AFCON lessons for Nigerian football
The Super Eagles’ outing at the just concluded 33rd African Cup of Nations (AFCON) was a flash in the pan that ended disastrously. Though the team was not lacking in aces and industry, the soccer fiesta and eventual winners showed that flair without adequate preparation, team discipline, and national self-belief would not win trophies in modern football. And should the sports’ handlers quickly piece the pieces together; the Nigerian side can bounce back from the disappointment and regain its mojo in this World Cup year.
Like a house on fire, the Super Eagles made a profound statement in the Group D opener, defeating Pharaohs of Egypt – one of the tournament’s favorites. Besides the one-nil slim margin, the fluid pattern of play through the wings and dominant performance throughout 90 minutes gave the entire tournament an awesome prospect. Millions of football followers in Nigeria and abroad also quickly forget the lousy preparation and Coach Gernot Rhor’s saga. Subsequent displays against Sudan and Guinea Bissau earned the team the sole 100 per cent group stage performance of the competition, bolstering the Super Eagles’ ratings as a good contender for the AFCON trophy. But it was a fairytale that was soon brought back to reality by the shocking defeat to Tunisia – a team that managed to qualify for the knock-out phase and was decimated by COVID-19 infections.
The reality is that the Super Eagles’ side that showed up in Cameroun was an assemblage of individual brilliance but not a formidable team that can turn the corner of harsh luck or spring technical surprises in difficult games. And that has been the unfortunate trend since the 1990s’ golden era of Nigerian football. In the desire to win without rigors of good preparation, Nigeria has consistently called up players into the senior national team insofar they play anywhere overseas! The fallout is having a national team of strangers that are lacking in cohesion to play to their strength. But as the Super Eagles of old demonstrated, and revalidated at the 2021 AFCON, a team of 11 foreign-based players may win a match, but it takes a deep squad to win tournaments. Teranga Lions of Senegal and Pharaohs of Egypt finalists showed that it takes longer time of commitment, consistency and hard work to have a formidable team with an organic tradition of play. Senegalese Coach, Aliou Cisse, was a member of the Senegalese team that played at the 2002 World Cup and shockingly defeated France in the opener. The nations’ cup in Cameroun was Cisse’s third time as coach, having lost to Algeria at the 32nd AFCON Finals in Egypt. It finally took him eight years of coaching the team to win the first AFCON for Senegal. That is how to build a victorious national team that will last a while on the podium.
The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) has made the reasonable choice in retaining Coach Augustine Eguavoen as the interim Technical Adviser of the team. His confirmation is a reward for flashes of brilliance shown despite inheriting the team on the eve of the tourney. Eguavoen and other indigenous coaches should be encouraged to develop themselves, acquire technical depths and aspire heights with the national teams. Enough of politicians in the NFF employing journeymen as foreign coaches, and expecting them to deliver trophies overnight! Such fantasy is not the stuff of a serious footballing nation or one that wants to develop to potential. If the majority of the foreign coaches are not better than their local counterparts, then Nigeria cannot be wrong in supporting its own. However, the sports loving fraternity in Nigeria, administrators, fans, journalists and the likes must be patient with them as they will make their mistakes and learn from them.
If the Super Eagles must return to reckoning early enough, quality administration of football cannot be an afterthought. On the short run, there is a need for the NFF Glass House to focus on the World Cup crunchy qualifier against the Black Stars of Ghana, scheduled for next month. That, and the Qatar World Cup and the next AFCON in 2023, all require adequate preparation, if the Super Eagles must go far. Team discipline, commitment to common cause and clearly set goals are important. Some of the players didn’t show discipline and commitment in the prelude to the Cameroun outing. These and dead weights in the team should be substituted for hungrier players. All these are achievable where the coaching crew has a free hand to be innovative, build the team solely on merit and take decisions without interference.
In the long run, NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, and company have the mandate to develop Nigerian football through clearheaded policies and programmes. The springboard of that development is a viable school sport and local football leagues. It is rare for national teams to dominate long enough without a fairly well-organised and managed domestic league that attracts talents from home and abroad. More so, impressive performances of ‘minions’ like Gambia, Comoros, Malawi and Equatorial Guinea that played in the knock-out stages again showed the importance of homegrown talents, if properly harnessed. The Federal Government, through the Ministry of Sports and Youth Development, should demand better results from the NFF and sports federations generally. Enough of self-centred businessmen without any developmental programmes or track records of achievements mismanaging our sports. And the question must be asked: For how long will this country continue to short-change herself in harnessing the huge economic and developmental potential inherent in football and sporting activities in general?
Indeed, the defeat to Carthage Eagles of Tunisia and early exit from the tournament that the Super Eagles could have won was disappointing. But the set-back didn’t eclipse the depth of potential in Nigerian players and hope of a better outing in the future – if the buildup will, this time, be painstakingly credible, patriotic and well-coordinated from the boardroom to the goalpost.