This is the first of a 10-part series examining some of the best performances by the Nigeria national team over the last two decades i.e. from January 1, 2001 to date.
This will strictly cover competitive internationals, so there is no place for, say, Nigeria’s friendly wins over Argentina in 2011 and 2017, or the win against France in 2009. There is also the possibility that a defeat might find its way into the ranking, if the actual performance was impressive enough to warrant it. Football is, after all, low-scoring and, as such, highly amenable to the effects of luck.
The first entry goes back 19 years, to a lively little kick-about in the desert that produced four goals and nipped in the bud perhaps the greatest Cinderella story football would have ever seen.
Date: July 1, 2001
Venue: Al-Merrikh Stadium, Omdurman
On the surface of it, victory over Sudan seems hardly remarkable. Context, however, is everything.
It may be difficult, 19 years on, to properly convey the stakes and the pervasive apprehension at play ahead of this fixture in Omdurman, but here goes.
Six matches into an eight-match qualifying series for the 2002 World Cup, Nigeria had accrued 10 points, two fewer than a George Weah-inspired Liberia. A sequence of only two wins in the opening five had led to the sack of Jo Bonfrere and the turning over of the Super Eagles’ fortunes to a trio of coaches: Amodu Shaibu, Stephen Keshi and Joe Erico.
Crucial to this perilous state of affairs was a complete incompetence on the road. From nine available points away from home against Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone, Nigeria had only gained one – via a goalless draw against a decidedly under-strength Black Stars – and had only scored once on their travels.
The Amodu-led consortium put its best foot forward in its first game in charge, masterminding a composed 2-0 win over group leaders Liberia in Port Harcourt to narrow the margin at the top. Following that, wins against Madagascar and Namibia over in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying put Nigeria through to the tournament in Mali; most noteworthy was the fact that the latter of those victories came in Windhoek.
Omdurman, however, would be a different proposition altogether. While clearly Nigeria had the edge in terms of quality, Sudan was still a live dog in theory: they were only a point back and, to that point, the Super Eagles aside, only they had managed a victory over Liberia. There were also legitimate concerns over the temperatures the players would have to play in, so much so that the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) had the team camp in arid Kano for a week as a form of acclimatization.
“We were training around 12 o’clock (noon), because we knew in Sudan it’s hot,” Keshi told Complete Sports.
It was even hotter by the time the team arrived in Sudan. Reportedly, during the first training session, a number of players developed nose bleeds and needed to be looked at by the doctors; so prohibitive were the conditions. Clearly, this was more than a simple game of football.
As it happens, the kick-off would be moved to the evening, making for more tolerable weather. A further upshot of this was that, rather than kicking off an hour before Liberia (who were facing Ghana in Monrovia—in theory, their toughest remaining fixture), the game against Sudan would now lag by an hour, giving the Super Eagles a bit of an advantage in terms of knowing what they would need to do in the eventuality that the game was still in the balance come the second half.
Nigeria needed Ghana to take points off Liberia in some fashion, or else it would come down to group whipping boys Sierra Leone on the final day, and the prognosis for that was hardly sunny.
In truth, there was not a lot of optimism for Ghana’s prospects either. Beyond the simmering rivalry with Nigeria, there was additional subtext in the form of a generous $5,000 donation from Lone Star captain Weah to the families of the casualties in the Accra Sport Stadium disaster, which had claimed 126 lives in May, 2001. This of course presented an ethical dilemma. It was believed that public sentiment in Ghana was very much in favour of Liberia, and that it would not be the worst thing in the world to lose in Monrovia, a ground where the hosts had yet to drop a single point in qualifying.
Lineup (4-3-3): Ike Shorunmu; Joseph Yobo, Eric Ejiofor, Taribo West, Ifeanyi Udeze; Finidi George, Jay-Jay Okocha, Karibe Ojigwe; Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Victor Agali, Julius Aghahowa
Once the game itself got underway, there seemed little nerves on the part of the Super Eagles. It took until five minutes before the break for the deadlock to finally be broken, but to that point there seemed little doubt it was coming.
In one of his more underrated performances, Okocha was mesmeric – no easy task on a horrid, bumpy surface at the Al Merrikh Stadium. He clipped the woodwork early on, and fashioned a great opportunity for Agali with a flighted delivery. With captain of the side Sunday Oliseh absent through injury, Ojigwe also stepped up with authority, getting his boot in all over the centre of the pitch and showcasing his technical quality in possession.
The real tactical point of interest, however, was on the right, where captain for the day Finidi played a slightly deeper role, with Aghahowa using his pace and movement to open up the flank for Yobo marauding forward from right-back.
It was from this zone that the opener came: Yobo and Finidi swapped passes up the wing, and the full-back teed up Okocha to blast home from the edge of the penalty area.
The scoreline might suggest that goal opened the floodgates. However, at the break Amodu instructed his team to be a little less cavalier and instead seek to take advantage of Sudan’s fervour on the break. After Yakubu made it 2-0 two minutes into the restart, there would not be another goal until Kanu came off the bench in the final 20 minutes.
His introduction provided an extra layer of guile and invention to the team’s fluid passing game, and with 12 minutes to play he fed a delightful through ball behind the hosts’ defence for Aghahowa to lash home.
By that point, the movement and constant positional switches of the wide forwards had set Sudanese heads spinning, and Aghahowa robbed the ball off a defender, ran clear and unselfishly squared for Yakubu to apply the coup de grace.
At some point during the second half, it filtered through to the bench that, improbably, Ghana had beaten Liberia in Monrovia 2-1. Only after the game did the coaches break the news to the players, however. It was a set of outcomes that swung the group, putting Nigeria a point ahead and placing their destiny back in their hands.
The Super Eagles would consolidate that position, beating arch rivals Ghana 3-0 on the final day to secure qualification to the 2002 World Cup. It all turned on that night in Omdurman, and on a result that, to date, remains Nigeria’s biggest ever win away from home.