BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil, June 16 – Nigeria’s status as resounding favourites to beat minnows Tahiti in their Confederations Cup opener on Monday has been compromised by a delayed arrival that leaves them just 36 hours to prepare for the game.
Tahiti became the first team to arrive in Brazil for the intercontinental showpiece when they touched down on June 7, a full 10 days before the Group B clash with African champions Nigeria in Belo Horizonte.
In stark contrast, Nigeria are not due to arrive until 0400 local time (0700 GMT) on Sunday, giving Stephen Keshi’s squad precious little time to shake the jet lag from their systems and get ready for the match.
A row over bonus payments had put Nigeria’s participation in jeopardy, only for sports minister Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi to broker a truce between the squad and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF).
The Super Eagles have nonetheless gone 17 games unbeaten and will expect to open their campaign with victory against a side ranked 138th in the FIFA ranking.
Representing the French Polynesian islands in the south Pacific, which have a population of just 270,000, Tahiti have no previous senior tournament experience.
Their preparations have included a 7-0 thrashing by Chile’s under-20 side and a 1-0 loss to Brazilian second-tier club Mineiro, and forward Steevy Chong Hue knows his side could be set for a rude awakening.
“For an amateur player, it is a dream to face the best players in the world,” he said.
“However, for it not to become a nightmare, we have to keep working really hard so we are ready for the first game.”
Despite the vast disparity between the sides, Nigeria defender Efe Ambrose says the risk of international humiliation will keep his team-mates on their toes.
“We cannot afford to take any chances,” the versatile Celtic player told the FIFA website.
“Big shocks have happened before in these kind of tournaments and we don’t want to be the victims this time.”
Tahiti, who qualified by winning the Oceania Nations Cup, will hope to draw inspiration from the venue of Monday’s game, which was the scene of the United States’ shock 1-0 victory over England at the 1950 World Cup.
Home to Brazilian sides Cruzeiro and Atletico Mineiro, the 62,547-capacity Estadio Mineirao has undergone an extensive overhaul in preparation for the Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup.
Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta will hand a debut to former Monaco forward Marama Vahirua, the squad’s only professional player, whose commitments in Europe have prevented him from playing at international level before.
Nigeria will be without Lazio midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, who has followed Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike and Chelsea winger Victor Moses in withdrawing from the squad due to injury.
The opening Group B fixture takes place on Sunday, when Spain tackle Uruguay in Recife.