When was the last time two nations faced each other for the first time at a FIFA World Cup? To find out, one certainly has to dig deep in the almanacs but those two nations don’t carry the name of Argentina and Nigeria.
The encounter at the Krestovsky Stadiumin in Saint Petersburg on June 26 will be the fifth time that the Albiceleste and the Super Eagles come up against each other in the group stages of the World Cup since 1994.
Argentina, currently sitting fourth in the FIFA world rankings as opposed to Nigeria’s 50th position, are the clear favourites heading into next summer’s fixture but historians will recall that each time Nigeria stood in Argentina’s way, they eventually failed to return home with the big prize. Some even go as far and talk about a Nigeria ‘curse’.
And surprisingly so as, with the exception of the 1996 Olympics when Argentina left the pitch on the losing side, they always prevailed over their African counterparts in official games.
In 1994, the Albiceleste came from behind to claim all three points after Samson Siasia had got Nigeria off the mark, while in 2002 a single Gabriel Batistuta strike was enough to see off the Super Eagles, followed by 1-0 and 3-2 wins in 2010 and 2014 respectively.
But despite the fact that the current Nigerian side is a far cry from the one they fielded in the nineties, when they were packed with talents such as Nwankwo Kanu, Sunday Oliseh, Peter Rufai, Celestine Babayaro and Jay-Jay Okocha, they stand a chance of upsetting the odds against a side in disarray.
The Argentine press even broke the news that there are some problems between the squad and manager Jorge Sampaoli with some of the biggest names unable to buy into his style of play. Besides, striker Gonzalo Higuain could be left at home, goalkeeper Sergio Romero lacks playing time at Manchester United, their midfield is short of creativity and quality, while the days of Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel are just a distant memory resulting in their back-line looking as shaky as ever.
However, Nigeria are no world beaters and unless you consider John Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo two forces to be reckoned with, no big name will board the Nigerian plane for Russia.
Yet, despite the huge gulf of individual talent, squad depth and tournament experience, it has always been a tight and tense affair and it will be no different this time with Nigeria’s 4-2 win over Argentina in a friendly game in October speaking volumes.
On top of that, the Africans’ indomitable spirit, physicality, strong work rate and the renaissance of Chelsea winger Victor Moses could pose a serious threat to the South Americans.
Both sides are weaker than in the past but with Argentina stuttering their way to the World Cup following an appalling qualifying campaign, Nigeria can expose their weak spots and finally avenge their past failures.
Lionel Messi, however, better ensure it doesn’t happen as Russia 2018 will be his last chance to lift the trophy given that he will be 35 by the time the next tournament in 2022 gets underway.
It’s no mystery that in order to finally be acknowledged as the greatest ever footballer, Messi needs to win a World Cup and to do so, a fifth consecutive victory over Nigeria must essentially serve as a springboard for glory.
However, should history repeat itself and the curse carry on, the Maradona nostalgics’ unshakable conviction that El Pibe was something else will only grow.
Featured photograph: Wikimedia Commons