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AFCON 2023: Nigeria's 'Super Eagles' flying high again

Olaf Jansen
January 24, 2024

Nigeria traveled to Ivory Coast with their ears ringing from all the criticism they'd been hearing. After a successful group stage, coach Jose Peseiro's team are suddenly considered a title contender.

Temitayo Olufisayo Olaoluwa Aina of Nigeria heads the ball
The Super Eagles of Nigeria have found their wings again at AFCON 2023Image: Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

Jose Peseiro couldn't stifle a chuckle. As Nigeria's national team coach sat in the bowels of the venerable Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium in Abidjan on Monday evening he was clearly enjoying the post-match press conference. His team had just beaten Guinea-Bissau 1-0 in their final group stage game of the 34th Africa Cup of Nations. After a draw against Equatorial Guinea (1-1) and two wins against Ivory Coast (1-0) and now Guinea-Bissau, his team had eased into the last 16. Still, he wasn't completely satisfied.

"We wanted to go through on the first position of the table," he said. "But that was not possible today, because to do that, we would have had to score five or six goals — not possible."

Peseiro was referring to the fact that Equatorial Guinea had beaten hosts Ivory Coast 4-0 in the parallel match, overtaking Nigeria in the group due to their better goal difference.

The coach is convinced that by delivering similar performances to Monday's, his team can go deep into this Africa Cup of Nations.

"Our tactic today was to control the game," he said. "We had two or three more opportunities to score, but we didn't. The main thing was, we didn't concede a goal, so we won and had our result."

Change of mood at home

The mood surrounding the Nigeria national team has been transformed in recent days. Peseiro's team have restored the faith of millions of Nigerian fans in the national team, after they had been heavily criticized in the run-up to the tournament.

The 63-year-old again couldn't stifle a smug smile, when he noted that his team had proved their critics wrong.

Jose Peseiro
Jose Peseiro weathered a storm of criticism prior to AFCONImage: BackpagePix/empics/picture alliance

Guinea-Bissau coach Baciro Cande was also duly impressed by the strength of his opponents.

"Nigeria were strong. Very stable defensively and of course very dangerous up front with their pace," the coach said. He believes that Nigeria can go far in this tournament.

"For me, they are one of the favorites for the title," he said.

Cande is far from alone in this assessment. This is in stark contrast to just a few weeks ago, when it seemed the Nigerian Football Association wanted to see the back of their coach. After the Super Eagles failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 16 years. 

Some members of the FA's top brass had been quoted as saying that Peseiro had been relieved of his duties, after the Super Eagles had disappointed in two qualifying matches for the 2026 World Cup in November. The 1-1 draws against minnows Lesotho and Zimbabwe were far below Nigeria's high standards.

World-class attack

After all, Nigeria have several internationally recognized stars in attack including Victor Osimhen, Africa's reigning Footballer of the Year, who is regarded as world-class. In addition, Nigeria has top players of the highest caliber in Samuel Chukwueze (AC Milan), Ademola Lookman (Atalanta Bergamo), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City), Moses Simon (FC Nantes) and Ahmed Musa (Sivasspor).

Victor Osimhen
Victor Osimhen described the win over Ivory Coast as a "big statement game" for NigeriaImage: BackpagePix/empics/picture alliance

Although the team has had to cope with the absence of Taiwo Awoniyi (Nottingham Forest), Victor Boniface (Bayer Leverkusen) and Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City) due to injuries susstained before the tournament, the three-time title-winning country certainly see themselves as title contenders.

Seyi Akinwunmi, a former vice president of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) has been attending the matches as a neutral spectator. He says his country and its fans always anticipate the national team faring well at major tournaments. High expectations for any coach.

"Nobody in Nigeria is satisfied with the coach. That's our nature in Nigeria — everybody there is a potential coach," Akinwunmi explained. "Thats part of the deal, when you are coach in this country."

Former NFF Vice President Seyi Akinwunmi
Seyi Akinwunmi believes Nigeria have the potential to go all the way at AFCON 2023Image: Olaf Jansen/DW

Coach under fire

Peseiro has faced enormous criticism following the disappointng results of recent months. Fans, former internationals and even members of the NFF have accused the globetrotter (15 different coaching positions in Europe, Asia and Africa over the last 20 years) of lacking tact and tactical sophistication. Sources from within the NFF let it be known that they were unable to sack the coach because they simply didn't have the funds to cover his severance pay.

The Nigerian Football Federation has been struggling financially for years, despite receiving generous support from FIFA. This is why for some time, the national team coach has been directly employed and paid by the Ministry of Sport — not the NFF.

Frank Onyeka of Nigeria and Famana Quizera of Guinea Bissau battle for the ball
Despite their attacking talent, Nigeria advanced to the knockout phase by condeding but one goalImage: Daga Spotz/Shengolpixs/IMAGO

Accordingly, the team's expectations before the Africa Cup were rather low. And the AFCON opener against Equatorial Guinea was not up to scratch. Far too many chances were wasted, there was a distinct lack of efficiency in front of goal. However, things looked completely different in the following match, against Ivory Coast. The Super Eagles dominated the match against the highly-rated hosts and scored a deserved winner through Osimhen to win 1-0.

What was striking was that Nigeria's much-maligned defense was extremely solid against the Ivorians. And after this "big win, which was a real statement," as Peseiro put it, Nigeria are once again the talk of the town.

Title expectations

"I think we can go all the way in this tournament," former NFF Vice President Akinwunmi said. "We as Nigeria have the ability to go all the way,"

Ultimately, he — like all fans in Nigeria — expects nothing less of the Super Eagles than to bring home the title.

This article was adapted from German.