Super Eagles as metaphor for Nigeria’s malaise
Legendary Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, famously noted: “Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death… I said ‘listen, it’s more important than that.’” As in Brazil – another historically under-performing regional power – football is like a religion in prayerful Nigeria. The world’s most popular sport is one of the few sources of unity in a deeply divided country. The recent failures of the country’s soccer team – the “Super Eagles” – at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the World Cup qualifiers, have thus left deep scars in the national psyche, eliciting widespread frustration followed by an eerie silence of a nation on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown and in need of communal therapy. But yet, this was a chronicle of a tragedy foretold.
Super Eagles, super blunders
Nigeria’s Super Eagles are a mirror of the country, with hugely talented players, most plying their trade in top European leagues. Nigeria has historically enjoyed footballing success, winning Olympic gold in 1996; AFCON in 1980, 1994, and 2013; and reaching four AFCON finals. It has qualified for six of the last seven World Cups, reaching the round of 16 three times.
But like the country, the Super Eagles have been let down by the fatal national characteristics of gross mismanagement, avaricious administration, lack of leadership and planning, and an alchemic propensity to try to take short cuts to success through strange incantations rather than meticulous planning. At the root of the problem is maladministration. The longest serving coach in Nigeria’s history, German Gernot Rohr, was on the job for five years, losing 13 games out of 64, while winning 35 (55%). He had led the Super Eagles to a creditable third place at the last AFCON in Egypt in 2019, he had qualified the team for AFCON in Cameroon in 2022, and he had led the Super Eagles to the brink of World Cup qualification against Ghana.
Why then was he summarily dismissed last December, a month before AFCON, and three months before the World Cup qualifier? Was any thought given to the negative impact of such a hare-brained decision on players he had bonded with over five years? Why did the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) not give Rohr three months to finish the job he had started, before possibly sacking him? Would it not have been sensible to have avoided the 156 million naira ($377,879) compensation that FIFA has ordered the coach be paid for prematurely terminating his contract? Many myopic Nigerians had criticised the team’s playing style, questioned the patriotism of foreign-born players, and called quixotically for the recruitment of local talent.
Chronicle of a tragedy foretold
Even before Afcon began in Cameroon in January 2022, the habitual grumblings from Super Eagles players about unpaid bonuses filtered out of the camp. Embezzlement of players’ compensation by corrupt administrators across all sporting codes remains a widespread practice in many African countries. In a theatre of the absurd after sacking Rohr, the NFF hurriedly appointed a local caretaker coach, Augustin Eguavoen. Compounding the farce, a Portuguese coach, José Peseiro, was simultaneously announced as the full-time coach to take over after AFCON.
On the pitch, the Super Eagles players, at first, brushed aside these concerns to emerge as the only team to win all three group matches at AFCON, easily beating seven-time champion, Egypt’s “Pharaohs,” in a dominant opening game, before easing past Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.
Confidence was sky-high and, by now, opportunistic politicians had started to flock to Cameroon to share in any reflected glory. But the Super Eagles had flattered to deceive. In a round of 16 match against a Tunisia side that had qualified third in its group – beaten by Mali and Gambia – and depleted by COVID-19 infections which also struck its coach, Mondher Kebaier, the Nigerians choked against the “Carthage Eagles” conceding a goal to a goalkeeping blunder, and lacking the tactical nous to respond to the Tunisians’ defensive counter-attacking game.
Two months later, an even more spectacular disaster struck the Super Eagles during their two-legged World Cup qualifiers against arch-rivals, Ghana. A hard-fought 0-0 draw in Kumasi meant that the Super Eagles had their fate in their own hands in the return leg in Abuja in front of 60,000 vociferous home fans. Ghana’s preparations had been even more shambolic than Nigeria’s: the “Black Stars” had come bottom of their group at AFCON the previous month.
The country appointed a new coach, Otto Addo, a few weeks to the crucial World Cup qualifiers with Nigeria. Having lost its talismanic captain, Al Sadd’s André Ayew, to suspension, the team consisted largely of inexperienced players led by Arsenal’s inspirational Thomas Partey. With all to play for in front of expectant home fans, the Super Eagles meekly crashed out following a 1-1 draw, with another goalkeeping blunder leading to yet another cheap goal. As with the match with Tunisia, Nigeria repeated its collapse in the second half: the Super Eagles simply ran out of steam and ideas on how to break down a well-organised, defensive Ghanaian team. Only Napoli’s tireless service-starved Victor Osimhen appeared to understand the sacrifices required to reach the World Cup.
A shameless elite and the Igbo question
These dual debacles perfectly symbolise Nigeria’s collective failure to get its act together as a nation. The same huge talent and potential that the Super Eagles undoubtedly possess, resides in many of the nation’s writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and athletes. But a spectacular failure of organisation and leadership – epitomised by a bankrupt political class, venal sports administrators, and a plethora of false prophets – has led to a propensity to seek magic solutions without putting in the strategic thought and hard graft to achieve success. These have all combined to render Nigeria the “Poverty Capital of the World,” and resulted in a government that is unable to fulfil its most basic task: providing security to its citizens.
If there was any sense of ethics or accountability in Nigeria, the top echelons of the NFF – led by Amaju Pinnick – would have resigned after these two disasters. But West Africa’s Gulliver is a nation that has no shame. Nigeria is a country in which no one resigns or takes responsibility for clear failures, as a rotten and kleptocratic political and military class have consistently demonstrated over six decades of poor governance. One of the curiosities of the Super Eagles is that indigenes of the southeast have often been overrepresented in the team over the past few decades: from Christian Chukwu to Stephen Keshi to Nwankwo Kanu to “Jay Jay” Okocha to Kelechi Iheanacho.
Yet, the same country refuses to take the simple and sensible step of rotating its presidency to the only major geo-political region that has yet to produce a civilian president. Why are Nigerians prepared to embrace Igbos in their national football team, but not entrust the leadership of the country to this resourceful group? Did the civil war not end over 50 years ago? As the politicians once more traverse the country spreading apathy in presidential primaries, it is worth contemplating the deeper sources of Nigeria’s malaise as embodied in its national soccer team.
Professor Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.