CAPE TOWN – Boasting several top players based in Europe and a history of being a threat in each of their previous showings at the World Cup, a lot of Africa’s hopes at the global soccer showpiece taking place in Russia rest with the Super Eagles, who are something of a constant feature seeing that they have been at five of the previous six tournaments.
There is belief that if a team from the continent can negotiate their way past the quarter-finals - a record set by Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana - it is Nigeria, whose squad personnel is used to rubbing shoulders with the best in Europe.
The expectations are obviously high, and this is the stage where coach Gernot Rohr has been waiting to launch himself.
The German will be leading a team to the World Cup for the first time in his coaching career, one that includes being at the helm in Burkina Faso and Gabon. Rohr came under heavy criticism about a year ago when Nigeria were beaten 2-0 by South Africa in their own backyard in the opening match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualification phase. The Super Eagles had never ever lost to Bafana Bafana in a qualifying match.
It didn’t take long before flaws were picked out in his methods despite this being his first defeat in just under a year in charge and having taken over a side that had failed to qualify for two successive continental competitions.
Nigeria’s impressive qualification display, brushing aside Cameroon, Zambia and Algeria in what was very much the Group of Death in the CAF qualifiers for the World Cup, was total redemption for Rohr - also suggesting if they carried that form to Russia they could possibly be unstoppable.
Nigeria will face familiar foes in Argentina, but also have to double their efforts against Croatia and debutants Iceland when they meet in Group D.
If Lionel Messi turns up for Argentina and leads from the front, then it is possible that the Super Eagles could be left to fight it out for second place with Luka Modric’s Croatia, but ignoring Iceland by taking them lightly would be folly - as England will tell you.
Star Player: A squad effort
Who isn’t an influential player in Rohr’s squad? That really should be the question. This team has no shortage of talent and match-winners, so any of them could be hugely instrumental.
For instance, captain John Obi Mikel will look to show his class in what might possibly be his final World Cup at age 31. Although he’s vanished into obscurity by moving to the Chinese Super League since January last year, Mikel, a man closing in on a century of appearances for his national team, has continued to be a vital cog and heartbeat of the Super Eagles.
His ex-teammate at Chelsea in Victor Moses will also have a big responsibility on his shoulders to lift the side against Argentina, Croatia and Iceland.
Moses, who plays a more advanced attacking role for the Super Eagles than at his English Premier League club, has also shown himself to be quite the goal poacher in a national team shirt.
And then there is Ahmed Musa, who has rediscovered his form on loan at Russia’s CSKA Moscow following a tough year at Leicester City in England.
The 25-year-old forward has had to work his way back to full fitness after enduring an awful spell at the King Power Stadium, where he didn’t kick a ball with the senior team, occasionally being asked to train with the reserves, until he returned to the Russia Premier League in January.
Even his arrival back there wasn’t as smooth as he’d hoped because of a lack of match fitness and he only began making a meaningful contribution more than a month later.
But once he got going there was no stopping him, being the Musa of old: assisting and getting the crucial goals for CSKA both in the league and in Europe.
This being the World Cup, it is likely that some players, flying under the radar for most of the qualification phase even though they made a sizeable contribution, will step up on this big stage.