The year 2002 wasn’t particularly significant in Nigerian football, if the Super Eagles had not been disbanded by the Federation after a mild but embarrassing players’ revolt during the Africa Cup of Nations in Mali.
The Eagles finished third, and not for the first time, but it marked the beginning of the end of an era for the few remaining members of the famous Class of 1994.
It was these few “renegades” who stoked the embers of a fire that brewed discord, and one that would be felt several months after, at the World Cup in Korea/Japan.
The Renegades would be referred to as the Cabal; a term that has had many unsavory mentions in the past, and it was this group that former head Coach Adegboye Onigbinde will blame for the near fiasco which was Nigeria’s campaign in Japan at the World Cup.
The 81 year-old recalls those memories, but not with fondness, rather with angst and deep regrets about inviting certain players and the subsequent infiltration by these unwanted elements, who – in his words – “sabotaged Nigeria’s world cup in Korea/Japan”.
12 players from the dramatic episode in Mali were either foisted, recalled or impressed on the Coach, who had just three months to prepare a team for a World Cup tournament – only in Nigeria.
Onigbinde takes pride in what he achieved in the build up to the mundial, as the Eagles – old and new faces – played in tune up games to knock them into shape and perhaps hope to get past the first round of the competition.
However, it was all pipe dreams because two games into the tournament the Eagles knew their fate.
They had their bags packed and ready to head back home after the last game, which was about a matter of pride, against England.
A narrow 1-0 defeat to Argentina on one hand and another game fraught with school boy errors and no lest, evident tactical flaws which saw Nigeria turn a winning advantage into lost points as Sweden battled back from a goal down to edge Onigbinde’s men 2-1.
17 years after, Onigbinde recounts – and was darn sure – his players let in those goals to get the team knocked out and he knows those responsible.
It is them he calls his regrets from 2002: “I blame myself and truly, I this is perhaps one of my biggest regrets in 2002,” he told www.brila.net.
“Those players who were disbanded in 2002 at the Cup of Nations in Mali, I shouldn’t have invited some of them for the World Cup.
“They sabotaged our World Cup and I know, some of them not all.
“We could have won against Argentina and perhaps qualified beyond the group stage. The two goals we conceded against Sweden also, they were deliberate.
” And you see, that’s why in the last game against England, I change the entire team. That’s when we picked Enyeama and we did fantastically well.”
The tone of his voice went from forlorn to deep resignation, but the former gaffer was mending walls and not making enemies, as he refused to name those he holds resemble.
He did single out two players for praise though, lauding their professionalism and leadership in Japan.
“It was among the senior players we invited from the disbanded team in Mali, but not Okocha (Jay Jay) or Kanu (Nwankwo), they were committed and they gave a hundred percent,” he concluded.