Nigeria must shut out the noise in World Cup quest against Ghana

As Nigeria prepare to face Ghana in the first of two playoff games for a 2022 FIFA World Cup ticket, defender Leon Balogun is hoping to shut out the noise and focus on winning the tie, starting with the first game in Kumasi on Friday.

The build-up to the fixture has been spiced up by talk of the long rivalry between the two nations, dating all the way back to their first meeting in 1951, when the Nigerians romped to a 5-0 victory over their neighbours.

But that was one of the few times the Super Eagles had cause to celebrate. In the 56 games that followed, there have been 19 draws and Ghana claiming victory in 25 of the rest. They last clashed in 2011, in a 0-0 friendly draw in London.

"As much as I respect it, I try to leave the rivalry very much aside," Rangers defender Balogun told ESPN.

"In my preparation for the game it doesn't matter too much who we are facing, whether it is Ghana or anybody else, because for me it's about where do I want to be with this team at the end of this, and that's the World Cup.

"It just happens that we play against Ghana. So yes, there is that rivalry and I know that there is huge importance inside and outside football with the fans and everything. But I try to leave that to them and try to do my best work on the pitch."

Beyond the lopsided win-loss record, there is more to the rivalry. In 1992, for instance, Ghana beat Nigeria at the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations, with Abedi Pele's spectacular glancing header from the near post tying the game. That goal cancelled out Mutiu Adepoju's header, and Ghana went on to win that game 2-1.

A similar situation played out in 2008 when the late Junior Agogo, then playing in the English Championship, scored twice to again eliminate Nigeria at the same stage.

It is not all doom and gloom for Nigeria, however, as the Super Eagles beat Ghana 3-0 and drew 0-0 in the qualifiers on their way to the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Off the pitch, the countries' rivalry extends to cuisine, with a long-raging debate about the best jollof rice dish occupying more footballing minds than you'd expect.

READ: How 2022 World Cup qualifying works around the world

Balogun added: "Obviously, I have heard a few names. The Jollof War and things like that. It's part of it, I embrace it but I don't entertain it. I leave that to the people who come up with it and just focus on football."

Team captain Ahmed Musa is fully aware of the weight of expectations, and is confident this iteration of Super Eagles players can emerge triumphant. Musa played in their most recent clash, a friendly in London, and he knows what to expect.

"It [the rivalry] is not only about football, it is about politics, it is about jollof, about music, acting, fashion, everything," he told ESPN.

"The last time we played against them in a friendly game in Watford in 2011, it ended 0-0. But it was very tough, it was like a fight. On the pitch and outside.

"So we know that this game is not going to be easy and we have to give everything we have in the first game before we come home."

That said, while the battles on the pitch can be intense, sometimes to the point of brutal and physical confrontations, off the pitch the players, officials, and fans maintain healthy friendship.

While the banter is wicked and unforgiving, there has never been any incidents of violence reported following the games, irrespective of the results. This is, perhaps, one of the most wholesome rivalries in sports.

Despite that, the stakes this time are much higher. Both federation presidents are fighting political battles on the home front, and failure to qualify for the World Cup could prove career-damaging for the loser.

There is also the small matter of the $12 million windfall from FIFA for qualifying for the tournament, which would be a massive boost to both cash-strapped federations.

It explains why NFF president Amaju Pinnick has been planning for this since last year, firing former coach Gernot Rohr, attempting to hire Portuguese Jose Peseiro, before settling for Augustine Eguavoen.

The NFF president insists there is no margin for error, telling ESPN: "Of course, we [the officials] are not the ones going onto the field. But the arrangements we put in place will, to a large extent, determine the spirit with which the players will enter the pitch.

"All our arrangements must be flawless and without sloppiness. It is a FIFA World Cup ticket at stake, so we must give it our all.

"Whatever efforts we have been making to ensure seamless movement to and fro, as well as accommodation of our contingent at major matches, must be doubled for the match in Kumasi.

"Nigerians don't want to hear any excuses; they only want to see the World Cup ticket."

Like his captain, former Nigeria skipper Eguavoen has also faced Ghana, but as a coach. In 2007, he was in the dugout when the Super Eagles were humiliated 4-1 in a friendly in Brentford, England.

But he says this is a team with a different objective: "A lot has changed. What is important is to get the ticket to the World Cup in Qatar. And we are on the verge of doing that.

"We have a very strong squad and we have a great pool of players to pick from. We are representing more than 200 million Nigerians and it is a privilege to do that. It is not a right to play for Nigeria, and we have the opportunity to contribute towards leaving our own legacy.

"And with all respect, we have to respect Ghana, we will go out there to fight and make sure we get the job done."