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AFCON exit: A symptom of Nigeria’s league football failure

AFCON exit: A symptom of Nigeria’s league football failure

You probably clicked on this article expecting it to be an excoriation of the Super Eagles following their lackluster exit from the ongoing AFCON, sorry, “Total Energies African Cup of Nations 2021.” You probably expect me to draw a tenuous link between General Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to place a call through to the team before the 2nd Round tie with Tunisia, and their eventual baffling loss to a clearly inferior and under-strength opponent.

Tempting as it would be to fire off 800 words of anti-Buhari invective based on this premise, this article is not about that. What this column seeks to do is to analyse the manner and circumstances of one of the more disappointing defeats in recent Super Eagles history, with the wider story of the failure of the league football system in Nigeria.

By the end of this column, the reader should hopefully be more educated about the link between state involvement in what should be a private business activity, and the repeated outcomes witnessed at several AFCONs and World Cups. Let us start halfway around the world.

It is no coincidence that Nigeria’s most successful footballing moment over the past 2 decades which came under Stephen Keshi, had a strong spine of home-based players responsible for it

The Brazilian example

The 2002 FIFA World Cup final between Brazil and Germany is often remembered as the “Ronaldo Final” – the game where he stamped his pre-eminence on the football world with his two goals and dazzling combination with Rivaldo. What tends to fly under the radar somewhat is that of Brazil’s starting 11 in that match, 2 players were registered with Brazilian football clubs. Goalkeeper Marcos and Central Midfielder José Kléberson played for Palmeiras and Atlético Paranaense respectively at the time. In Nigerian football parlance, that means that Brazil won the World Cup with 2 “home-based players” in its starting lineup.

For the non-football fans reading this, think of that as a Nigerian movie winning an Oscar with 20 percent of its cast and crew recruited directly from the so-called “Asaba Nollywood.” Imagine how much of a big deal and a ringing endorsement of the homeboys’ quality that would be. That was Brazil in 2002. In a squad with superstars like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos who played at clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain, and AC Milan, Kléberson and Marcos more than held their own, helping Brazil win its 5th world title. What is more, their inclusion was not some sort of affirmative action by coach Luis Felipe Scolari.

In Scolari’s own words, they were in the team because they were best able to help the team in their playing positions – they were even better than some European-based players in their positions also in the same squad. Understanding the significance of this is key to understanding what is fundamentally wrong with Nigeria’s Super Eagles. In Scolari’s assessment, what Brazil needed to win the game against the tactically peerless Germans was a skillful, creative central midfield player who could unlock the German lines using precise combinations with Rivaldo and Ronaldo. The second and final goal was the result of one such combination.

Why is this so important? It is because Scolari looked at the European-based options in his squad and decided that the hard-running, tactically drilled, but somewhat less creative central midfield players were not necessary in this game against an opponent that would sit back and absorb pressure. He needed a more stereotypically “Brazilian” flair player to come up with moments of magic like Kléberson’s brilliant dummy which presented the ball to Ronaldo for the game-winning goal. Only a Brazilian-based player in his squad could offer that specific quality that had been coached out of the European-based alternatives. That quality is what won the world cup for Brazil.

Now let us compare and contrast this successful experience with that of Nigeria.

From Kléberson to Thomas Partey

It is widely accepted that Nigeria’s “Golden Generation” of footballers emerged between the early 1990s and the early 2000s. The Okochas, Olisehs, Amunikes, Amokachis, Babayaros, Kanus, and Taribos benefitted from the tutelage of Clemens Westerhof and Jo Bonfrere as they went from unknowns to World No 5, coming within a few minutes of beating then champions Italy in the 2nd round of the World Cup. They would go on to win an Olympic Gold medal, an AFCON trophy, and make it to the 2nd round of the world cup again, after winning a group containing Spain, Bulgaria, and Paraguay.

When comparing the vast gulf in class and quality between those players and the subsequent generation of Super Eagles who also play in Europe, one key fact is always omitted – those players almost to a man, all played significant portions of their career in the Nigerian football league, and were already – to an extent – finished articles before they moved to Europe. JayJay Okocha for example, was a fan idol at Enugu Rangers before he signed for Eintracht Frankfurt. Sunday Oliseh was a fixture at Julius Berger FC. Finidi George was a regular at Sharks FC of Port Harcourt before he moved to Ajax and made his debut – as an established first-team player.

Why is this important? Because unlike the subsequent generations of Super Eagles who left to Europe almost as soon as they could kick a ball, this generation of players was actually immersed in the culturally Nigerian style of playing football, which is focused on lightning-quick transitions, technically peerless ball possession, ball-playing central defenders and bruising wingers. They went to Europe with an established and defined set of footballing skills which were polished and enhanced in Europe. The subsequent generations, however, pushed by an incompetent league system and a hopelessly corrupt NFF, have found themselves carrying out trials in Finland, Sweden, and Norway as 19 year-olds who are still learning the game.

Read also: AFCON 2021: Pinnick, MTN applaud Super Eagles efforts

Desperate to make it out of Nigeria, they are completely at the mercy of European managers who turn them into absolutely anything they want them to be. This is how John Obi Mikel – winner of an U20 World Cup silver ball while playing as a creative midfielder – was turned into a hulking central midfield destroyer at club level, only to try (and fail) to carry the weight of JayJay Okocha’s No 10 shirt with the Super Eagles. It is how Odion Ighalo, once mobile and technically astute striker with quick feet, was converted into a frontline battering ram whose primary occupation was to stick his butt into opponents’ midriffs and hold up the ball for his teammates.

A similar situation takes place across many African footballing systems, which is how come Ghana’s Thomas Partey – once a skillful No 10 who more than often could beat his man – was converted into the footballing equivalent of a T55 armoured tank by Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid. In fact, it is no coincidence that Nigeria’s most successful footballing moment over the past 2 decades which came under Stephen Keshi, had a strong spine of home-based players responsible for it. It is not that the home-based players were better footballers than the European-based ones – far from it. It is that – as in the case of Brazil in 2002 – they were the ones who could perform certain roles that had been coached out of their European-based counterparts.

Sunday Mba of Warri Wolves was probably not a better footballer than Fegor Ogude of Vålerenga Oslo, but Sunday Mba was better at playing the No 8 role in central midfield, breaking up play and driving with the ball through the opponents – because this was what he did at Warri Wolves. Fegor Ogude might have been good at that role at one point, but his Norwegian coaches had turned him into yet another African midfield battering ram and coached the finer offensive instincts out of him.

It is also no coincidence that under Gernot Rohr when there was zero attempt to integrate culturally Nigerian footballers or Nigerian football philosophy into the setup, the Super Eagles lost all semblance of identity and were reduced to playing like Uganda or Zimbabwe – hoofing long balls upfield for Odion The Tank Engine to flick on or catch with his chest. As soon as a manager with a proper understanding of how Nigerian teams play football came in, the level of the team improved drastically – the reason for all this should be clear.

Of course, nobody is listening anyway so…