Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel says the youngest squad at the World Cup must keep their nerves in check and shoulder their nation’s expectations when they play Croatia on Saturday.
With more than 180 million fans back home roaring them, the African juggernauts enter this World Cup under pressure after a dismal record in recent tournaments.
The Nigerians go into the Group D match-up in Kaliningrad — Russia’s bucolic European exclave more than 750 miles (1200 kilometres) from the chaos of Moscow — knowing they must improve on a run of just one win in their last 11 World Cup matches.
“It’s going to be very interesting because they like to keep the ball and so do we,” Obi Mikel said on Friday at the region’s gleaming new white-and-blue stadium.
“We have a younger team so that might help us come the end of the game.”
At an average age of just 25 years and 337 days as the tournament begins, Nigeria are the youngest squad in Russia and Mikel, the former Chelsea midfielder now playing in China, believes the exuberance of youth may be the Super Eagles’ secret weapon.
“The players are full of energy and have a lot to prove because they’ve not played on this stage before,” he told reporters.
“Not a lot of players were here for the last World Cup but I think that might be a good thing. It’s important for them to control their emotions so we have to keep that in check as well.”
Although relatively inexperienced, Nigeria’s squad boasts a number of Premier League regulars, including Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi and Victor Moses of Chelsea.
– ‘Perhaps too early’ –
After a successful qualifying campaign, German coach Gernot Rohr rang the changes for two warm up friendlies against England and the Czech Republic, both narrow losses.
“Of course we never like losing friendlies but the most important was to see my players,” he said Friday.
In charge since 2016, Rohr is well aware of the pressures that come with representing football-mad Africa’s most populous nation.
“We have pressure all the time and I am sure that we will make Nigerians happy. We are a young team and perhaps this World Cup comes a little bit early for them because they are so young,” said the former Bordeaux manager.
Much has been made of the risk of black players in Russia being targeted by the type of racist abuse that has dogged the Russian game for decades.
But captain and coach are optimistic that locals will support a team that contains several Russia-based players and whose captain’s partner is Russian.
“A lot of Russians seems to support the Nigerian team. I dont know why, maybe because of my girlfriend,” Mikel said.
“But we seem to have a lot of support wherever we go and this place feels like home for us.”
Whatever happens on the pitch, Nigeria will leave Russia as undisputed winners in one category: style.
Their lurid green, black and white chevroned home kit sold three million replicas ahead of its release last week — and inspired dozens of knock-off versions from shrewd street vendors in Lagos.
– Young guns vs golden generation –
While Nigeria are stocked with young guns, Croatia come to Russia with several players, including Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric, in the golden years of their career.
The national captain was the lynchpin for the Champions League treble winners but recognises that a youthful Nigeria team could pose his team problems on Saturday night.
“Nigeria may be the best African team right now. They play vertically, fast and have great forwards,” Modric said.
“We prefer our own style — possession, tactics and attacking football. That is our biggest advantage.”
Modric, playing at his third World Cup, bristled when asked about his role in a corruption scandal back home.
“Nothing smarter to ask?” snapped the midfielder, who was charged in March over alleged false testimony over the details of his 2008 transfer from Dinamo to Tottenham Hotspur.