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For Nigeria, Only Constant Is Change

By James Rupert
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 6, 1998; Page D6


LAGOS, Nigeria — On Bar Beach, in the ramshackle bars and restaurants that face the pounding surf of the Gulf of Guinea, the talk these days over pepper soup, yams and "bush meat," turns easily to the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament.

"We are proud," said Ibrahim Duru, who ponders soccer between jobs as a flower seller and a tennis coach. "We feel we are sending the strongest African team ever to the World Cup."

Two years after beating Brazil and Argentina to win the Olympic gold medal, Nigeria gets more respect than is normally accorded African teams in a sport dominated by Europe and Latin America. Only once has an African team, Cameroon in 1990, gotten as far as the World Cup's quarterfinal round.

Still, fans and opponents say, Nigeria's team — the Super Eagles — combines remarkable talent with remarkable instability. Nigeria will be one of the tournament's least predictable teams, some analysts say, capable of falling apart in the opening round or seizing the Cup altogether.

The team's results in three exhibitions against World Cup-bound teams — increasingly bad losses to Germany, Yugoslavia and yesterday the Netherlands — seem to make the former more likely. However, Nigeria's coach is Bora Milutinovic, the globetrotter who has led Costa Rica, Mexico and, in 1994, the United States to impressive World Cup performances. And he says "the Nigerians are maybe my best players ever in ability." But he concedes that the team is unformed. "We must work on our field tactics . . . on playing these talents together," he said in a telephone interview.

Most countries named — or all but named — their 22-man rosters well before this week's deadline. Milutinovic juggled personnel down to the final days. And his group, which includes former D.C. United defender Ben Iroha, will have little time to knit as a team before begining play in what may well be the tournament's most challenging first-round group. Nigeria opens June 13 against Spain, then faces Bulgaria and Paraguay.

Whatever the final lineup, Milutinovic will field a team rich with dangerous forwards who play for top European clubs, including one player who may be one of the tournament's most remarkable comeback stories.

Nwankwo Kanu, a 22-year-old striker who helped lead Nigeria to the Olympic gold medal and plays alongside Brazil's Ronaldo at Italian powerhouse Inter Milan, seemed headed for an early retirement in September 1996 when team doctors found a deformed aortic heart valve. He ultimately was sent to the Cleveland Clinic, where he underwent surgery in November. Following his recovery, Inter Milan was slow to reinstate him, but he played his first full game since the operation in Nigeria's exhibition against Germany in April.

Over the past four years, Nigeria's emergence as an international power has come with a constantly changing roster and a succession of five coaches. And politics and disorganization have hampered Nigeria's preparations for this World Cup. A two-year-old feud between Nigeria's military government and South Africa over Nigeria's controversial human rights record led to Nigeria being excluded from February's African Nations Cup tournament. Nigeria won the tournament in 1994 and would have been the hands-down favorite this year.

That tournament should have been a main event in selecting and melding the Nigerian team, and Nigeria managed to schedule only three warmup matches by way of replacement — and the results got progressively worse. It lost to Germany, 2-1, April 22 in Cologne; it lost to Yugoslavia, 3-0, in Belgrade on May 29 and yesterday it got pounded by the Netherlands, 5-1, in Amsterdam.

Players likely to make the team have been arguing for months with the Nigerian Football Association — a government-appointed controlling body — over how much they should be paid for playing in the World Cup.

Nigeria's broad talent pool and its disarray are underscored by the fact that Milutinovic "is almost choosing from among three separate [national] teams" in picking this summer's squad, said Al-Jerry Odey, a journalist for a leading Nigerian soccer magazine, Complete Football.

Nigeria's 1994 World Cup team, which played impressively before barely losing to Italy in the second round, was considerably different from the 1996 Olympic squad. After becoming Nigeria's coach last December, Milutinovic gathered a third, untested squad and immediately won a four-nation tournament in Hong Kong.

Nigerian soccer specialists worry that Nigeria will enter the World Cup with a talent-rich team that has not had time to mesh. "The problem with Nigerian players is that everyone wants to play up front. Nobody wants to play in the back," said Odey.

Columnist Ikeddy Isiguzo was more blunt in May in the Lagos-based daily, Vanguard, begging that what Nigeria really needs is for international soccer authorities to "Please Postpone the World Cup."

"Time is a problem," conceded Milutinovic — especially since, in his view, Nigeria's critical game is the opener against Spain. Although Spain is favored to the group, Nigeria is given a good chance of beating Bulgaria and Paraguay for second place, and thus a spot in the second round.

The Nigerians' rise has been remarkably unstable since a black day in Foxboro, Mass., in the 1994 World Cup. Nigeria had advanced to the second round and, astonishingly, was on the brink of beating Italy, 1-0, with about a minute to play in regulation. Needing only to slow down the game and play careful defense, the Nigerians let Italy tie the score. In overtime, the resurrected Italians scored again and Nigeria's dream dissolved. Nigeria's Dutch coach, Clemens Westerhof, had built that team over five years — but with many fans blaming him for the loss, he flew home to the Netherlands.

Nigeria then tried a series of coaches, including Westerhof's Dutch assistant, Johannes Bonfrere, who took them to the 1996 Olympic gold medal. Bonfrere left after the Olympics, complaining about what he said was interference in running the team from the Nigerian government and football association.

Milutinovic is part of the reason for their high hopes. This summer, he will coach in his fourth World Cup, setting a record along with Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira, who is leading the Saudi Arabian team.

In 1986, Milutinovic took Mexico as far as the quarterfinals for only its second time. In 1990, tiny Costa Rica hired him for its World Cup debut only a few months before the tournament, and got to the second round. Having also guided the Americans to the second round in 1994, Milutinovic was hired by Nigeria "as someone who turns teams into overachievers" and who, in his fourth try, "must want very badly to win," said Odey.

Milutinovic says he took the job despite a more lucrative offer from Iran for one reason. "The Nigerian team," he said, "has better chances."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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