After missing out in 2006, Nigeria return to the World Cup this summer without a Finals victory in 12 years.
For while round of 16 appearances in 1994 and 1998 suggested at a bright future ahead for the Super Eagles, they have failed to build on that foundation despite possessing a pool of players currently plying their trade at some of football’s most prestigious clubs.
An inferior head-to-head record against Angola in qualifying saw them fail to make it four years ago, while in 2002 they picked up just a single point. It means Nigerian fans must hark back to June 1998 – when they defeated Bulgaria and Spain in the same week – for their last cherished victories.
So can a tournament on their own continent spark a revival? On first glance, the stats don’t offer much promise. Qualification was again a struggle, indeed if not for a shock Tunisia loss against Mozambique, captain Nwankwo Kanu and co. would once again be facing a summer at home.
They also failed to inspire at the African Cup of Nations in January, so unconvincing were their performances that even a semi-final spot failed to rescue manager Shaibu Amodu’s job.
Yet all is not lost for Nigeria, and it is the man appointed as Amodu’s replacement who gives reason for optimism. Lars Lagerback is charged with steering the Nigerians out of Group B – where they face Argentina, Greece and South Korea – and his record in nine years as Sweden boss suggests that he is more than capable of doing so.
He was the first man to guide Sweden to four consecutive international tournaments, and has a 100% success rate when it comes to negotiating the group stage – his Swedish outfit did so successfully at both the 2002 and 2006 tournaments.
After only being appointed in February, Lagerback has not spent much time with his first team squad, but the fact that he has named 11 forwards in his provisional 30-man squad gives a strong hint as to what sort of mentality he’ll be adopting when Nigeria kick off their campaign against Diego Maradona’s side in Johannesburg.
But it’s worth remembering that his Swedish teams were often built on a solid defence and conservative midfield, with the creative touches focused on the wings and in attack, so don’t expect too much of a gung-ho approach.
His ability to motivate top players is his undoubted advantage over his under performing predecessors, and it’s this trait that should invigorate the likes of Kanu, Oba Martins, Yakubu and Peter Odemwingie, securing passage into the next round in the process and continuing Lagerback’s impressive World Cup record.