Sports Minister Solomon Dalung says he understands the concerns of Nigerian fans following poor results from the Super Eagles in recent friendlies, but believes the team will spring a surprise in Russia.
The national team lost their final warm-up match against Czech Republic, falling 1-0 in Austria with only ten days left at the time before they kicked off their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign.
The defeat came four days after they had also lost 2-1 to the Three Lions of England in another warm-up game in Wembley. And before that, the Eagles were held to a 1-1 draw by DR Congo at the Adokiye Amasimaka Stadium in Port-Harcourt.
Nigerian fans, who saw the team put up an excellent performance throughout the qualifying series as they sealed qualification with one game to spare, have aired their dissatisfaction over recent outings.
Dalung has however dismissed fears, saying the Eagles played with “strategic plans” in those friendlies, that it would be unjust to judge their performance at the World Cup with the preparatory games.
In an interview with Saturday Punch, the minister said: “From the performances of the Super Eagles (during the friendly matches), I appreciate the concerns of Nigerians. The last two matches seem not to meet the test of our passion, but I think the matches were played with lot of strategic plans.”
Speaking further, he added, “The ultimate performance is (at) the World Cup; if in the course of playing friendlies we incapacitate our great potential, then the essence of going to the World Cup is defeated. I think our team played the friendlies with a lot of caution.
“They just behaved like true Nigerians. When Nigerians go to competitions or war it’s akin to shuffling of cards; they will always remove the joker and put it under their thighs and keep shuffling the cards and you’ll think you’ve seen the best from them. Sometimes you will be disappointed that you’ve not seen the best, but the joker is still there. Once they pull the joker, they will spring the surprise.
“That was what happened during the competition for the (2018 World Cup) ticket, nobody thought that we were even going to win a single match but we shuffled the cards, removed the joker and left everybody in suspense. When we pulled the joker, Nigeria qualified with a match to spare and it became historical.”
The sports minister also bragged about the sold-out Eagles World Cup jerseys produced by sportswear company Nike, saying it was a testament to the team’s large followership and support world over.
“Today, the manufacturers of the Eagles jerseys are facing a big challenge because they took the risk of investing in production. It looked not profitable but today they are not only enjoying the gain but also harvesting the commercial goodwill as a company. Now, cannot meet the demands of people looking for the jerseys. I’m also looking for the jersey,” Dalung added.
The Eagles, who are currently camping in Austria, are in Group D of the World Cup alongside Croatia, Iceland and two-time champions Argentina.
They begin their campaign on June 16 against Croatia, before facing Iceland and Argentina on June 22 and June 26 respectively.
Ripples Nigeria… without borders, without fears