By Demola Dawodu
Nigeria are looking forward to the World Cup qualifying double-header against Ethiopia with cautious optimism. The Super Eagles may possess a multi-talented group of players, but they will be acutely aware of the threats posed by the Walya Antelopes.
The visitors to Addis Ababa are ranked 36th in the world and fourth in Africa, with Ethiopia a distant 93rd in the Fifa ranking and 25th in the continental hierarchy. On paper, the gulf in class is colossal, but the Antelopes are an emerging force in African football. The East African side qualified for the last Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa after a 31-year absence and finished top of their World Cup qualifying group ahead of Bafana Bafana, even after being docked three points for fielding an ineligible player.
The Antelopes, coached by Sewnet Bishaw, are known for their slick passing and the high pressing game they exhibited at the last Afcon. However, the relative inexperience of the side might just be their undoing against a vastly talented Nigerian outfit who are, let us not forget, the reigning African champions. The Ethiopians, with their squad predominantly based in the nation’s top flight, may struggle against the diverse array of superstars that Stephen Keshi can call upon.
The two teams have met seven times before, with Nigeria winning four of those matches. Ethiopia recorded a famous victory against the Super Eagles in a 1994 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier, while two further fixtures have ended in draws.
The two countries first locked horns at the 1982 Afcon in Libya, where Nigeria defeated Ethiopia 3-0. The current Super Eagles coach, the aforementioned Keshi, grabbed a double on that eventful day. Ademola Adeshina also found the net.
The second meeting was an international friendly at the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in 1993 which the Eagles won by a goal to nil.
The sole Ethiopian victory was a 1-0 triumph on home soil in April 1993.
The next meeting was on July 24, 1993, in the return leg of a 1994 Nations Cup qualifier when Nigeria thrashed the East Africans 6-0 with the late Rashidi 'Yeking' Yekini scoring a hat-trick in a thrilling game that also marked the international debut of Sunday Oliseh. Ethiopia’s one brief revolution against the established order was quashed swiftly and emphatically by Clemens Westerhof and his troops.
During the 2012 Nations Cup qualifiers, Nigeria secured a 2-2 draw in Addis Abba. Ethiopia striker Saladin Said scored two and it took a very late equaliser from captain Joseph Yobo to salvage a point on the road for the Super Eagles in what was a feisty encounter.
Nigeria thumped Ethiopia by four goals in the return leg at the Abuja National Stadium. Peter Utaka and Ike Uche bagged two goals apiece in an imperious performance by the West Africans.
The Eagles put in a less-than-convincing performance in the last meeting between the two sides, but even that concluded with a 2-0 win for Nigeria at the 2013 Afcon in South Africa. Victor Moses scored twice from the penalty spot to ensure progress to the last eight of the tournament which the Super Eagles eventually won.
The final 15 minutes of that fixture, as Moses’ searing pace, sublime dribbling and unruffled finishing turned the tide Nigeria’s way and sent the Super Eagles on their way to a glorious continental triumph.
The next episode in this storied rivalry will be the much-anticipated first-leg of the play-off, billed for October 13 in Addis Ababa, while the second leg is due to take place in Calabar on November 16 in front of a partisan U.J Esuene crowd.
If history is anything to go by, Nigeria winning the tie over two legs looks a likely proposition. However, in the end, the tables might just turn in favour of either team through a moment of magic or a flash of genius. The only certain thing is that two enthralling 90 minutes of football lie in store for the fervent football fans of Africa.