The Super Eagles have vowed to put things right ahead of their 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifying matches against Sierra Leone and São Tomé and Príncipe.
The Eagles confront familiar foes Sierra Leone at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium in Abuja on Thursday.
The game, expected to be played behind closed doors, is one of the day one matches in Group A of the qualification series.
The team will afterwards fly to Marrakech in Morocco on Saturday for a day two game against São Tomé and Príncipe which will take place on Monday.
A cross-section of the team’s players said after the team’s training session yesterday in Abuja that they were fully prepared to begin their campaign on a winning note.
Team captain Ahmed Musa said they were on a redemption mission to ensure that they restored the pride of the nation and the confidence of their teeming supporters.
“We know that we made a very big mistake by failing to qualify for the 2022 Wirld Cup and definitely don’t have any excuse to give our fans.
“I know and understand that a lot of them (fans) are disappointed and as a result have dropped their support for the team.
“But we are working very hard to make them proud and happy again to support the Super Eagles.
“There is no other country we have and love than Nigeria. So, we are pleading with our teeming fans not to abandon their support for the team,” he said.
On the team’s preparation for the game against Sierra Leone, Musa said his teammates were battle-ready to redeem themselves after a poor outing the last time both teams met.
The Super Eagles gave away a 4-0 lead to draw 4-4 against the Leone Stars on Nov. 13, 2020 at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium in Benin in a 2021 AFCON qualifier.
“In football, mistakes happen like what happened in our game against our opponents two years ago.
“This also will definitely give them a bit of confidence coming into this game.
“But we have learnt our lessons and worked on our mistakes and will do all we have to do to ensure we win the game,” Musa said.
Midfielder Alex Iwobi admitted that not qualifying for the World Cup was a bitter pill to swallow, adding however that he was confident the Super Eagles would bounce back stronger.
“I watched the games at home with my family and we were optimistic that Nigeria could do it, but we were just unlucky and it’s heartbreaking to know that we are not going to be in Qatar.
“I can’t fault the players because everybody gave their best. It’s just one of those things and we have to pick our heads up, go again and move on,” he said.
On the game against Sierra Leone, Iwobi noted that the Super Eagles were unfortunate the last time both sides met, adding that the team was desperate to set the records straight.
“Of course, we remember the game against the Leone Stars about two years ago which ended 4-4. But we are desperate now to prove a point that we should have won that game then.
“This game will therefore come with a lot of discipline as we have an understanding of what happened before.
“It was unfortunate and we are looking forward to putting things right this time around on home soil and hopefully we will get the result we want,” he said.
Defender Kenneth Omeruo, on his part, said the team was anxious to get a positive result against the Leone Stars.
He assured Nigerians of their zeal and commitment to play for the national side with pride.
“Our preparation is going well and we obviously are here in Abuja which has come to become one of our best home camps so far.
“We are looking forward to going into the game against Sierra Leone to win because we messed up last time out after failing to qualify for Qatar 2022.
“So, I think we need to assure Nigerians that we still have the zeal to play for the country and to win,” Omeruo said.
Also, Super Eagles’ centre-back Leon Balogun said the disappointment of the World Cup qualifiers was behind him, adding that the team’s goal was to kickstart their campaign on a positive note.
“I don’t really like to talk about our failure as a team not to qualify for the World Cup because that is out of our control now.
“But what’s important and at stake now is to qualify for the AFCON.
“Our main target is to kickstart our campaign on a high.
“We are indeed working on making sure we are 100 per cent ready and prepared for the game on Thursday.”
On the game against Sierra Leone, the Glasgow Rangers FC defender said the team could not afford to be complacent as there were no minnows any more in the AFCON qualifiers.
“We cannot afford to lose focus or give our opponents any chance in the game.
“We’ve learnt our lessons from the last time out after our opponents took full advantage of our little complacency in the game.
“So, it’s a big lesson for us never to underestimate any opponent in Africa.
“Having said that, we are looking forward to redeeming our image as a team, starting with the game against Sierra Leone on Thursday,” he said.
William Ekong, Super Eagles’ Assistant Captain, expressed confidence in the team’s ability to beat any team in Africa, adding that the Super Eagles should be the nightmare of other African teams.
“We have great confidence, we believe in ourselves and we know that on our day we can pretty much beat most or maybe even all of our opponents in the AFCON.
“The opponents will always do everything to make it hard for us to beat them and we are very much aware of that,” he said.
On the issue of playing behind closed doors against Sierra Leone, Ekong said it might pose a little bit of a challenge for the team in terms of the noise and support from the fans.
But he assured that this would not affect their performance.
“We are professionals and are used to this kind of situation, having played without fans in the stands all through the COVID-19 pandemic at our various clubs.
“It’s always nice to have the fans, but sometimes not having them there might even be an advantage because you know supporters can’t get impatient and put a lot pressure on the team.
“Not every player is able to deal with that. So, not having the fans might just be a blessing in disguise for us,” Ekong said.
Super Eagles’ forward Cyriel Dessers said he was excited to be playing in the country for the first time.
He however added that he would have been happier to play in a fully-packed stadium with the fans cheering.
“I am really happy to finally be in Nigeria with the Super Eagles for the very first time after scoring my first goal for the country during one of our international friendly games against Mexico in the U.S.
“It’s a really nice feeling. We had an already busy week in the U.S. and to come here finally at home feels good.
“Unfortunately, we will play behind closed doors as I was really looking forward to play in the country in a full capacity stadium with a lot of support.
“But on the other hand, this is business. We have to do our job and perform to our highest level,” Dessers said.
The Feyenoord FC striker stated however that whether he was chosen to start or not, in either role, he would do everything for the team and the country.
He said he would try his best to be important and score goals.
While the forward noted that African teams were never easy to beat, he however added that the Super Eagles would always come out tops once they were in form and well prepared.
“These are always tough games and we will prepare very well for them.
“Sierra Leone have proven to be a tough team in the past, but if we are in our top form on the day, then we have to beat them,” Dessers said.