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Football food for thought

By Anthony Akinwale
10 February 2022   |   2:49 am
At AFCON 2022, Nigeria, against all expectations, defeated Egypt but could not defeat Tunisia. Nigeria topped her group after winning all her group matches

[FILES] Senegal’s head coach Aliou Cisse holds a Senegalese flag as he celebrates after winning the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 final football match between Senegal and Egypt at Stade d’Olembe in Yaounde on February 6, 2022. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

What happens in a game of football defies mathematics. The outcome of a football match defies logic.

At AFCON 2022, Nigeria, against all expectations, defeated Egypt but could not defeat Tunisia. Nigeria topped her group after winning all her group matches. Tunisia came third in her group and barely made it to the round of 16. But Tunisia eliminated Nigeria, while Egypt that Nigeria defeated ended as runners-up having lost to Senegal in a penalty shootout.

Nigerian football fills our plate with a huge quantity of food—food for thought, not food for our stomach. But if the food for thought were to be taken and digested, Nigerian football will offer us food for the stomach. Football is a potentially lucrative venture which, sadly, we have simply refused to give the attention it deserves. Instead, most football fans at viewing centres and commentators on radio and television in Nigeria prefer to dissipate their emotions on the English Premier League or on any other European league.

This predilection for foreign football goes hand-in-hand with a foreign coach syndrome. Aliou Cisse, the coach of Senegal, was a member of the Senegalese national team that inflicted a shocking defeat on mighty France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup. This was his third time taking Senegal to the AFCON final. Senegal won the trophy, for the first time in the history of Senegalese football.

Perhaps there is no bad belle in Senegal. In Nigeria, he would have been shown the way out by hypercritical commentators and envious colleagues. Cisse belonged to the golden age of Senegalese football. It was fitting to have appointed him coach of his country’s national team. But where are members of the Nigerian team at the 1994 World Cup? Where are members of the Dream Team that won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 after inflicting shocking defeats on football superpowers like Brazil and Argentina?

Augustine Eguavoen was a member of that 1994 team. The goal that eliminated Nigeria came from a penalty he incurred. That does not diminish him. But if the Nigerian players had not lost concentration towards the end of that match, the Italians who eliminated Nigeria would have, at the final whistle, immediately proceeded to Boston Logan Airport from Foxboro Stadium for their return trip to Italy. Coach Clemens Westerhof explained why Nigerian players lost concentration and allowed Roberto Baggio to equalize within 90 seconds to the final whistle. I chose not to go into that explanation.

Apart from Eguavoen, the Super Eagles have had some other members of that golden age of Nigerian football as coaches. Stephen Keshi of blessed memory coached the 2013 AFCON winning. Samson Sia Sia proved to be a good national team coach. Sunday Oliseh’s record as coach is difficult to interpret. Apart from coaching Nigeria’s Under-17 team, Emmanuel Amunike coached Tanzania. Amunike will be remembered for the two goals he scored in the final of the 1994 AFCON, his goal against Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup, his goal against Italy in that same edition of the World Cup, and his winning goal against Argentina in the final of the football event at the Atlanta Olympics. He has what it takes to coach the Super Eagles. With this array of great soccer players, why is Nigeria perpetually showing a preference for foreign coaches?

A Yoruba adage says whoever nurses the appetite to eat a toad should at least eat one that lays eggs. Why then is it the case that Nigeria and many other African countries hire foreign coaches without pedigree, coaches who have never won any trophy, coaches who cannot even be asked to manage a club side in their countries? Why is it that while Cisse is sweating it out with the Teranga Lions of Senegal, Augustine Okocha and Sunday Oliseh are running commentaries on television? Ghana, Cameroon, among others, have a history of producing excellent footballers. Why then do African countries generally prefer foreign coaches to their own?

The Nigerian team at AFCON 2022 offered a pleasant surprise in the group stages, and an unpleasant surprise in the round of 16. After winning all their group matches, scoring six goals and conceding one, it was generally believed that Nigeria was a strong contender for the trophy. But it seems there is a problem of mental attitude and discipline among our players.

The only goal Nigeria conceded in the group stages came from a penalty kick following a needless infringement in the penalty box committed by Ola Aina in the match against Sudan. The same Aina miscalculated and showed poor recovery capacity in the incident that led to the surprise shot that our handsome goalkeeper, Maduka Okoye, out of poor concentration, could not stop. That goal sent Nigeria back home. Then, the red card is shown to Alex Iwobi. It was too cheap. Some have suggested that a certain team was being shielded by referees from potentially potent adversaries. But there is no piece of evidence to prove that. What can be said is that Iwobi, being a professional, could have avoided the kind of tackle or collision that led to the card. What would have been the outcome of the match if Nigeria were not reduced to 10 men? Nigeria needed a talisman playing against Tunisia. He could not go to AFCON. His name is Victor Osimhen.

But if one says this of the players, something must be said of the fanatics who, out of malice and idleness, insulted and threatened the lives of our players because we lost a match. A football match is not a matter of life and death. It’s only a game. There are more important things, more serious problems facing Nigeria than football. It is criminally abusive to use social media or any means to threaten the lives of players who risk their limbs to play football for Nigeria.

In just a few weeks, the Super Eagles will be playing against the Black Stars of Ghana to decide who goes to the next World Cup. The question is not just which five African teams will qualify, but, what quality of African representation will be at the next World Cup?

African teams notoriously demonstrate a lack of technical depth and discipline requisite for advancement beyond the group stages. That was the case in the 2018 World Cup. African players in Europe perform wonders. But that does not always translate into wonderful performances when they play on their national teams. We also saw how some European clubs refused to release African players to play at AFCON. Arsene Wenger once called it a “Mickey Mouse competition”. We Africans must learn some lessons here.

First, African countries, given the huge potential in African footballers, need to reorgainse the game individually and collectively. The Confederation of African Football has a major role to play in this regard. African club sides, African leagues, stadia, security within and outside the stadia, officiating, football journalism, transportation of players and fans—all need to be reorganized.

Secondly, if we organize credible football leagues across the length and breadth of Africa, in a near future, our youngsters will not need to go to Europe to play and earn a living. Football, tourism and agriculture can, in synergy, generate wealth and drastically reduce insecurity in Africa. Some of the youngsters used as militia by our political elite will be gainfully employed.

Thirdly, our coaches must have the courage to tell intruders to keep off the dressing room. In 1989, Nigeria got to the final of the Under-20 World Cup. On the eve of the final match, there was a delegation sent by the Nigerian government to the players. It caused a distraction and created a lack of concentration on match day. We lost 2-0 to Portugal.

A few years ago, Enyimba was playing in the final of the African Cup of Champions’ Club, as the competition was known then. The Abia State Governor sat on the technical bench throughout the match giving instructions. The coach should have politely asked His Excellency to return to the state box extension.

Why is this being said? Because, according to some reports, the Super Eagles were distracted by phone calls, video calls and pep talks in the dressing room at half-time from many quarters during the last AFCON. These interventions might have been well-intentioned. But, they affect concentration, whereas, in football, as in many things, concentration is key. No coach should allow that.

One last existential lesson. It is even the most important. The game of football teaches us that attitude matters. Good attitude is a prerequisite for success, not only in football but in every sphere of human endeavour. The way we Africans run the game of football is a pointer to the need for profound attitudinal changes in our lives.

Father Akinwale is OP Dominican University, Ibadan.