Nigeria have the ability to become the first African country to get past the World Cup group phase on three separate occasions but are increasingly an unpredictable force.
Africa’s most populous nation advanced to the second round in their maiden World Cup finals appearance in 1994 and again four years later in France and will be fancied to finish among the top two in Group F where they meet former world champions Argentina, debutants Bosnia and Iran.
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But the burden of expectation has often tripped up the “Super Eagles”, who represent a country with passionate, demanding and fickle fans who easily turn on their team when results are not achieved.
As in the United States in 1994, Nigeria arrive at the World Cup as African champions but their current side has none of the charisma and strong personalities of two decades ago when the team was captained by Stephen Keshi, who is now the coach, and featured established players like Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and Rashidi Yekini.
That team came very close to a famous victory, too – leading Italy with minutes to go in the second round in Boston before losing in extra time.
Keshi’s current squad has no international stars – their two most influential players come from the Premier League but neither John Obi Mikel of Chelsea nor Liverpool’s Victor Moses hold down regular places at their club sides.
Yet Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations last year, after a stuttering start and winning with a swagger despite holding out little hope before the tournament started.
They eliminated hot favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals in a display of tough tournament temperament they will need in Brazil.
But six months later at last year’s Confederation Cup in Brazil they were outclassed in defeats to Uruguay and world champions Spain, patently inferior to their South American and European opponents.
World Cup qualification for Nigeria came against modest opposition – their draw in the play-off round in October and November against Ethiopia was the easiest of the five African countries who went on to reach the finals.
It means the Super Eagles have an enigmatic air about them with the potential to advance well into the knockout rounds but also largely untested and relatively inexperienced.
Much of their game is based on pacey attack, with a lot of emphasis on wide play, but their main finisher, Emmanuel Emenike, is often guilty of not taking his chances, while their defence has an air of vulnerability.
Five to watch:
Vincent Enyeama, goalkeeper (Lille); age 31; 89 caps. Captained Nigeria to the 2013 African Cup of Nations title. Was in goal against England at the 2002 World Cup and played in all three Nigeria games at the 2010 World Cup. Named best player in the Israeli league in 2009 and moved to France in 2011.
Efe Ambrose, centre-back (Celtic); age 25; 35 caps. Won a first cap in 2008 but did not play again for three years before quickly securing a regular right-back berth in the Nigeria line-up. Signed for the Scottish champions Celtic in 2012 after two years playing in Israel. Says he spends his holidays playing football.
John Obi Mikel, midfielder (Chelsea); age 27; 58 caps. He is used in a more attacking role by his country who do not have a playmaker but is much more effective as a crunching midfielder. Obi Mikel, who, as a teenager, was the subject of a tug of war over his services between Chelsea and Manchester United, has not been able to command a regular berth at his London club. His real name is John Obinna but the Obi Mikel tag has stuck since the Nigeria Football Association botched his paperwork ahead of a Fifa youth tournament. Missed the last World Cup through injury.
Victor Moses, striker (Liverpool); age 23; 19 caps. Former England under-21 international who changed his allegiance after growing up as an asylum seeker in Britain. Was first spotted by Crystal Palace, who sold him for £2.5 million (Dh15.4m) to Wigan Athletic, who in turn sold him to Chelsea. This season he has been on loan at Liverpool, featuring mainly in his favourite left wing position.
Emmanuel Emenike, striker (Fenerbahce); age 26; 19 caps. Top scorer at the African Cup of Nations finals last year despite suffering serious injury in the semi-final that robbed him of a chance to feature in the final. Also scored the vital goals for Nigeria in the World Cup qualification play-offs. Arrested but later released in Turkey for alleged match fixing.
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