By Mark Gleeson
(Reuters) – Nigeria are the only African team returning to the World Cup finals after playing in Brazil four years ago and must get past a familiar foe if they want to reach the second round again.
Nigeria have been paired with Argentina for the fifth time in six World Cup appearances, having finished second to Lionel Messi and his team in their group at the 2014 finals and advancing to the last 16, where they lost to France.
Getting past the group stage is the minimum target for Nigeria but they will also have to get the better of tough European pair Croatia and Iceland if they are to advance.
The Super Eagles are not short on confidence going into the tournament after defeating Argentina 4-2 in a friendly in Krasnodar last November and beating Poland away in March.
They also had to come through a World Cup qualifying group that included Algeria, who also got to the last 16 in Brazil, Zambia, and reigning African champions Cameroon.
“We have some exceptional players. We’ve found the right cocktail, the good mix between youth and experience,” said coach Gernot Rohr after Nigeria finished five points clear at the top of their qualifying group.
The German coach, whose quiet demeanour belies a steely approach, has successfully brought order and routine to a previously chaotic set-up. He has also elevated emerging talent quickly into key roles in the team.
“We decided to integrate a lot of young people; players like Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and others who were already at big clubs,” he said. “With these new players and some old ones, we built a team that is solid.”
As part of a smoother, stronger administrative set-up this time around, Nigeria have implemented an extensive World Cup warm-up schedule, which includes a match against England at Wembley on June 2.
They have also attempted to head off the distractions that have hampered previous campaigns, notably arguments over money.
But the team always carry an unrealistic burden of expectation when they go to the World Cup, with the vast majority of Nigeria’s population of 186 million demanding some measure of success.
Nigeria have advanced past the first round three times but never reached the last eight –- which remains the benchmark of African achievement at the World Cup.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)