World Cup 2014: Nigeria national soccer team guide

A QUEST FOR RELEVANCE

It hasn’t been an easy go for the Nigerian national team at the World Cup, having missed out on the tournament in 2006 and failing to advance to the knockout round since 1998. The pride-filled outfit is once again undergoing a transformation under head coach Stephen Keshi. Mainstays such as Seattle Sounders forward Obafemi Martins, longtime captain Joseph Yobo, Villarreal striker Ikechukwu Uche and QPR defender Taye Taiwo weren’t in Keshi’s plans for qualifying, although Keshi has brought Yobo back into the team to shore up the backline.

WORLD CUP PROSPECTS

The Super Eagles are the big wild card in this group. You kind of feel like they could struggle in the opener against a disciplined Iran side and fade away quickly, or their cadre of talented top-level players could inspire some magic. They have pace, power, technical skill in the midfield, and an army of finishers up top. But what of the defense? That's the question. Yobo is a good leader, but he's no match for Messi, Aguero, Dzeko, etc. Can the rest of the relatively young backline withstand the onslaught that is sure to come.

Keep an eye on that third match, against Argentina. Not only could it decide the Nigerians' fate, but it will be another chance at revenge against Messi & Co. A handful of players on both sides took part in a thrilling 1-0 Argentine win at the 2010 World Cup and before that, another 1-0 win for the Argentines in the 2008 Olympic final

GROUP F SCHEDULE

June 16: vs. Iran, Curitiba
June 21: vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cuiaba
June 25: vs. Argentina, Porto Alegre

STARS TO WATCH

John Obi Mikel, M, Chelsea (left): The 2013 Nigerian Sportsman of the Year appears to be the Super Eagles’ new leader. The Chelsea mainstay is a defensive stalwart for his club, but has shown brilliance getting forward for country, not to mention his deadly accurate set-piece ability.

Emmanuel Emenike, F, Fenerbahçe: The young striker is coming into his own. His brace in Nigeria’s away leg of a World Cup qualifying playoff against Ethiopia on Oct. 13 sent his side well on their way to Brazil and solidified his place as Keshi’s top choice up top.

Victor Moses, F, Liverpool: The versatile winger is making a push to start for Liverpool, where he is on loan from Chelsea, and he’s a first choice for Nigeria, especially after he opened the scoring in the Super Eagles’ 2-0 World Cup-clinching victory over Ethiopia on Nov. 16.

THE COACH

Stephen Keshi (right) became one of two people to win the Africa Cup of Nations as both a player and a coach after he led the Super Eagles to this year’s title in February. He won with Nigeria as a player in 1994. Now he’s tasked with leading his team to the knockout round for the first time since 1998, and he’s doing it with a transformed roster that has brought about its fair share of criticism.

HOW THEY QUALIFIED

WCQ record: 3-0-3 12 pts. / 11 GF, 4 GA (first place in Africa’s Group F, beat Ethiopia in playoff)

Nigeria all but sealed their trip to Brazil when they pinched a 2-1 victory over Ethiopia, winner of Africa’s Group A and gunning for their first-ever World Cup berth, in the away leg of the two-leg playoff. The Super Eagles then sealed the deal with a 2-0 victory at home on Nov. 16 to become Africa’s first country to write their ticket to Brazil. It all came after Nigeria easily bested Malawi, Kenya and Namibia in their group.

WORLD CUP HISTORY

Fifth appearance

Nigeria’s first trip to the World Cup came in 1994 when the United States hosted. Outside of 2006, the Super Eagles have qualified in every year since. Their most successful forays into the tournament came in their first two appearances. In '94, Nigeria advanced out of their group and lost 2-1 to Italy in the first knockout round. Then in 1998, Nigeria won their group, which consisted of Spain, Paraguay and Bulgaria, only to lose 4-1 to Denmark in the knockout round.

MLS/USA CONNECTIONS

Obafemi Martins has scored 17 goals in 32 appearances for Nigeria, although he has recently fallen out of favor with the national team … Toronto FC striker Bright Dike is just getting started with his international career. The former Notre Dame star received his first call up to the Super Eagles in November 2012 and was then called up for the second leg of their playoff against Ethiopia and later scored his first international goal in a 2-2 draw against Italy in a friendly on Nov. 18 … Midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo, who has made one appearance for Nigeria, played with the Columbus Crew from 2008-11 … In all, 16 Nigerians play or have played in MLS.