Even though Nigerian football had taken a nose dive it was still a country of football or nothing else but the rare Olympics ticket achievement of D’Tigers has put basketball in the front burner.
If anybody did give the national basketball team a chance to qualify for the Olympics through the qualifying tournament that ended in Caracas, Venezuela on Sunday, it would, perhaps, be only the members of the Nigeria Basketball Federation.
Indeed not all the board members could have believed in their ability to achieve much in the South American country. The president of the federation Tijjani Umar must surely have spoken so magically to have received approval from the Ministry of Sports to go ahead with the tournament. But in reality, hardly could anyone have been blamed for not believing in D’Tigers.
They had typically been like the Spanish national football team – the nearly team – until they conquered Europe and the world. Nigeria has one of the largest exports of basketball talents in the world besides the United States of America and a few European countries. A lot of Nigerians have featured in the biggest basketball league in the world – the NBA – and many Nigerians are in the collegiate sports system. One of the most popular basketball icon, Hakeem Olajuwon, is Nigerian but the country has continued to be the nearly team on the continent of Africa.
Even though the continental ruling body FIBA Africa have in every way always encouraged the national team to represent Africa internationally, D’Tigers have always come short of the mark on the continent. In 1995 Africa Nations Cup, for instance, Nigeria placed third behind Angola and Senegal and then finished as runners-up in the 1997 and 1999 editions. In 2001 the country dropped to fifth in Morocco and returned to runners-up position in 2003. Since then it has been third, fifth and third positions. And so when they finished in Madagascar 2011 as the bronze medalists and got the chance for another try at the Olympics, it became quite a difficult task to believe in them.
“If anybody says he believed they could qualify from that tournament, the person is not being sincere,” the Chairman of the Nigeria Basketball Supporters Club, John Fanirans told The PUNCH.
“How could you have believed that a team that could not beat Angola would beat Lithuania and Greece? It was not our fault to doubt them but it is the impression that they had given us. Now to say the least this achievement is so massive. It is a great window of opportunity that has been provided Nigerian basketball in the global market and I do hope that the federation and every one of us can hold on to and use positively beyond London 2012.”
Faniran also has a plea for the Federation of International Basketball. The world body FIBA is yet to give the continent more slots.
“It is not fair for the entire continent to battle for one ticket to the Olympics. Two is more like it and not this single slot everyone has to fight for.”
The failure of football to make the Olympics had denied the country of any major team event until basketball shot out from the blues. The Olympic team that came virtually out of nothing has suddenly given the game the kind of following never experienced since the first jump ball was taken in the 1960s. Now every Nigerian across the world is looking forward to London 2012 basketball event. In Sydney, Bombay, Houston, Lagos, Kafanchan and London, the Nigerian celebration was the same.
We learnt that Team Nigeria’s Surrey camp in London erupted in celebration in the early hours of Monday following the qualification of D’Tigers.
And a jubilant President of the Nigeria Olympic Committee, Mr. Sani Ndanusa, described D’Tigers as a pride to Nigerians and deserved plaudits for their commitment and high performance. Ndanusa who is currently in London said that Nigerian athletes were ecstatic as they followed the team’s progress on television.
He said, “We’re all proud of their performance. The rest of the team here erupted in joy after they dismissed Dominican Republic. I am particularly overjoyed not only by their qualification but by their sportsmanship. They displayed uncommon artistry in basketball and showed the undying spirit of Nigerians. We are very proud of them and we congratulate them for this sweet victory. More gladdening is the fact that they beat former European powerhouse, Greece before getting this ticket.”
Nigerian Tigers will take on Tunisia in the opening match of Group A when the jump ball is taken for the London Olympics on July 28. Nigeria, Russia and Lithuania were included in the fixtures Sunday night after the qualification tournament with the three countries picking the final tickets. Nigeria seized the last men’s basketball berth at the London Olympics with an 88-73 victory over the Dominican Republic in a last-chance game at the FIBA qualifying tournament.
Nigeria had shocked favourites Greece in the quarter-finals, but were beaten in the semi-finals on Saturday by Russia – who booked their own place with that win.
Part of the amazing story of the triumph is that Nigeria lost to Greece by 15 points in a four-nation tournament in Brazil just 10 days before they met again in Caracas. D’Tigers and their managers were unperturbed by that defeat as Umar told The PUNCH they had been emboldened instead. He wore a worried look while the competition in Venezuela lasted.
“It was a tough one dealing with those big teams from Europe and kept us on our toes but now we are all okay,” Umar said.
For the London Games in Group A are Lithuania, Tunisia, USA, France, Nigeria and Argentina. Group B has Asian champions China, Great Britain, Brazil, Australia, Russia and Spain.