Young Nigeria head home with high hopes for next World Cup
Beaten late on in Saint Petersburg Tuesday night by Lionel Messi's Argentina, Nigeria head home from Russia disappointed to exit at the group stage but full of optimism for future tournaments.
Coach Gernot Rohr brought the youngest squad to Russia, and there is a sense with this Super Eagles team that their time is yet to come.
"We are a young team and perhaps this World Cup comes a little bit early for them... I think they will be ready for 2022," the German said before Nigeria's first Group D match, a disappointing 2-0 loss to Croatia.
Nigeria were poor first up in Kaliningrad, ponderous in possession and failing to unlock the obvious potential in a team containing several Premier League regulars.
Rohr said after that match that his side had been "naive" in conceding twice from set pieces in a 2-0 loss.
Next up, against Iceland in Volgograd, the Super Eagles looked lost once again as they failed to get a single shot away in the first half.
Whatever Rohr said during the interval appeared to have the desired effect, however, and Leicester City striker Ahmed Musa scored twice as Nigeria cruised to a 2-0 win.
Musa, who has struggled to nail down a place in Claude Puel's Foxes side, is a popular figure in Russia due to stints at CSKA Moscow and his brace made him Nigeria's top scorer at World Cups.
They even had their chances against Argentina, and stretched the South Americans with their pace and physicality.
But they were profligate up front and paid the price when Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo volleyed home Argentina's winner minutes before full time.
For Nigeria, a football-mad nation of 186 million people, the result condemned the national side to yet another World Cup group stage exit and continued a poor run of just two wins in their last 14 games on football's biggest stage.
Yet Rohr insists that Nigerians have every reason to be optimistic, with young stars such as Arsenal's Alex Iwobi and Leicester trio Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Musa set to learn and improve ahead of Qatar in 2022.
"Nigerians understand that," he said. "But we want to make them happy and it's not only the results, it's also attitude and fair play.
"Football must stay a sport that's bringing values in this big country."
- 'Humility, solidarity' -
As well as glimpses on the pitch, Nigeria's fans have lit up Russia, with their three million of their team's lurid green home jerseys selling worldwide before the tournament.
Viral footage of a Nigerian family chanting "Over de bar! Over de bar" ahead of Gylfi Sigurdsson's subsequent missed spot kick during the Iceland game has also proved one of this World Cup's lighter moments.
But Rohr said he is enjoying seeing his young players grow as individuals, and is confident they will be ready for the next major tournament.
"What I like in my young team is humility, solidarity and fighting spirit. I thought before this World Cup we were here to learn."