On Saturday, eight teams will begin battle in Brazil for the Confederation Cup, the traditional dress rehearsal for the World Cup which also takes place in the Samba country next June.
Nigeria will be taking part in the competition for the first time in nearly 20 years. That first appearance in 1995 was made possible after the triumph of the Super Eagles in the African Cup of Nations a year earlier. The tournament then known as the King Fahd Cup was subsequently taken over by FIFA and renamed. Interestingly, the current coach of the Eagles was the captain when that brilliant class of 1994 turned back all comers in Tunisia.
The teams in Brazil are the various continental champions and Italy. Italy are part of the party because they were runners up to Spain, who are also World champions, in the last European Championships.
The Super Eagles who are drawn in Group B alongside Tahiti, Uruguay and Spain, play their first match on Monday against the ‘minnows’ from Tahiti. South American champions Uruguay come next on Thursday before the mother of all battles against Spain on Sunday.
Expectedly, the encounter against the World Cup holders has tended to concern the average Nigerian fan more, given the array of stars the La Furia Rogia parade. Spain on paper are the obvious favourites, but football as they say is played on grass not on paper. This may appear trite but it is time honoured. At any rate, the Eagles only recently played out a hard earned draw against Catalonia, complete with the best – Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdez, Carles Puyol- Spain have to offer.
In spite of the quality of opposition on offer and the high profile nature of the competition, Keshi is not overly bothered about the Confederation Cup. His main focus he has said repeatedly is on qualifying for the World Cup proper and thankfully that enterprise is turning out rather nicely with the outcome of the qualifiers so far.
Howbeit, the tournament is not one to be dismissed with a wave of the hand as a former Super Eagles midfielder Mutiu Adepoju points out.
“The Confederation Cup will be very interesting I can tell you that because the best of the continents will be in Brazil,” notes Mutiu who was part of Nigeria’s first appearance at the tournament in 1995.
“I am sure the Eagles who are taking part as African champions are equal to the task. The players know they are not just representing Nigeria now but the entire African continent and given the quality in the team I’m confident we will do well.
“I also feel that we are going to Brazil in high spirit given the recent results in the World Cup qualifiers. That will serve as some form of boost for the team, although I must add that the ultimate for me is qualifying for the World Cup proper next year.”
Another ex international Ifeanyi Udeze, also believes that the Eagles have nothing to worry about taking on some of the best teams in the world in Brazil, arguing that Nigeria are also among the best and that the players must believe this. His only advice is that the players need to pull in one direction at all times.
“The Confederation Cup is a big tournament and we must approach it as such and I have no doubt in my mind that we will go far,” declares a confident Udeze.
“However, the players must play like a team; that is crucial for success. If the team can play together as they did in South Africa, then they’ll go far. It is only when they neglect to pull together that problems will arise, but I don’t see that happening.
“One thing however, that gives me joy is the mentality in the team now. That will be very high given the recent successes beginning from the African Cup of Nations in South Africa. My hope is we take that spirit to Brazil and conquer.”