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EXPECTATIONS for Nigeria at the 2010 Fifa World Cup have diminished, but it was not long ago that the Super Eagles were seen as the African side most likely to reach the last four of a World Cup.
And though the Super Eagles have just one point from their past five matches in the finals and missed out on Germany 2006 altogether, the continent's most populous nation looks likely to be a dangerous dark horse with little to lose against the world's best.
That was how the side came to USA 1994, where they dismantled eventual semifinalists Bulgaria 3-0 in their first match before going on to tragically fall 2-1 to Italy in the second round. But that was not before the likes of Sunday Oliseh, Victor Ikpeba, Jay-Jay Okocha and Finidi George had become synonymous with the next generation of explosive African football.
They got off to a similarly promising start in 1998 - stunning Spain 3-2 and again beating Bulgaria (1-0) - only to suffer another second-round defeat, this time a disheartening 4-1 thumping by Denmark.
But after dramatically reaching the 2010 finals in their last qualifier, Nigeria are likely to arrive in South Africa with a positive attitude.
A surprising goalless draw with Mozambique in their first match in the final round of CAF qualifying left Nigeria playing catch-up to Tunisia from the outset, and consecutive draws with the Carthage Eagles had the West Africans staring elimination in the face.
However, Tunisia lost 1-0 in Mozambique and Nigeria came from a goal behind twice to win 3-2 in Kenya. Striker Obafemi Martins was the hero of the day, coming on at half time before scoring the first equaliser on the hour mark and the winner just nine minutes from time. That goal stamped Nigeria's ticket to the next World Cup.
Nigeria are in Group B with Argentina, South Korea and Greece.
The star players:
The Super Eagles have the potential to score prolifically in South Africa behind a pacy, dynamic attack that features the likes of Martins, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Peter Odemwingie, youngsters Victor Obinna and Ikechukwu Uche, as well as the evergreen Nwankwo Kanu in what is surely his last roll of the dice.
They won't be a soft touch, with Jon Obi Mikel anchoring the midfield and captain Joseph Yobo in the centre of defence.
Kanu is adamant the once-feared Super Eagles will rise from the ashes, starting with the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Angola next month.
"We have a great team that wants to make the people of Nigeria proud. Our aim is to do well both in Angola and South Africa. As for the World Cup, it's coming to Africa for the first time and we want Nigeria to be part of that history in a special way by winning a medal," Kanu said.
Qualification for 2010 was sweet vindication for coach Shaibu Amodu, who was embattled from the start of the final round of qualifying.
The veteran has led the team on two previous occasions, including during the second half of a successful qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup - though he was sacked before the finals after a semifinal exit at the Africa Cup of Nations. - Sowetan and Fifa.