You may not have known it, but Nigeria and Iran's drab World Cup opener was more than just a test of how the African champion would fare against the Asian hopeful. It was also more than just a scrap for second place in the group behind Argentina.
In fact, for the two coaches, it was a job audition of sorts for a position an ocean and 7,500 kilometres away in South Africa. Stephen Keshi and Carlos Queiroz both have been linked to the Bafana Bafana job, and seeing them on the same stage would have given the decision-makers at the South African Football Association (SAFA) an idea of exactly what they may be getting. From a South African standpoint, what is worrying, based on the action on Monday night, is that if they appoint either of these men, it will just be more of the same.
As the 0-0 result suggested, the Nigeria vs. Iran match was the dullest of the World Cup so far. It was a cagey affair between two teams who looked both overly concerned with conceding and by implication, too scared to make a mistake. Nigeria lacked both innovation and trust in their forwards. Although they dictated proceedings most of the time, they were vulnerable on the counterattack. Iran were simply biding their time. Their defence frustrated the opposition, but they seldom launched any real threat.
The script for important matches is often written in this way. Teams are wary, so they err on the side of caution. That's fine, but the problem was that this fixture did not warrant that kind of approach from Nigeria. The Super Eagles squandered a golden opportunity to assert themselves over an opposition they could, and should, have beaten, and it seems they have only themselves to blame.
Before the match, Keshi admitted in a report by the Daily Star that he did not know much about Iran and believed their biggest advantage would the experience of their coach. John Obi Mikel confessed the same in an interview aired on the BBC's "Africa Today" podcast; claiming he expected a tough encounter, but wasn't sure how tough.
Some homework would have informed both men that Iran are a well-drilled outfit who had been through a grueling 16 qualification matches together, double what Nigeria had played. Of those, Iran won 10 and lost just two. They scored the most goals in the third round of qualification and conceded the fewest in the fourth round. Keshi and his team could have done a far more in-depth analysis, and the lack of preparation should be a warning to any future employers.
So should Keshi's reasoning for his team's lack of killer instinct on game day. "The boys were too nervous and unsettled," he said in quotes reported on Sky Sports. At least he mentioned that "you don't do that at this stage," but was still resigned, saying "it happens in football." He also promised his side could be better in two years.
Those comments sum up Bafana Bafana: often edgy, a little too ready to sum up their failures by referencing the inevitability of sport rather than any shortcomings, and constantly in a state of rebuilding. If Keshi is going to take that mantra to South Africa, he is best overlooked because the country has made a vow to move beyond mediocrity.
Queiroz was also satisfied despite the result, echoing the acceptance of the ordinary that South Africa need to move beyond. At least there was some understanding for his appraisal of his team. Iran are seen as outsiders and, correctly or not, are not expected to do much more than keep an opposition at bay. In fairness, they did that with great determination and the few times they had an opportunity to go beyond that, they tried, but it was clear the focus was defensive.
South Africa have already had too much of that and Queiroz would know. He oversaw Bafana Bafana's qualification to the 2002 World Cup but did not end up taking them there after reportedly falling out with the SAFA. While his value is obvious, he understands the nuances of various kinds of international football and, on the evidence of Monday night, would be a better option than Keshi even if he does not seem to offer anything new and may not be keen to return after his previous stint.
The real truth is that South Africa should look beyond both Keshi and Queiroz if they want a change in footballing fortunes. What Bafana Bafana need is someone who is willing to take some risks; what SAFA's administrators need is to give that person the space to get it wrong some of the time; what the players need is to have the drive to get it right.