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Mismanagement and indiscipline – the undoing of Nigerian Footballers

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Emmanuel Emenike

In the latest memory of the Africa Cup of Nations, one of the greatest revelations was Sunday Mba. During the 2013 edition in South Africa, the previously little-known Rangers midfielder burst onto the scene to almost miraculous effect. Tearing through the middle of the park, trailing opponents in his wake, he seemed as unstoppable as fate, as immutable as destiny. It seemed like a new star had been born.

Sadly, that was as good as it got for Mba. A year later, he was unable to make Nigeria’s squad to the World Cup in Brazil; six years on he is a footnote in Nigeria’s footballing history. The same can be said for Emmanuel Emenike, who finished highest goal scorer in that Nations Cup. He did feature at the World Cup, but he never hit the same heights, and bizarrely he retired in 2015.

It is a common story, especially when it comes to Nigerian football. Greatness, far from being a one-time event, is a continuous pursuit; too often Nigerian players lack the willpower to continually strive for it after an initial break.

Often down the years, it has been those of whom much was expected that have gone on to disappoint. There is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario to this, granted – without expectation, there can be no disappointment, true – but it too often appears that the perception of the public differs from the reality.
This is apparent, especially in the country’s youth football. There is no nation more successful at Under-17 level than Nigeria, and there have sprung from various crops various new hopes: the likes of Victor Brown, Femi Opabunmi, Chrisantus Macaulay, Rabiu Ibrahim (who, it was said, was the closest thing to the legendary Jay-Jay Okocha), Haruna Lukman, Sani Emmanuel, Stanley Okoro, Isaac Success, Kelechi Iheanacho and most recently, Kelechi Nwakali.

These were all players for whom success seemed inevitable. As Shakespeare might have said, they had greatness thrust upon them. However, for many of them, the inability to handle that expectation proved to be their undoing. Too few Nigerian players have a clearly defined career path from the off, and those that somehow do have tended to lack the discipline of good counsel to carry it through.
The refrain is usually that, from the very beginning and with the world at their feet, they make the wrong transfer decision and hit a brick wall. Then a pattern of loans begin in different locations, each more obscure than the last, until they become forgotten.

Emmanuel, top scorer for the 2009 under-17 side, at one time was on the books of Lazio. Iheanacho, who was the elect big thing at Manchester City and was being compared (favourably) to contemporary and England international Marcus Rashford, is reduced to a very occasional bit part role at Leicester City. Nwakali looks to have sabotaged himself before even taking off by choosing to join Arsenal, as work permit issues have instantly limited him and forced him into another poor choice in the Porto B team.
Consistently, these can be chalked up to having hangers-on posing as agents and advisors, leeches who are more interested in massaging their egos and getting what they can, than guiding these players on the right path.

The players themselves portray a lack of focus and drive, immediately content with the appearance of a comfortable lifestyle and the perks that come with it. The sport is simply a means to escape a harsh reality from early on in life; once that is achieved, nothing else matters.
Ironically, some of the players who have gone on to be mainstays in Nigeria’s senior national team were those of whom not a lot was expected. Odion Ighalo is a fine example of this. Away from the hype that comes with being the ‘next’ anything, he has consistently made smart career choices, maintained the same agent all through his career, and kept his nose out of trouble. It is an outlook that has yielded dividends.
Interestingly, while he made his breakthrough at Watford, compatriot Success has struggled at the same club, with incidents of gross indiscipline and excess blighting his time in England.

Wilfred Ndidi is another who, while highly thought of at youth level, never really shone or stood out at major international tournaments. Away from the spotlight, he has built a strong career, secure at Leicester and a stalwart of the national team.
It appears that, for Nigerian footballers to truly cherish and build on success, it is far better to achieve greatness than to have it thrust upon them. The spotlight has, too often proven their undoing.


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