As the first segment of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 has been decided, Nigeria and France will kick off the second segment in their game at the Estádio Nacional de Brasilia in Brasília. So far, two games in the Round of 16 have been decided by penalty kicks, and as Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and Greece have been eliminated, there has been little hesitation in pointing to controversial officiating during the knockout round. The game between France and Nigeria is bound to attract a similar flare of attention as both teams compete to advance to the quarter-finals, and as Nigeria continues to dodge inquiry regarding a bonus pay dispute that occurred last week.
Following an underwhelming opening draw against Iran, Nigeria showed progress in group play by handing Bosnia-Herzegovina a 1-0 upset and giving the Argentine squad a run for its money in a telling, yet upsetting, 2-3 loss. Strikers Emmanuel Emenike and Peter Odemwingie have contributed to the Super Eagle’s speed up top and have proven disruptive against opposing teams’ defenses. However, much of the glory has gone to Ahmed Musa after the midfielder netted both goals against Argentina.
Although the loss to Argentina left Nigeria as the second seed in group play, the Super Eagles demonstrated their capacity to evolve for the better during the tournament. The last time Nigeria qualified for the Round of 16 was back in 1998, the year that host nation France took the World Cup title.
France finished at the top of their group and claims a total of eight goals overall this World Cup (compared to Nigeria’s three goals). Les Bleus striker Karim Benzema gave a great display by netting a hat trick against Honduras, however manager Didier Deschamps has been insistent that his players remain focused and not take Nigeria lightly.
Nigeria presents a stiffer offensive competition for the French and will most likely be looking closely to the factors that led to the French concession of two goals against Switzerland. Following the match, the French defense was deemed fickle and liable to breakdown despite adequate performances against Ecuador and Honduras. Nigeria also stands to benefit from an injured Mamadou Sakho, whose absence as a central player could prove costly for Les Bleus.
Both teams have expressed respect for the opposition as the match approaches. Every game beyond group play is taken as seriously as if it were the final match for Deschamps, and both teams have been careful not to focus too much on Nigeria’s strike last week that involved the undelivered spoils of good performance.
Last Thursday the Nigerian squad refused to practice until they were given the bonuses they were promised for making it to the Round of 16. When the issue was presented to French defender Bacary Sagna for comment, it was evident that Sagna’s response was a calculated one. Rather than revel in the Nigerian turpitude, Sagna instead focused on Nigeria as being the “best African team around.” This is most likely an effect of France coming back from an embarrassing display in the 2010 World Cup, where both players and the coach at the time, Raymond Domenech, were criticized by an onlooking French nation for dissention and poor sportsmanship.
Both teams will understandably want to look past the media’s clout as they prepare to fight for a slot in the quarter-finals. The French three-pronged attack will keep the Nigerians’ hands full defensively, however the Super Eagles are liable to take advantage of a fickle French defense with a well-paced counter-attack. The Nigerian squad will look for a victory in spite of the pay dispute that has captured the public’s eye. The winner of today’s match will play the victor of the Germany-Algeria match in the quarter-finals on July 4.
Read more Guardian Liberty Voice Coverage on the FIFA World Cup Round of 16
Commentary by Courtney Anderson