And so the sun has set on another tournament for Nigeria. And as it almost always is with the Super Eagles, it happened in heart-wrenching style.
Riyad Mahrez’s last-minute free-kick that sent Algeria to the AFCON 2019 final at the expense of Gernot Rohr’s side was rather reminiscent of the Marcos Rojo goal for Argentina that consigned the Eagles to a group stage exit at last year’s World Cup.
It was a painful, but deserved, defeat in Cairo, in a game where the Super Eagles were far from their best and were lucky to be in the game for as long as they did.
In a tournament in which Nigeria hardly showed any real form of conviction, despite four wins, one of which involved knocking out holders Cameroon, you could say this loss was coming.
This defeat also means Nigeria have lost in the semi-finals in five of their past seven AFCON tournaments.
It’s the umpteenth near-miss on the continental front for Nigeria, which, if not for the triumph in 2013, would almost definitely have them as underachievers. But five semi-final exits in seven tournaments does seem like the kind of record that would cause many to be concerned. Why are we always getting so near and yet falling short?
You can hardly term it as a case of mental block, these frequent semi-final exits started in 2002, and virtually no one in that side still plays, and John Obi Mikel – who didn’t feature regularly in Egypt – is the only player to have witnessed three of those five last four eliminations. The playing personnel constantly varies, as does the coaching staff, as well as the opponents – none of those defeats have come against the same nation more than once – but the outcome is similar, semi-final and bust.
Maybe it’s the luck of the draw and the quality of the opponent – those defeats have come against Senegal, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Ghana and now Algeria. Maybe, for all the fan demands and expectations, we’ve never been the strongest side on the continent in a while (Ivory Coast were the toughest opposition we beat in the triumph of 2013, which featured games against the likes of Ethiopia and Burkina Faso).
Maybe this is our level of quality, and perhaps another reason why it’s rather absurd to call for Rohr to get the sack.
If this is our level, then it’s by no means a bad one, frequent semi-final exits may signal heartbreak, but frequenting in semi-finals also signals consistency. And yet the consistency of reaching the latter stages of the continental tournament seems to come with a consistency in ultimate disappointment (if not necessarily surprise).
It’s the kind of thing that makes you think ‘if I keep knocking on the door and I don’t get, then what’s the whole point?’