By PAN PYLAS
CURITIBA, Brazil (AP) — Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said Sunday that his current team could be even better than the 1994 side which reached the World Cup second round and was tipped as a possible future world champion.
Ahead of Nigeria’s first game in the World Cup against Iran in Curitiba, Keshi said his team was still young — “like a baby” — compared to the experienced crop of 1994 that lost out to eventual runner-up Italy. Keshi, toward the end of a distinguished international career, played one match in that World Cup.
That 1994 team included a host of talented players, such as Jay Jay Okocha, Rasheed Yekini and Finidi George, many of whom had been playing together for five years. By contrast, Keshi said his current side — which won the Africa Cup of Nations last year — has only been together for around a year and a half.
Having fallen at the last 16 stage in 1994 and in 1998, Nigeria has had two fairly dismal World Cup campaigns since, in 2002 and 2010. Its failure to win a single match in those two tournaments has contributed to doubts over the ability of an African team to win the World Cup in the near term.
However, Keshi thinks that an African team is “very close” to winning a World Cup and that this tournament is up for grabs.
“I think this tournament is an open tournament,” he said.
Nigeria is one of five African representatives in Brazil, along with Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast. No African team has yet made the World Cup semifinals, though Ghana came close in 2010, losing to Uruguay in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.
While Keshi said his team was not reliant on any one player for its campaign in Group F, much could hinge on striker Emmanuel Emenike, who has been prolific for Nigeria since his debut in 2011.
Behind Emenike, John Obi Mikel has license to play more creatively than he does for his club side Chelsea, where he’s often a shield in front of the defense. And in goal, Keshi can call upon Lille’s Vincent Enyeama, one of the most experienced goalkeepers in the tournament.