Nigerian Soccer Is On a Roll After Strong Showing In World Cup

Ironically, its success is reflected in its recent loss: All their best players were in Europe

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ENGLAND may be the birthplace of soccer, a mecca for all who follow the game, and home to some of the best players in the world. But it's no longer king of the English-speaking soccer world.

Nigeria's recent successes have put it ahead of England, Scotland, and the United States, and behind only Ireland as the top English-speaking soccer nation. And considering Ireland's recent loss to Austria (ranked 52nd) and its 0-0 draw with Liechtenstein (not in the top 150), Nigeria has a legitimate claim to preeminence.

"The basic fact is that lots of Nigerians now play in Europe, and that makes a great improvement when they are playing for their country," said Nigerian national-team midfielder Edema Fuludu in an interview before his US Cup match here June 11. Like most players on national soccer teams, Fuludu plays professionally - in his case, for a pro team in Turkey.

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Africa first gained attention when Cameroon made its spectacular showing in the 1990 World Cup - nearly beating England in the quarterfinals.

"It was a great run for the whole of Africa," Fuludu says. The 1990 Cameroon team was "a club of robust, strong boys who showed that we could play in Europe."

Since then, African players have been invaluable to European clubs. When Ajax of Amsterdam won the European championships in May, it was Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu who made the pass that set up Ajax's game-winning goal.

In their first World Cup appearance last year, Nigeria finished atop a tough group that included Argentina and Bulgaria, and advanced to the second round. Quarterfinal opponent Italy needed two goals from superstar Roberto Baggio - one of them two minutes from the end of the game - to win.

"We all thought we would do well [in the World Cup], but we were surprised to get to that extent," Nigerian defender Godwin Okpara says. "After the World Cup, that really gave us confidence."

"Optimistically, I think we can be one of the five best teams in the world," Fuludu says. "We are working toward that, and we have endless resources when it comes to player development."

But disorganization has dogged the Nigerians since their good showing in the World Cup. The 1995 Youth World Cup (which Nigeria won in 1993) was supposed to be held in Nigeria. Instead FIFA, soccer's international ruling body, moved the event to Qatar just weeks before it was to begin, citing security problems.

Also, the Nigerian team sent to America to open the US Cup '95 tournament Sunday with a game against the US that was hurriedly assembled. Some players arrived the night before the game. They had never met, much less played with other members of the team.

The team played well, but lost to a determined US squad, 3-2. US defenseman Marcelo Balboa pointed out that the team the Nigerians fielded was not an inferior squad.

"To us, that was their first team," he said after the match.

Nigerian coach Shaibu Amodu was less enthusiastic. "I don't like to toe the line of playing better and losing," he said. "I want to win. What is important is the physical preparation of the team, and that was far below what I expected."

"Most of our players play in Europe, and the logistics of putting a team together is difficult for us," he added.

The Nigerians play Colombia on Saturday at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

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