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Kicking Super Eagles on the shin

By Ray Ekpu
01 February 2022   |   3:56 am
Nigeria’s national football team, Super Eagles, had by its performance in three group matches at AFCON winged its way into the hearts of Nigerians. Three matches played, three matches won.

(Top L-R) Nigeria’s defender Tyronne Ebuehi, midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, defender Semi Ajayi, forward Umar Sadiq, goalkeeper Francis Uzoho, defender William Troost-Ekong, (bottom L-R) defender Jamilu Collins, forward Chidera Ejuke, midfielder Kelechi Nwakali, forward Alex Iwobi and forward Kelechi Iheanacho pose prior to the Group D Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2021 football match between Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 19, 2022. (Photo by Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP)

Nigeria’s national football team, Super Eagles, had by its performance in three group matches at AFCON winged its way into the hearts of Nigerians. Three matches played, three matches won. They beat Sudan 3-1, Guinea Bissau 2-0 and amazingly the seven-time AFCON champion Egypt 1-0. They scored six goals and conceded one. They claimed all the nine points and the title of the best team of the group games.

Its coach, Austin Eguavon was the stand-out coach of the group games. The scintillating play of these boys, their ease of movement and delivery, their high recovery rate, their blockade of opponents supply routes endeared them to Nigerians and other fans at Garoua in Cameroon where they played all their four matches. Nigerians never gave that team a chance and for good reasons. The team’s coach Gernot Rohr was sacked only a couple of weeks before the tournament.

An unprepared Technical Director of the team Austin Eguavon was drafted to handle the team as an interim coach. Some of the players had matches to play in their European clubs before reporting to the team’s camp in Abuja. Some of the key players such as Odion Ighalo, Victor Osimhen and Paul Onuachu, the golden boot winner in Belgium last season, were absent for one reason or the other. The other members of the team were strolling into the camp in ones and twos and the coaching crew could not have full training sessions until a few days to the start of the tournament.

In that kind of situation of lackadaisal preparedness Nigerians had no reason to expect a miracle from the team. They expected Egypt which is the highest winner of AFCON so far, seven titles, and which parades a galaxy of star players including the incomparable Mohammed Salah to wallop the Super Eagles. That was the first duel and most Nigerians thought our team may have lost the match before the ball was kicked because of the intimidating profile of Liverpool’s star striker, Salah. But lo and behold, the Super Eagles pleasantly surprised Nigeria by pocketing Salah and running away with a 1-0 victory over Egypt.

That was a stunner that inflated the ego of Nigerians. The next two matches bolstered the confidence of Nigerians in their team as the goal tally increased in each of the two games. So Nigeria qualified for the round of 16 with a game to spare. Since the third game was more or less a formality, the coach decided to rest some of the key players and to put to the test some of the players who had had no taste of action on the pitch. With a largely second string of players Nigeria still beat Guinea Bissua 2-0. It appeared at this point that Nigeria was ready for the knock-out stages.

The players then promised they were ready to go the whole hog and the coach told us that they were not ready to go home yet, meaning that they were ready to roll with the punches and take us to the victory podium. It didn’t sound like an empty boast because their opponent, Tunisia, had immense problems. Ten of their prominent players had tested positive for covid-19 and would be out of action. Even their coach Mondher Kebaier had been struck down by covid-19 too and would be watching the match in isolation in his hotel room. The assistant coach would be expected to step into his shoes in an acting capacity. All these problems that covid-19 had piled up for the Carthage Eagles seemed to be a plus for Nigeria and our Eagles were, therefore, expected to fly higher than their own. That didn’t happen. The reverse happened. They caged our danger man Moses Simon on the left wing and Samuel Chukwueze on the right wing, sending two players after them each time the ball was in their possession.

Their wings were effectively clipped and the Nigerian coaching crew had no answer to the problem. We lost the match by a goal when Tunisia’s Youssef Msakni sent a scorcher of a shot past Maduka Okoye. To compound our woes our midfielder Alex Iwobi who went into the field at the 59th minute was shown a red card for dangerous tackle after only a stint of six minutes on the pitch.

Nigeria was sent home after four games and Nigerians have received the news very badly. They have blamed our goalkeeper Okoye, a man they had praised for being handsome and sexy when we were winning. Some of them have gone overboard on the internet. One person wrote “you are not a good goalkeeper. Please go and learn.” Another thought the goalkeeper sold the match. He said: “Maduka, you no go live long as you sell this AFCON.” Why would he sell a match that is not the final? Another actually pronounced a curse on him “Guy e no go better 4 u. I pray u no go see next month. Na for plane crash u go die.”

