The inability of Nigeria’s under-23 national team, Olympic Eagles to book at ticket to next year’s Games in Tokyo, Japan left the country’s soccer governing body president, Amaju Melvin Pinnick in shock at the weekend, megasportsarena.com reports.
The boss of Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) admitted as much in his reaction to the Eagles’ goalless draw with South Africa in their last group match at the Africa U23 Cup of Nations in Egypt, which mean Coach Imama Amapakabo’s boys could not pick a semi-final ticket, which Pinnick described as a rude shock to him personally.
He pointed out that the 2016 set of under-23 players actually won Nigeria’s only medal at the Rio Olympics in Brazil, and they were champions in Africa before going to the Samba Nation, such that he would have loved to see the current squad consolidate on those gains or even better them.
Sadly, reverse turned out to be the case on Friday, as Imama’s side were booted out in Egypt, following a barren draw with South Africa that was not enough to see them through, as they finished third in Group B and dropped out of contention for a place in the men’s football tournament of next year’s Olympics.
Failure to get three points at Al-Salam Stadium in Cairo also meant Imama, whose side lost 1-0 to Cote d’Ivoire in their first game then beat Zambia 3-1, only to fall short when it matter most, ended Nigeria’s lofty feat of having appeared at every other Olympics since the year 2000.
Champions in 1996 in Atlanta, USA where they won Africa’s first-ever football gold medal of the Olympics, Nigeria also participated in the tournament in Australia in 2000, but missed the event in Greece in 2004; then returned to Beijing, China in 2008 and won the silver medal.
Nigeria, though, also missed the tournament at London 2012, before returning to Rio 2016 and won the bronze medal, but will also miss Tokyo 2020, as Imama’s lads failed to rise to the occasion on a day they needed just one goal to topple the South Africans and assure of a place in the last four – irrespective of the result in the other match between Cote d’Ivoire and Zambia.
However, rather than get the cutting edge and needed accuracy, the Olympic Eagles failed to find their sting in the fore, dancing too much on the ball without effective contact or meaningful touches in the opposition critical zone.
On the other hand, the South Africans preferred to absorb the heat for the first half hour, as they contained Nigeria’s array of stars in Kelechi Nwakali, Taiwo Awoniyi, Azubuike Okechukwu, Sincere Seth and Orji Okwonkwo, alongside home-based Sunusi Ibrahim and Ndifreke Effiong.
However, on seeing that the Olympic Eagles lacked punch when it mattered, the Amaglug-glug came out to attack and thrice they came close to putting the ball in the net, but met with the alertness and agility of goalkeeper Adamu Abubakar.
Abubakar also saved the Eagles in the second half, as the South Africans fired from every angle, while Nigeria were looking to walk the ball into the net and stubbornly stuck to an ineffective strategy of trying to make hay from the wings.
Pinnick retorted: “Working together with the Ministry of Sports, we have been able to provide the team with what is required for them to excel. The team’s failure to reach the semi finals and ultimately qualify for the Olympics is a big shock.
“Three years ago, football won the only medal that Nigeria took from the Olympics in Brazil. Our expectation was that this team would qualify for Tokyo and go there to do the country proud.”