This is the sixth of a 10-part series examining some of the best performances by the Super Eagles over the last two decades i.e. from January 1, 2001 to date, in no particular order.
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 fifth entry is here.
Date: September 5, 2004
Venue: National Sports Stadium, Harare.
While the memory of 2006 World Cup qualifying is a bitter one for Nigeria, it is easy to forget that eventual group winners Angola only actually led the group for two matchdays overall.
Going into matchday four, the Super Eagles had already faltered in that infamous trip to Luanda. Nevertheless, they were a point ahead of Palancas Negras in Group 4 by virtue of a late Joseph Yobo winner in a nervy 1-0 win over Algeria two months prior. On their part, Angola had failed to press home their advantage, and needed a late equalizer to escape defeat away at the hands of Gabon.
As such, there was little as yet to suggest the disaster to come down the line.
Okocha uncertainty hampering Nigeria
It is difficult to frame it any other way: for Nigeria, this qualifying series seemed to rest almost entirely on the availability – or otherwise – of captain Jay-Jay Okocha.
Having waited years for him to move from decorating games to actually deciding them, the national team now seemed dependent on him to a crippling degree.
Ironically, the qualifying series had started without him. Two Obafemi Martins goals in the second half saw off Rwanda, and it seemed at the time that the national team would be built around the young, exciting striker from Inter.
However, his constant fitness concerns meant he was frequently unavailable, and with Christian Obodo still only budding in Nigeria colours, Okocha became a real bone of contention.
He had ducked the Unity Cup in London a couple of months earlier, and had led FA officials on a merry dance as to his flight plans for the Angola game, before ultimately failing to turn up.
This game against Zimbabwe, incidentally, was the only away game he played during the qualifiers.
As has already been stated, Zimbabwe were unbeaten coming into this fixture. While traditionally not one of the heavyweights of the African game, this was nevertheless a good Brave Warriors crop.
They had been unfortunate not to advance to the Quarter-finals from a group featuring Cameroon, Algeria and Egypt at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations. In attack, they had the great Peter Ndlovu, in the twilight of his career but still formidable on the big stage, as well as Benjani Mwaruwari, a few years away from a memorable Premier League adventure. Tinashe Nengomasha and Esrom Nyandoro provided a solid base in midfield, and Tapuwa Kapini was an eccentric young goalkeeper making a name for himself in Southern Africa.
As a plus for the Zimbabwe cause, Nigeria also had to wrestle with a number of absences through injury, most notably in defence. Joseph Yobo, Seyi Olajengbesi and George Abbey were all absent through injury, and Martins was also out.
Chukwu under pressure
A forgotten subplot here is the fact that, even while Chukwu was preparing the team and trying to navigate a tricky qualifying group, a search was being carried out for his potential replacement.
Zamalek coach Dragoslav Stepanovic was strongly linked at the time. NFA Chairman Ibrahim Galadima even volunteered the information that the Egyptian club were demanding $250,000 in compensation, suggesting there had been talks. Nothing, however, came of that particular situation
That uncertainty persisted for months, to the point that Chukwu himself seemed wary of it all. “I am not saying I’m the best person for this job, but since I came into it, I have offered my best in all circumstances,” he contended. “The NFA is free to take an expatriate if they wish. I am not bothered.”
It does provide some context: for every game he was in charge, the former Nigeria captain was both under immense pressure to justify his continued stay and distracted by the knowledge his replacement was being actively head-hunted. This game against Zimbabwe was no different.
Lineup (4-3-3): Vincent Enyeama; Chidi Odiah, Joseph Enakarhire, Obinna Nwaneri, Garba Lawal; Seyi Olofinjana, Jay-Jay Okocha, Ifeanyi Ekwueme; John Utaka, Julius Aghahowa, Yakubu Aiyegbeni.
Chukwu named a very experimental back four. The versatile Garba Lawal played at left-back, and there was a debut for Chidi Odiah at right-back, as well as Obinna Nwaneri.
