As the final whistle blew, shoulders sagged, heads dropped and the players’ expressions became blank stares. Nigeria came so close to their dream of reaching the Round of 16 and at least claiming a draw against Argentina at the fifth attempt for the first time at a FIFA World Cup – but those dreams were dashed in the space of just eight minutes plus stoppage time.
After such a dramatic finish, it was initially impossible to put the game into context. Disappointment reigned supreme, accompanied by the pain of knowing what might have been. Odion Ighalo and goalscorer Victor Moses could only describe the evening’s events as a “sad, disappointing evening” and a “tough defeat.”
Yet coach Gernot Rohr was quick to point out that this tournament is simply the beginning of the story for most of the squad: “We have a very young team that still lacks experience. We will come back stronger in four years.”
Nigeria boasted the youngest squad of any side at this World Cup. Goalkeeper Francis Uzoho is just 19, striker Alex Iwobi is 22 and defender William Troost-Ekong is only 24. The players who travelled to Russia were determined to show what they could do despite their youth. They were hungry and eager to learn, and will surely use the experience they have gained – both positive and negative – to grow and develop.
Captain Mikel John Obi is already predicting a bright future for his team-mates: “I’ve never been part of such a fun squad with such great and sociable players before. Ever since the coach joined us, we’ve had a great time. The players listen to him and want to improve, and that’s important for Nigerian football.”
Despite the disappointment, there is plenty of pride and hope. “We showed the world that Nigeria has talented players,” said defender Leon Balogun. “We showed that we are a footballing nation, and if the team stays together I hope that we can give an even better account of ourselves in four years’ time.”
Before long, those shoulders will no longer sag, heads will be held high once again and every player will be looking towards the future with confidence and anticipation.