CURITIBA, Brazil (AP) — Iran and Nigeria have something in common ahead of their World Cup clash on Monday, and it's something both teams want to shake off.
When they meet at the Arena da Baixada, Iran and Nigeria will be bidding for a first win in a World Cup match since France 1998. With Argentina the clear favorite in Group F, Iran and Nigeria are expected to compete with tournament newcomer Bosnia-Herzegovina for second spot.
Though Nigeria is often considered a powerhouse of African football, the Super Eagles have not won a game at the World Cup finals since defeating Bulgaria in a group match 16 years ago. Since then, Nigeria has endured two fairly dismal World Cup campaigns, including in South Africa in 2010, notching up a grand total of two points.
That's not good enough for a team many have touted as the most likely to become Africa's first-ever World Cup winner. After all, Nigeria has pedigree on the global stage, having defeated Argentina to win the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996.
The current African champion has got back on track over the past couple of years under coach Stephen Keshi, who played for Nigeria in the 1994 World Cup and has helped it recover some of the flair and power that marked his country's football in the 1990s.
Keshi appears unconcerned that his team failed to win any of its three pre-tournament friendlies.
"My concern is how I'm going to bring my players to understand the style of play, to bring them back into the rhythm that we are used to, because it's a long time we were apart," Keshi said.
Keshi has a number of hugely experienced players at his disposal, many of whom play for some of Europe's top clubs. Much could hinge on the form and fitness of Fenerbahce striker Emmanuel Emenike, who has been prolific for Nigeria since his debut in 2011.
Behind Emenike, John Obi Mikel has license to play more creatively than he does for his club side Chelsea, where he's often a shield in front of the defense. And in goal, Keshi can call upon Lille's Vincent Enyeama, one of the most experienced goalkeepers in the tournament.