Any keen observer of recent developments in the community of Nigerian football would effortlessly perceive that all is not well. To say that all is not well is even an understatement. The Nigerian football fraternity can however be said to be Nigeria in microcosm. It is not needful in this piece to begin to justify this assertion by listing the chain of anomalies that bedevil our nation which the Nigerian football house mirrors or suffers from as a consequence.
In the month of June 1994 when the Super Eagles gained visibility in world football by getting to the second round of the World Cup staged in the United States of America with scintillating, purposeful and entertaining displays, it was not because we had the best administration for our football in Nigeria. In fact it was under a military government under which established procedures and hierarchy were often circumvented. Even with the concomitant challenges the national team put up shows that still remain unforgettable. The Super Eagles occupied the fifth position on FIFA ranking. The developmental trajectory of the team in the years preceding 1994 was common knowledge. The journey began immediately after the 1:0 defeat in the World Cup qualifier against Cameroon at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde in August 1989. The outcome of this match which took place two weeks after the death of Sam Okwaraji on the field of play in the match against Angola put paid to the country’s aspiration to feature in 1990 World Cup. The rest, they say, is history.
Even after having developed into a strong team for over five years with a dreaded first eleven and an even more fearsome bench, the Super Eagles still betrayed lack of technical edge when it mattered most. The team barely survived Zambia in the finals of the Africa Nations Cup of 1994. One inexplicable substitution nearly erased the heroics of the Super Eagles on that day. The replacement of Austin Okocha with Nduka Ugbade late in the second half led to the total collapse of the midfield or should I say the entire team. Somehow, Nigeria survived.
At the World Cup in the same year, 1994, the team had outfield materials to have gotten to the finals. The team they defeated by 3:0 in their opening match, Bulgaria, picked up the pieces and went on to win the bronze medal. We were bundled out by Italy simply because our technical crew did not have the capacity to lift our team beyond the second round. The team led by Clemence Westerhorf did not have the antidote to the game plan, antics or theatrics of the Ariggo Sacchi-led team. It should be noted that Bonfrere Jo was not on the bench on the day of that match against Italy. He had been sent to monitor Mexico in their second round match in anticipation that we were going to meet them in the quarter finals. Is this mentality not analogous to dropping Emmanuel Emenike from the starting line up in the match against Congo last weekend? Maybe he was being reserved for the match against South Africa on Wednesday. It is not worth re-noting that matches are played one at a time. The claim that Emenike reported late to camp should not have warranted such a punitive measure that was obviously detrimental to the country’s aspirations. There are many ways of sanctioning errant players without putting the country in jeopardy.
I am not one of those who subscribe to the escapism that 1994 was our first global outing at the World Cup level and the team could not advance further owing to inexperience. Chidi Nwanu and Okechukwu Uche could not have been inexperienced. Neither were Rashidi Yekini and Finidi George. The technical team simply did not know what to do with Victor Ikpeba and Samson Siasia when Daniel Amokachi and Emmanuel Amunike were tactically eliminated by the Italians after Nigeria took an early lead through the latter’s clinical left-foot chip.
The tactical inadequacy of 1994 was corrected in 1996 during the Olympic Games held in Atlanta, U.S.A. with Bonfrere Jo at the head of the technical team. Anybody who was a stakeholder in Nigerian football at that time would tell you that the administration of the game in Nigeria then was in a total shambles. The team was assembled by Coach Willy Bazuaye and landed in Atlanta on the heels of 3:0 bashing in a friendly by Togo at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. Bonfrere Jo joined the team in Atlanta. I make bold to say that he did not have a tidy contract if at all he had any, that is. The players had their own stories to tell. Those did not matter much. What mattered most was what the coaches made out of the materials available to them in the field of play, especially at critical moments. Juxtapose the number of strikers at once in the field of play at the time Nigeria subdued Brazil in the semi finals (Nwankwo Kanu, Victor Ikpeba, Tijani Babangida, Wilson Oruma, Daniel Amokachi and Teslim Fatusi) and the wandering lone striker in Rashidi Yekini in the match against Italy at the World Cup two years earlier. It is not always that luck deals a good hand in football. Football is scientific. That victory was not a fluke. It was a result of demonstrable tactical savvy. It was a tactical move by a team that had nothing more to lose. The team was already down by three goals to one and time was fast ebbing away.
The point I am making therefore is that the current impasse in Nigerian football house should not be seen as responsible for the poor runs the Super Eagles have had recently. They’ve lost more of their last six matches than they’ve won. They lost two at the World Cup, two in the preceding friendlies and another one last weekend to Congo Brazzaville. They just survived South Africa’s Bafana Bafana on Wednesday. More poor and embarrassing results are likely to follow.
Success for the Super Eagles should not be measured against the backdrop of their performances against oppositions like Congo Brazzaville, Sudan and South Africa. Granted that there are no longer minnows in African, nay world football, but we have come a long way in the game and would have come even further if we accorded technical development the right attention. There are no visible structures in place for technical development. Our local coaches lack the technical depth to lift our game to its pinnacle. The present structures in the Super Eagles can only be retained if our ambition is to make the second round of the World Cup in 2018. But we deserve more than that.
My position, therefore, is that the technical team of the Super Eagles led by Stephen Keshi, and as presently constituted, do not have the capacity and temperament to lift us beyond this present stage. Many Nigerians find it difficult to voice their position on this issue for fear of being haunted by possible immediate or short term successes of the team or the dangling credential of winning the last Nations Cup. The team would still fall like a pack of cards when it matters most and at moments of utmost criticality, when big-stage small details count. It happened at the last Confederations Cup and the recent World Cup. It will happen all over again if nothing is done.
The issue of leaving established and in-form footballers out of the team based on unfounded and unsubstantiated accusation of tactical indiscipline should be left for another day. However, it has to be said that the national football team cannot be seen as or made anybody’s private property. The loyalty of the entire team including the technical crew should lie with the country and not the coach. Loyalty should not be allowed to constitute a balm for ego massaging. Patriotism is not an intoxicant. It must be demonstrable with sobriety. Any coach who selected the kind of team we took to the last World Cup and claims to love this country is simply taking everybody for a ride – a ride of interminable rebuilding process.
Performance in sports, especially football is not determined by age but form. That is why a Zinedine Zidane could be called back from retirement in 2006 and he still went ahead to win the Most Valuable Player award of the World Cup of that year. What we want to see is a progressive growth of our national team with the injection of exceptionally talented youth and weeding of fading players. We would like to see a head coach from any part of the world whose tactical ability is not in doubt, and who is willing to live and work with us. The expertise of such a coach must be seen to rub off on his contemporaries in the country. Xenophobia in the selection of national team coaches is now outdated.
With regard to Stephen Keshi, we should celebrate him. It is a thing of joy that many countries are looking for his services. We should be proud that our coaches are handling other countries’ national teams. He should go to one of them.