France disposes Nigeria, punches ticket to quarters 0
France's Yohan Cabaye runs for the ball during their 2014 World Cup round of 16 game against Nigeria at the Brasilia national stadium in Brasilia June 30, 2014. (REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino)
Vive la France . . . barely.
France is onto the World Cup quarterfinals. But players and fans will no doubt have a glass of wine or two to calm their nerves after living through a dangerous game.
The favoured French slept through most of their match against Nigeria on Monday, waking up in time to score a pair of goals late in the contest to defeat the Super Eagles, 2-0.
The score may say it was a comfortable win, but it was anything but comfortable.
Considering the way France has played in this tournament, it would have been a cruel blow for them to bow out.
But the cruelty of sports visited Nigeria in this game. The man who will wear the loss for his nation was the man who was the best player on the pitch.
Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama repeatedly stood between his team and the opposition, especially when the French took over in the second half.
Enyeama made at least three remarkable saves.
But, for an athlete, it’s never about what he’s done; it’s about what he continues to do.
Enyeama had stifled Karim Benzema yet again, this time with a marvelous save on a headed ball.
On the ensuing corner kick, however, the vagaries of sports decided they would hit him with a dose of meanness. Enyeama came out on the corner and while he got a piece of the ball, he couldn’t clear it.
Paul Pogba directed a header into the empty net to give the French control of the game.
An own goal by the Nigerians in added time put the game out of reach.
“In that moment only he can decide what to do,” Eagles coach Stephen Keshi said. “He patted the ball rather than boxing the ball. That’s what happens in sports.”
By that time, though, the Nigerians were under constant siege by the French. The final 30 minutes of the game was all one-way traffic, with the African side clearly losing their impetus.
The French didn’t play well until they substituted Antoine Griezmann for Oliver Giroud in the 62nd minute. Griezmann added energy and it also seemed to bring Benzema to life. Until then, Benzema was nowhere to be found.
Except for Mathieu Valbuena, a number of the French players were nowhere to be found in the game.
“A game is 90 minutes and we faced an opponent that played well,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “I have not seen any team control the game top to bottom. Nigeria slowed down and gave us lots of space in the last 30 minutes.”
The Nigerians might have slowed down because the French kicked them around in the first half.
There were several nasty incidents. The worse came in the second half when Blaise Matuidi makes a poorly timed challenge on Ogenyi Onazi, forcing the midfielder to leave the game.
In what is becoming a theme at this World Cup, Keshi seized the opportunity to blame American referee Mark Geiger for his team’s loss.
Keshi was especially displeased by a disallowed goal scored by his team. Emmanuel Emenike stuck his foot out on an Ahmed Musa pass, and put the ball in the net, but was ruled offside.
“I’m not happy with the refereeing,” he said. “I don’t know why it would be an offside goal. They did not show the goal at all in the stadium all game.”
It was a close call and could have gone either way.
What would a press conference with an African team be without a question about whether a government official had come to Brazil with money for the team? A journalist made the suggestion it was $3 million.
“It is a tradition in our country that ministers and authorities visit us and encourage us to do our best,” Keshi said. “We didn’t get a salary, just our bonuses.”
The bonus for the French was in being able to survive a game that could have ended it for them.
They recognize, though, that they need to get better, especially since it appears they are headed for a meeting with Germany.
“No, we are not afraid,” said Pogba, when asked whether he was frightened of playing Germany. “We are the French national team. Why should be afraid?”
Probably because if they play the way they did against Nigeria, they’ll lose.
Can the French move past the quarters?
Hard to say