JOHANNESBURG: At one stage on Saturday a prediction by Brazil football legend Pele that Nigeria could reach the 2010 World Cup semi-finals in South Africa seemed far off the mark.
The Super Eagles were not living up to their nickname as they trailed modest Kenya 1-0 in Nairobi while Group B leaders Tunisia had battened down the hatches in Maputo to keep Mozambique goalless.
It meant Tunisia were three points clear of Nigeria and the Carthage Eagles must have been dreaming of a fourth consecutive appearance at the quadrennial showcase of international football next June and July.
But just when the already poor reputation Pele has for predictions seemed set to receive another jolt, Nigeria scored twice in four minutes to turn the game on its head and went on to triumph 3-2 and qualify as Tunisia lost.
Obafemi Martins chose the perfect time to rediscover the scoring touch that led then English Premiership outfit Newcastle United to sign him by scoring a couple of goals, including the 83rd-minute Nairobi winner.
So Pele, who believed an African team would conquer the world before the end of the last century, may yet be right in his view that the Eagles can go further than quarter-finalists Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal 12 years later.
With adequate preparations it would not surprise me to see an African team reach at least the semi-finals for the first time and the Super Eagles can do it, the three-time World Cup winner told the Nigerian media.
However, the most populous country in Africa almost blew the chance of a fourth appearance after qualifying for the 1994, 1998 and 2002 tournaments by allowing the Harambee Stars equalize 11 minutes from full-time.
Martins, from German champions Wolfsburg, rescued his team-mates again by hooking the ball past goalkeeper Willis Ochieng to give Nigeria top place with 12 points, one more than Tunisia, while Mozambique came third and Kenya last.
Tunisia, so brave when coming from behind twice in Abuja last month to hold Nigeria, paid dearly for a hyper-cautious approach with veteran striker Dario Monteiro scoring the lone goal seven minutes from full-time.
Ghana were the first African country to qualify for the 2010 tournament – the first to be staged on the continent – while Ivory Coast clinched a slot last month and South Africa will be there automatically as hosts.