Losing two of its first three Africa Cup of Nations final-round soccer qualifiers to Congo and Sudan put Nigeria in a hole they couldn’t dig themselves out of.
The defending champions will not be at next year’s regional championship after drawing 2-2 with visiting South Africa last week at the new Akwa Ibom stadium in Uyo. The three-time Cup winners finished third in its group behind South Africa and Congo and a point behind the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo, which advanced to the finals as the best third-place team.
The top two countries in seven groups comprising four teams, plus the best third-place finisher qualified for the finals along with host country, Equatorial Guinea.
In accepting the blame for the team’s exit, Nigeria Soccer Federation president, Amaju Pinnick, called for sober reflection instead of looking for scapegoats.
“The federation takes full responsibility for what has happened,” he said. “It is a tragedy for us to come so near and yet fail to reach the finals. This is a disappointment for us, but we gave it our best shot and supported the team fully. Our commitment is to build a sustainable soccer culture in the country and nothing has changed.”
Pinnick, who supported the appointment of a foreign coach before a presidential order led to Stephen Keshi’s return, said Nigeria’s failure to advance to the Africa Cup of Nations finals could be a blessing in disguise.
Keshi, whose contract was not renewed after the World Cup in Brazil where his team was eliminated in the second round by France, coached the West African side without a financial commitment until about a month ago when Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, intervened after the country’s soccer federation had replaced Keshi with Shaibu Amodu two weeks earlier.
“This has happened, but we believe it will work together for us to toil hard and achieve a renaissance that will take Nigeria soccer to much higher heights than it has ever been,” said Pinnick.
After earlier attributing the team’s struggles to off-field issues, Keshi hinted that Nigeria may have underestimated South Africa, which it has not lost to in 21 years.
Maybe, we took South Africa for granted and we paid dearly for this,” he said.
Hull City forward, Sone Aluko, who scored both goals against South Africa, said the team was devastated by the loss.
“I am disappointed and everybody is disappointed,” he said. “We did not get the result we wanted and we now have to pick ourselves up as a team.”
This is the second time in the last two years that Nigeria – ranked #42 in the world – will not be at the Africa Cup of Nations finals. The country did not qualify for the 2012 tournament, which Equatorial Guinea co-hosted with Gabon.
Needing just a point from its final qualifier against Cameroon which had already advanced, 1992 champions Ivory Coast advanced with a goalless draw against their opponents, who played the last half-hour without their captain, Stephane Mbia, who was issued a red card for fouling Gervinho.
Four-time champions Ghana and Guinea – which played all of its matches on the road because of the Ebola outbreak – advanced with convincing 3-1 and 2-0 wins over Togo and Uganda, respectively.
Egypt, the most successful country in the competition with seven titles, failed to qualify after finishing third in its group behind 2004 champions Tunisia and Senegal, which was a finalist 12 years ago.
The 2015 finalists are Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo, the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia and host country, Equatorial Guinea.
The tournament will be played from January 17 to February 8.