World Cup: In Tight Game, Referee's No-penalty Call Ends Nigeria's World Cup Bid

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Goalie Uzoho has a splendid future. His spectacular saves kept Nigeria in the game.

Nigeria was robbed Tuesday of a berth in the second round of the World Cup when the referee refused to believe his own eyes and and denied the Super Eagles a penalty late in the second half.

A second penalty for Nigeria, on that clear handball by Argentina late in the game,  would have put the Super Eagles up 2-1. Had the two teams ended up tied 2-2, Nigeria would have gone through since Iceland lost 2-1 to Croatia the team that ended up with the top points in their Group play. Instead, Argentina goes through.

There were five African teams in the World Cup last week--Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. Senegal, which plays Thursday, is the only one still standing.

Argentina took a 1-0 lead into half-time on a splendid goal by Lionel Messi who was fed a brilliant through-pass by Ever Banega that split the defense. Messi, tightly marked by a defender, pushed the ball slightly ahead of him with his left foot into the box before unleashing a shot with the outside of his right foot. The ball curled away from Nigeria's phenomenal young goalkeeper and settled into the back of the net on the left side barely 15 minutes into the game.

Nigeria had some great scoring opportunities in the first half but they fizzled, either due to an extra dribble too many, or delays in feeding an instant through pass.

The Super Eagles 19-year-old phenom, goalie Francis Uzoho, had made up his mind that he was going to take his team into the second round. He made a breath-taking save when he lunged to his left and got a finger-deflection of a Messi free kick from just outside the box. It was just enough to push the ball to his left where it crashed on the goalpost and back into play. 

Uzoho thwarted the Argentinian assaults, time and again. By keeping the deficit at only one goal, he gave his team a great chance to win it in the second half; that's when the Super Eagles normally play their best ball.

The Nigerians did play better in the second half; with more ball movement. But they found an Argentinian team which was more desperate and perhaps hungrier, swarming all over the field. Nigeria is a young team. Argentina has veterans, including Messi; his window of  opportunity to win a World Cup is dwindling. Without the cup Messi will forever live in the shadow of the great Maradona, who watched from the stands, and made a sign-of-the-cross at kickoff.

Argentina pressed relentlessly in the second half. They played as if they were the team down 1-0; yet, Uzoho would not yield.  Finally Nigeria got a break. On a corner kick, coming from the left side of the field, an Argentine defender bear-hugged Nigeria's William Troost-Ekong. 

After a video review, the referee Cuneyt Cakir awarded Nigeria a penalty and Victor Moses scored easily. Ironically, Ekong had himself been guilty of the same bone-headed infraction which resulted in a penalty against Nigeria in its game against Croatia.

With Argentina continuing its all-out assault it was clear one goal would not be enough for Nigeria.

Then came what looked like the clincher, another gift from the Argentine defense. The defender, Marcos Rojo, leapt high to head away a cross. He mis-timed his jump and was guilty of a left-handed infraction.

The replays showed it was clearly a handball. The referee walked to the video monitors on the sidelines and reviewed the play. Yet, he rejected what his eyes told him.

Yes, the referee is human. So, was he influenced by whatever he may have heard the Argentinian fans screaming at him when he went to the sideline to review the video? Was he not willing to award a penalty --which was warranted by the play-- because that was not how he wanted to see Messi's World Cup dream end?

Only he knows. But on that play, the referee did not act like a referee.

At the same time, had it not been for many misses by Nigeria, it never would have come down to that play.

In the dying moments, Argentina's tireless assault was finally rewarded. A low cross from the right side of the field was neatly tucked with a volley by Rojo into the right low corner of the goal past the outstretched hands of Uzoho, whose young team has a bright future.

The game's outcome was a great relief for Messi and the millions of Argentine fans.

Perhaps for the referee too.


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