The squad remained on American soil on Wednesday night, and were due to board a flight that would land in the western Brazilian city of Manaus with just hours to spare ahead of their Group B clash with Japan on Thursday (9 p.m. ET).
Their delay, according to multiple reports from journalists following the team, was caused by a payment mix-up between the Nigerian sports ministry and a charter airline company.
“It has been an absolute shambles and the whole thing is a complete embarrassment,” Nigerian soccer expert Colin Udoh told USA TODAY Sports. Udoh said he had spoken to several members of the team who were “devastated and angry” at the situation.
Nigeria’s players had initially thought they would be leaving Atlanta on Wednesday morning. However, when they boarded a flight that their sports ministry had booked with a charter company it was not large enough to carry all of the players, so they disembarked.
A solution was eventually found when the group made contact with another airline, Delta, which was able to provide an aircraft that will depart Atlanta at 8 a.m. ET on Thursday. The scheduled landing in Manaus is at 2 p.m. ET, with the match starting seven hours later. However, the multitude of hold-ups affecting Olympic athletes and travelers to Brazil means there is still some trepidation in the camp.
“The players are really worried and so are the people in Nigeria,” Udoh said. “Anything can happen – more delays, bad weather. It is completely the wrong way to prepare for an Olympic game.”
At least they will get there in comfort. The aircraft that will take the team on Thursday morning is a plane normally used to transport NBA basketball players to games. Delta spokesman Anthony Black said the company flew the plane into Atlanta on Wednesday evening from Cincinnati, and prepared it overnight for the Nigerian party to use. The company arranged for landing clearance with Manaus airport officials.
“We realized there was a time crunch here because these guys were playing the next day,” Black told USA TODAY Sports. “Once we realized that logistically we could make this happen, we got things rolling quickly.”
“We understand, with the plans on ground, we will definitely be in Manaus for the game," said team spokesman Timi Ebikagboro.
Nigeria’s players have been locked in a dispute with their sports ministry after becoming increasing disgruntled with the handling of their travel plans. Their flight was first delayed because a payment to a prior charter company did not arrive on time. Once Wednesday’s flight was abandoned due to the size of the plane, the federal government stepped in to pay for the Delta trip.
Ebikagboro said on Twitter that the players’ performance would not be affected by the extraordinary saga. “The players can be comfortable all through the journey so they can arrive refreshed,” Ebikagboro wrote. He added the players “will be well taken care of by the medical team on the flight, all is happy.”