Football: Nigeria can be among the World Cup's best, says Wilfred Ndidi

Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi (pictured) says he believes African teams can make a bigger impact at the World Cup.
Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi (pictured) says he believes African teams can make a bigger impact at the World Cup. PHOTO: DPA

SINGAPORE - In 1977, Brazil football legend Pele predicted that Africa would deliver a World Cup champion by 2000, as he was impressed by the talents in the continent.

Since then, African footballers have made an impact in Europe. At the last World Cup in Russia, more than 70 per cent of the 115 African players called up across Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal were playing for European clubs.

However, it was also the first time since 1982 that no African teams made it to the round of 16.

Corruption and a lack of infrastructure, and even the disproportionate allocation of World Cup spots - Africa has 48 countries vying for four places, while 13 slots were up for grabs for 54 European teams - have often been cited as reasons for Africa's lack of progress at football's biggest stage.

But in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi said he believes that African teams can make a bigger impact at the World Cup. They need to believe more in themselves and play as a team to get to a World Cup final, or at least surpass the quarter-final feat achieved by Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002), and Ghana (2010), he added.

"With the right mindset and belief in our qualities, and playing together as a team and not just individuals, we can make every game count and get the wins to go as far as possible," said the 22-year-old Leicester City player, who is here with Nigeria for a friendly against Brazil on Sunday (Oct 13) as part of the Brazil Global Tour.

While Nigeria have blazed the trail for Africa by winning five Under-17 world titles and Olympic football gold in 1996, and reached the second round of the World Cup three times (the most for an African team), the Super Eagles have never progressed past the round of 16.

German Gernot Rohr, who has coached Nigeria since 2016, said that African teams still have to improve in terms of organisation and discipline. The 66-year-old said: "There is still a lot of work to do. It is always the same problems - waiting days for our equipment to arrive, visa issues - we have to do better.

"We need to do better work with the young players, who need to have more discipline. We have African players doing well in Europe, some like our stand-in captain William Troost-Ekong are born in Europe and bring back good philosophy and culture which others can learn."

Citing Nigeria's 4-2 win over two-time world champions Argentina in 2017 as evidence that the gap is narrowing between African teams and the world's best, Ndidi believes that a combination of experience and youth will also help Nigeria's cause.

With 2015 Under-17 World Cup winners Samuel Chukwueze and Victor Osimhen in Nigeria's squad in Singapore, Ndidi said: "We have closed the gap and we are still growing. As we grow, experience comes.

"We beat Argentina before the World Cup and during the World Cup we lost 2-1 to a late goal. But that is where we get the growth and experience.

"You can see we are trying to play a young team at the World Cup, and at the African Cup of Nations where we reached the semi-finals and lost to champions Algeria.

"We are young, mobile, and we can play good football. Everything comes with time, we are trying our best and we are getting there."

Sunday's friendly against the Samba Boys will give the Super Eagles the opportunity to show the world they are ready to soar again, even if they are missing John Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo, who have retired from international football, and injured striker and captain Ahmed Musa.

Though Brazil beat Nigeria 3-0 in their only meeting in 2003, Brazil assistant coach Cleber Xavier is wary of the Africans, especially forward Alex Iwobi, who he calls "the link in the counter attack, who drags opponents out of position and infiltrates well in the box".

Ndidi said: "Brazil are a good team and it is not going to be easy. But this is why we are here, we want to see where we are at. The game will serve as a test for our young team trying to get experience for these types of games in tournaments.

"Brazil don't have to worry about only Alex, they have to worry about our whole team."

Centre-back Troost-Ekong said: "Brazil are one of the best teams in the world and we have to respect them. But if we are at our best, we can make things difficult for them. We shouldn't fear them or be afraid. We have young players who want to prove ourselves."