In 2005, when Nigeria lost the ticket to Germany 2006, Aminu Maigari, then chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, brushed it off by saying the World Cup was not Nigeria's birthright. That statement did not go down well, and it was employed as a stick to lash him over and over in what became such a tumultuous period for Nigerian football that Maigari getting was sacked unceremoniously as he sought a second term.

Among those in the vanguard of the push to remove Maigari was a certain Amaju Pinnick.

And now, it is 2022 and Pinnick said in the buildup to the game against Ghana that the World Cup was Nigeria's birthright. He gambled everything on claiming that birthright, firing the coach, trying to hire Portuguese Jose Peseiro, making sure Moshood Abiola Stadium was repaired, and putting the team in one of the best accommodations in Abuja while promising them 30% of the World Cup pot.

All of that came to nought, as it appears Ghana did not read that script.

In the end, that miss in Kumasi by Simon -- Nigeria's best player at the recent Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon -- proved fatal. Wollacott may not be loved much by Ghanaians, but he popped up big for them when it mattered most.

Elections for the NFF board are due later this year, and while neither Pinnick nor any of those who want to run have publicly announced their interest it is clear that the loss of this World Cup ticket will have a monster bearing on the elections.

And the reckoning begins.