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Nigerian soccer team off to auspicious start at Rio Olympics following travel issues

The Nigerian men’s soccer team almost didn’t make it to Rio after a bevy of travel issues, but a pair of wins has quickly made the team an Olympic dark horse and a fan favorite.

MANAUS, Brazil — There was a moment last Thursday, William Ekong admits, when he wasn’t sure Nigeria’s men’s soccer team was going to make it in time for its Olympic opener against Japan that night.

The Nigerian team started last Thursday in Atlanta, where it had been training for much of the previous month. Ekong, a 22-year-old centerback, had been there with the team for several days but had to return to his Norwegian club, Haugesund, where he’s the captain, for a bit. So he flew from Norway to Brazil on his own and waited … and waited … and waited.

“I was already here in Manaus waiting for the guys,” Ekong explained on Sunday night. “They said they were going to come on Monday, so that’s why I flew in on Monday. Then they said they were coming on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday. I was stressing out a little bit.”

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Why was the Nigerian men’s soccer team grounded in Atlanta? Well, that’s a bizarre story, and none of it was the way to treat your players. The payment for the flight from Atlanta to Manaus had not gone through.

Nobody in an official capacity has said exactly why, but a Nigerian official told me that it went back months. Earlier money approved for Olympic preparations by Nigeria’s Olympic committee “grew wings,” the source said. Additional money was approved late, and then the payment went to the wrong place. A flight on Wednesday was scuppered when the plane wasn’t big enough.

In the end, Delta Airlines came up big and provided a charter for the Nigerian team on its own, and the team arrived in the Amazon and joined Ekong on Thursday, just six hours before kickoff against Japan.

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And wouldn’t you know it? Nigeria won the game in a wild 5-4 goal-fest.

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The Nigerian players shook off their own organizers’ lack of support and rallied around each other. “We have the mentality, this fighting spirit,” said Ekong. “That first game, it wasn’t easy at all. It couldn’t have been any harder preparation for us, really. And I think it was real mental strength and a bit of God’s work for us to win that game.”

Among men’s Olympic soccer teams, Nigeria is the most fun to watch by far, and it followed up that miraculous win with another one on Sunday, a taut 1-0 victory against Sweden. “It was a lot easier to prepare for [than the first game],” Ekong said. “The guys were better rested, and they didn’t have seven hours in the airplane in their legs, so that helped. We had some time to discuss more tactics, whereas we didn’t have time for that last time.”

With the maximum six points from two games, these inspiring Nigerians have already clinched a spot in the quarterfinals. Coach Samson Siasia’s team has skill and athleticism all over the field. Oghenekaro Etebo had four goals against Japan and would have added more against Sweden had goalkeeper Andreas Linde not made some outstanding saves. Captain John Obi Mikel has been influential in the more attacking role that he plays for his national team than at club level.

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Then there’s forward Umar Sadiq of Roma, Sunday’s goal-scorer, whose length and speed reveal a potential breakout star.

Is it possible that Nigeria could catch lightning in a bottle and win a gold medal as it did in 1996? Ekong smiled when asked the question. “I think the potential is there,” he said, “but I don’t want to put any pressure on us. But the signs are there. If you believe, why not?”

Nigeria’s next game is in São Paulo, but now the International Olympic Committee is in charge of the flight. “So I think we’ll get there in one piece,” Ekong said.

If there’s any team that deserves to avoid travel troubles, it’s this one, which is fast becoming everyone’s favorite team in the men’s Olympic tournament.