I have always known football to be a crazy game and some football fans to be absolutely crazy. Some fans have stabbed other fans at viewing centres because their teams lost or won and an argument erupted. Some of them go berserk and go off their trolleys in a maniacal fit. I don’t know who can bring them back to earth when they are moon-struck and seek to do something wonderfully strange as sending death threats to someone who made a simple mistake. What do they do to those defenders who could not stop the striker from firing that bullet into their net? Every team wins or losses together so no person deserves to be hanged for the loss of a match or for failing to make one save when he may have made many saves before then. Remember, no one is perfect. Our attacking strength in this tournament came from the wings with Moses Simon on the left and Samuel Chukwueze on the right. We have had some stand-out wingers in our teams in the past: Emmanuel Amunike, Finidi George, Tijani Babangida and Victor Moses to mention but a few. The solution to wingers being caged is for any football tactician to devise a plan B which may mean approaching the game largely from the middle if you do have a great dribbler like Jay Jay Okocha as your talisman.

The Nigerian Football authorities are lucky that the Super Eagles failed to bring home the trophy. If they had done, the football body would have found it difficult explaining to Nigerians why they hurriedly hired a Portuguese coach, Jose Peseiro, who has no exceptionally admirable record as a coach and no trophy in his kitty to show for his coaching prowess. Gernot Rohr was not a fantastic coach. His best result for Nigeria was the bronze medal we earned at the 2019 AFCON in Egypt and qualifying Nigeria for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. His most important contribution to the team was his combing out of the European leagues several Nigerians born abroad who are playing good football abroad but as a coach he was tactically deficient.

How could we score four goals against Sierra Leone and he allowed Sierra Leone to score four goals too without introducing holding midfielders? Mark you, Sierra Leone is not a high ranking footballing nation. It has never won AFCON or reached the finals yet they tore our defence into shreds and the coach stood there looking lost. It is a pity that the NFF looks unprepared for serious football business as it runs from pillar to post trying to find money to run this business that is a big money spinner. I have nothing against foreign coaches but if we have to hire them they must be worth the hire. Third rate foreign coaches that are jobless abroad cannot help our football. Our local coaches have been quite successful at age grade competitions so why can’t we train them for higher duties with our senior teams? Two foreign coaches who were successful here were Mr Westerhoff and Mr Bonfre Joe. They won AFCON and Under 23 competitions respectively. But the secret of their success is that they had uninterrupted access to high-level political decision makers. I am aware that Westerhoff was very close to Vice President Augustus Aikhomu and easily got a listening ear on the problems of the team. On the other hand, local coaches are badly treated by the NFF. Stephen Keshi always complained about this and when he won the AFCON in 2013 he complained about desertion of his team before he took it to the finals and won the tournament. Winning a tournament by a team depends not only on the players and the coaching crew but also on the army of service providers mobilised for the team.

Preparation for this year’s tournament was tacky not only from our country but also from CAF. It is only a few weeks to the opening of the tournament that CAF sent a delegation to Cameroon to ascertain the suitability of the pitches. Besides, staging the tournament, for whatever reason, in January, deprives the teams of some of Africa’s star players plying their trade abroad because it is not the off-season in Europe now. I hope CAF will revert to June-July when clubs take a break and not force players to make the difficult choice of playing for either club or country.

Our teams are doing well at the age grade level eventhough we are aware that there have been cheats in the past. Now with the MRI equipment in use, such wayo is being eliminated. But the question is why is success at the age grade level not translated into success at the senior level? At the age grade level the players come from the various football nurseries established in various parts of the country and they have regular competitions. Two, they are also very hungry for fame and fortune so they seek to excel. When I hear people asking coaches to pick players from the local league for the senior team I burst into laughter.

Our local league is not in a position to produce good players that can stand the rigour of senior team football at a competitive level. The players are not well paid or motivated; the pitches are poor; discipline is lax; refereeing is suspect and coaching leaves a lot to be desired. Anyone who is playing senior football locally is only doing so because he has no choice. If he has a choice he would prefer to play abroad where the pay is humongous, the coaching and training pitches good and the welfare excellent. Many of our footballers playing abroad got recruited through their performance at age grade competitions such as Under 17, Under 20 and Under 23. So anyone who is telling a coach to select his senior team players from our local league is simply joking. You can’t ignore those excelling in tough leagues abroad and come home to pick the dregs as your first eleven. No coach who wants to win games can do that.
Our local footballers are very poorly paid. There is a saying that if you pay peanuts you can only get monkeys to work for you. That is true in football as well as in other professions.