SAINT-DENIS, France -- Artistry has its limits, in soccer as elsewhere, and Nigeria discovered yesterday that the outrageous talent of its players could not make up for an equally outrageous lack of organization.
Nigeria crashed out of the World Cup, losing by 4-1 to Denmark in a second-round match. A goal down after three minutes, two goals down after 12, the Nigerians never recovered their poise and often found themselves dribbling at great speed, but in circles.
Nearly everyone had a soft spot for the Nigerians. Their extraordinary victory in the 1996 Olympics, clinched with victories over Brazil and Argentina, their sometimes dazzling touches and their sheer goofy unpredictability encouraged the dream that skill alone can carry the day.
As the sole surviving representatives of Africa, Nigeria also carried with it the hope that a poor continent could produce a world-beating team built on sheer talent despite Africa's lack of resources.
But a player's individual magic, as even the Brazilians know well, is worth little or nothing if not grafted onto a team's collective discipline. For all of Jay-Jay Okocha's dreamlike dribbling, for all the finesse of George Finidi, the Nigerians were essentially fragile, and yesterday they came apart. The Danes, who will face Brazil in a quarterfinal match Friday, were a revelation. Precise, mobile and ruthless in their finishing, they often found themselves in acres of space as Nigeria's team spirit visibly evaporated.
Only three minutes had gone when Michael Laudrup, who plays for Ajax Amsterdam and has played 101 games for Denmark's national team, laid the ball square to his fellow striker Peter Moeller. The Nigerian defense opened up before Moeller as if inviting him to shoot, and Moeller obliged with a splendid left-footed shot into the goal from 18 yards out.
It was Moeller again, nine minutes later, who stepped up to shoot after a free kick was awarded. The shot was fierce, but almost straight at goalkeeper Peter Rufai. Any world-class goalie would have caught the ball or punched it clear. Rufai was of two minds as to which solution to adopt. The result: The ball bounced away from him straight to Brian Laudrup, who joyfully slotted the ball into the net.
At the other end, in the Danish goal, the towering figure of Peter Schmeichel loomed. Widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world, Schmeichel, who plays for England's Manchester United, commanded the penalty area, making Nigeria's repeated long, high crosses look utterly futile.
"I think they went into the game thinking they were favorites and listening to the world's media saying they could be the first African side to win the Cup," Schmeichel said. "I think they were thinking about the Brazil game."
On an evening when everything went right for the Danes, coach Bo Johanssen made an inspired decision in the 60th minute. He sent on Ebbe Sand for the tiring Michael Laudrup and within 22 seconds Sand scored -- the fastest goal by a substitute in the history of the World Cup.
The game was over. Several Nigerian players stopped running.
"We still have a lot to learn," Okocha said. "We simply lacked discipline."
His coach, Bora Milutinovic, who trained the American team in 1994, said his squad needed to work harder. But that job, it seemed, would not be his. "I don't even know where I'll be tomorrow morning," Milutinovic said after the match.
Johanssen, the Danish coach, knows exactly where he will be, trying to preserve the Danish magic that stirred here yesterday. "You never know why everything comes together like this," he said. "Now we have to play the best team in the world, Brazil. We will give them a hard game."
Yesterday's results: Denmark 4, Nigeria 1 France 1, Paraguay 0, OT
Stars: Jose Luis Chilavert of Paraguay, considered one of the world's best goalkeepers, showed why with 24 saves in a 1-0 overtime loss to France. Denmark's Peter Moeller had a goal in the third minute, then set up another score in his first World Cup action.
Gone: Nigeria's loss took Africa out of the tournament. None of the other four teams from that continent had reached the second round.
Look ahead: Germany's precision meets Mexico's scrambling style. The Germans didn't hit stride in winning their group, but they can wear down opponents with the likes of Thomas Haessler in midfield, Oliver Bierhoff and Juergen Klinsmann up front and a rugged defense. The Mexicans rallied from 2-0 deficits for ties in their last two games to advance.
The Netherlands had its moments in the first round, especially in a 5-0 rout of South Korea. But it also struggled against Belgium and blew a 2-0 lead against Mexico. Against Yugoslavia, the Dutch defense can't afford to spring leaks.
Quotable: "Ronaldo is special. In the games we have left, I am sure he will show us all his magic." -- Brazilian teammate Leonardo about the two-time World Player of the Year.
Pub Date: 6/29/98