In hindsight, it could all have gone badly wrong. In terms of quality, Nwaneri was easily one of the weakest centre-backs to play for Nigeria in the 2000s, and Enakarhire struggled when required to defend going backwards.
Instead, this game demonstrated the value of a cohesive midfield. That makeshift defence was adequately shielded by a midfield three which allowed Olofinjana to play even deeper, picking up second balls. Ekwueme offered energy, while Okocha provided the ball-carrying and invention.
It also helped that, barely three minutes in, the deadlock was broken.
Ndlovu, having received the ball following a clearance from the back, stumbled over his own feet in the middle of the park, allowing Olofinjana to neatly retrieve the ball. He immediately played forward to Aghahowa, who bounced a pass off Utaka and sprinted into space, before finishing coolly.
A masterclass of movement from the striker, but Utaka’s intelligence and appreciation of space is what truly makes it. It is a shame he was often pressed into service as an out-and-out winger, as in this move he demonstrated his merit (as he did in the game against Cameroon earlier in the series) as a second-striker/inside forward type.
By the 26th minute when Enakarhire capitalized on a weak Kapini punch to hook in a second, the game was pretty much settled as a contest.
Instead, it became the Jay-Jay Show.
Jay-Jay has his fun
The Nigeria captain was, by this point, on the wane in terms of his career progression. He had suffered for form in the second half of the 2003/04 season for Bolton, blaming it on fatigue from the AFCON, and had begun to get a bit more stick than carrot from Bolton boss Sam Allardyce. There was, however, no doubt that, on his day, he remained capable of enjoying himself on the pitch.
In the 10th minute, he received the ball in the centre circle, and proceeded to completely humiliate his marker by feinting one way, doing a step-over and going the other. He then played a no-look pass to Odiah, before sprinting deep into the Zimabawe half, receiving the return ball and, out of legs and options, firing wide from the edge of the box.
In another instance, he brought the ball down right on the touch line and, though sandwiched between two opponents, drags the ball back, and with his heel smuggles it out to Osaze Odemwingie in close attendance, before wriggling free and playing a one-two with Lawal.
Indeed, some of his display here borders on hedonism. In one scenario he backs the ball and tries an extravagant back-heel to no one, almost like he was trying the idea out; in another he executes a superfluous and over-hit rabona out to the wing, which Utaka is unable to keep in play.
However, it was not all indulgence. For one thing, it was his powerful run into the Zimbabwe box that won the (admittedly soft) penalty for Yakubu to make the game safe at 3-0. Another thing that’s often overlooked is that, especially against lesser teams on the continent, some of Okocha’s tricks could have a demoralizing effect, hardening their own inferior self-image.
“We played a master class team and I think we gave them too much respect especially in the first half, we were not hard enough to them,” Ndlovu accurately surmised afterward.
In truth, Zimbabwe were largely overwhelmed by the status of their opponents, and Nigeria barely got out of second gear. Aside a first-half opportunity which fell to Benjani following an Olofinjana error, the hosts failed to sustain meaningful offence.
However, this game displayed the benefit of a coherent midfield with clearly-defined roles: a controlled, nerveless performance on tricky ground. Nigeria aside, only Algeria (who got a draw) avoided defeat in Harare; Angola, Gabon and Rwanda all lost away to Zimbabwe.
This was Chukwu’s penultimate win in charge of the Super Eagles.
Following this, a run of three draws from four matches, culminating in the debacle of Kano against Angola, would see him relieved of his role. After a fruitless search that involved Philippe Troussier’s appointment and almost immediate volte face, Austin Eguavoen would step into the breach and lead the team to back-to-back wins.
Sadly, it would all be for nothing, as Nigeria failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.
This was Okocha’s last great international performance, and in many ways it was apt: full of bare piss-taking, but with just enough of a sprinkle of direct impact to make it all worth remembering with a smile.