High-ranking enough to have flown over especially for this game, they were asked if they’d chartered a planeload of money like Ghana had done to the same airport a week before. It turns out they hadn’t.
But a bizarre start, the ending to the day would be just as odd. At a press conference that centred on their bonus payment disagreements rather than their game with France, manager Stephen Keshi responded to an American journalist’s prying by asking, “Do you work for the CIA?”
In truth, certain African sides have nobody to blame but themselves for their World Cup journeys turning into freak shows.
Indeed on Thursday, after the team had boycotted training over a fear that they won’t be paid — something that happened after the Confederations Cup — national president Goodluck Jonathan was forced to intervene with guarantees. It’s a story that won’t go away and while John Obi Mikel played it down with words, evasiveness and the smile on his face hinted there was more to it.
“I don’t think there was any major issues about money, we just had little discussions here and there, the players and the coaches from the football association,” he said awkwardly. “It’s just what happens anywhere. I play for Chelsea and know this is something that happens everywhere. It wasn’t a major issue; it was just a little issue that was quickly clarified. We’re here, training, are very focussed and that won’t take any concentration away from the game. We’re motivated, we’re ready, it’ll be a spectacular game and little details could decide it.”
“The training didn’t take place last week, but we were talking about the payments and then the game had just finished against Argentina,” added Keshi.
“We used the day to look at good and bad things we did in the game but there was not a major issue with money, it was just something we wanted to highlight, so there’s no problem. The bonus was paid right away so there’s nothing to delay the players. There is no issue with bonus payment; everything has been paid up front so we are good to go.”
What makes the story all the more inappropriate is not that it comes ahead of one of the biggest games in the nation’s history, but against the backdrop of a country that’s threatening to tear itself apart.
From the central town of Jos which has been plagued by religious violence for decades, Mikel was keen to point out that it makes this game more rather than less important. “I think it’s been quite a tragedy what’s happening at home. But we’re here, we’ve got our job to do, we’ve to play the games and get on with it. But things there, we shouldn’t let it affect us, we want to do well and hopefully if we can keep playing the way we are playing and progressing, then football unites everyone in Nigeria. Football can bring unity back to various places that we’re having problems.”
On the field they could have very different problems though. Keshi played against French coach Didier Deschamps in his club career and described today’s opposition as mirroring Deschamps’ playing style, something which has turned around the Europeans. And on that note, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris mentioned their rise from self-made turmoil. “There’ve been some ups and downs in recent years, I admit it, but since the return leg against the Ukraine [in the play-offs] there’s been a rekindled love between France and its fans. There are high expectations and we are trying to please the supporters. Of course Didier’s team and generation from 1998 and 2000 is a reference for all French players and all future generations. We try and be inspired by that and, well, Didier tells us about it every day,” he concluded laughing.
After their last World Cup of toil and trouble, this time it’s their opponents with much to worry about.