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Nigeria, a hard lesson from Cameroun

By Gowon Akpodonor, who was in Cameroun
11 February 2022   |   4:25 am
One of the enduring sights at the final whistle of the Cameroun 2021 Africa Cup of Nations was the picture of a disconsolate Mohamed Salah being consoled by Sadio Mane...

Senegalese referee Maguette N’Diaye (2R) gives a red card to Nigeria’s forward Alex Iwobi (unseen) during the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 round of 16 football match between Nigeria and Tunisia at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 23, 2022. (Photo by Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP)

How grit, determination gave AFCON title to Senegal

One of the enduring sights at the final whistle of the Cameroun 2021 Africa Cup of Nations was the picture of a disconsolate Mohamed Salah being consoled by Sadio Mane, who had just led his beloved Senegal to their first triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations. It showed the contrasting fortunes of two people, teammates, friends and club rivals, who, for the first time in their lives, experienced the contrasting fortunes of the Africa Cup of Nations final.

Whereas Mane, the nimble-footed Senegalese had just achieved a success none of his former great compatriots, from Jules Bocande to Elhadji Diouf, could do, Salah was ruing his inability to join the great Egyptian legends like Mahmoud El-Gohary, Ahmed Abdel-Fatah Badawi, Ekramy Mohammed, Mahmoud El Khateeb “Bibo”, Taher Abu Zeid, Gamal Abdel-Hamid, Mahmud El Khatib, Essam El Hadary, Mohamed Abou-Treika, Hosni Abd-Rabou, Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Barakat, Emad Meteb and Amr Zaki had done for The Pharaohs.

Salah was, however, consoled that though they lost the trophy, they did their best to come from no hopers after their first game to cup finalists in less than three weeks.

When all was said and done, Senegal went home to a rousing reception, where a people for long denied of reasons for celebration in a game they have adopted as their national past time. Egypt, on the other hand, went back to the drawing to prepare for what they see as a bigger battle with the same Senegal: Their final contest for a Qatar 2022 World Cup ticket.

As fate would have it, the finalists have pitted together in a battle for one of the five Qatar 2022 ticket available for African countries.

Senegal’s triumph in Cameroun clearly shows the importance of perseverance, patience, humility, and trust in local coaches.
Before the final game on February 6, 2022, Senegal’s best finish in the competition was the two silver medals they won in 2002 and 2019. In these competitions, they were touted as the most likely champions because their team then had the best crop of players among African nations.

Apart from the two finals, Senegal had also reached the semifinals five times, losing three times in 1965, 1990 and 2006. They also lost the bronze medals games on those occasions.

But the pains from decades of failures were erased in 15 minutes through penalty kicks. It stopped Senegal’s slide into a team of glorious failures and exorcised the ghosts that had haunted the nation of 18 million people.

Some analysts believe that Senegal’s triumph in Cameroun is a clear testimony that indigenous coaches will always triumph for their countries if they are given necessary support. Although it does not clearly decide the local versus foreign coach debate, there are many who believe that given the same treatments and support, the local coaches will always perform better than foreign coaches.

Aliou Cisse, who guided Senegal to victory in Cameroun, is one of the shining lights among African coaches. However, some believe that he was able to achieve so much for Senegal because they gave him time to build his team, learn from his failures and grow in the game.

Cisse was once a player and the closest he got to the AFCON trophy was in 2002 when as a member of the Teranga Lions at the 2002 AFCON tournament, they got to the final. That time, they lost via a penalty shoot-out to Cameroun.

His managerial career started in early 2012 when he was appointed as an assistant manager to the national team. In February of the same year, according to Transfermarkt, Cisse was appointed as a caretaker manager to the same team. He only oversaw a match between the Teranga Lions and the Bafana Bafana of South Africa. That away, the match ended goalless. He was reappointed as an assistant manager in April 2012.

By late 2012 through early 2013, Cisse was appointed as the manager of Senegal’s Under-23 team. Convinced he was the right man, the Senegal Football Federation appointed him as the manager of the senior national team, the Teranga Lions, in March 2015, and has overseen 71 matches to date, with his team scoring 114 while conceding 40 goals.

In Senegal, Cisse, a former midfielder, is seen as more than a coach to the players. He is a fans’ favourite and was expected to deliver the nation’s first AFCON title.

Before finally coming good in Cameroun, Senegal’s main setback was their inability to make their individual talent count in major competitions. In 2002, Senegal, with players rated among the best in Africa, could not take the final step to success. But Cisse was able to mould the group of talented youngsters into a winning squad, with Cameroun 2021 seen as the first step to bigger triumphs in international football.
 
Unlike the Super Eagles, the Pharaohs of Egypt, Stallions of Burkina Faso as well as the Teranga Lions of Senegal prosecuted their AFCON campaign without any form of executive distractions in Cameroun.
 
Again, the victory by the Teranga Lions of Senegal proved that coaches need time to build their teams into a winning side. For years, the Teranga Lions of Senegal had remained under the shadow of much more successful West African giants, including the Super Eagles of Nigeria, Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire and the Black Stars of Ghana. That was the story of Senegal for the majority of the 20th century. 
 
However, in the 2000s, Senegal began to surge and officially established itself as a new powerhouse in African football, becoming a more competitive opponent in the Africa Cup of Nations.
 
Coach Aliou Cisse, who led Senegal to win the AFCON trophy last Sunday in Yaoundé, had been in charge of the Teranga Lions since 2015. He led the team to the final of the tournament three years ago in Egypt, where Senegal lost to Algeria in the final.  Rather than dump him, the Senegalese FA kept faith in him.
   
Cisse is now the third African, after Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary and Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi to appear in AFCON final as a player and a coach.
 
The Super Eagles first won the African Cup of Nations in 1980 and Keshi captained the second in 1994. That was in Tunisia. 
In 2013, when South Africa hosted the tournament, Keshi was the Super Eagles coach, and he delivered the trophy. Instead of giving him the support to build on the success, Keshi was frustrated out of the Super Eagles. He died soon afterward.
   
The Super Eagles were runners up thrice (1984, 1988, 2000). At other times, they got to either the quarter finals or the semi-finals, including 2006, when Eguavoen led the Super Eagles to pick a bronze after losing in the semi to a Didier Drogba-led Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in Egypt. Between 1982 and 1990, they were eliminated during the group stage only once.

While Senegal’s stock in football is on the rise, Nigeria seems top be in reverse mode, with Cameroun 2022 its worst outing in Africa Cup of Nations since Libya 1982 edition of the competition.

Many factors have been attributed to the country’s failure in Cameroun, chief among which is the tardy way the Super Eagles prepared for the competition.

The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) gave Coach Augustine Eguavoen, who eventually led the team to Cameroun, the job barely three weeks to its kickoff following the sack of Germany’s Gernot Rohr.

According to football agent, Sabinus Ikewuaku, who is also a sports lawyer, “Nigeria went into Cameroun 2021 ill-prepared to compete such meticulous countries as Cameroun, Egypt, Senegal, Burkina Faso and even small Comoros.”

He pointed to a’ motley crowd’ of coaches appointed to work with Eguavoen as a recipe for disaster, asking, “Why did we choose up to five coaches and several others with funny nomenclature as ambassadors in one team.

“What was the quality of assistant coaches available to Eguavoen. We saw several instances where he was looking confused during a game. At times like that, it would have taken a well grounded assistant to point out to his principal was going wrong and possible solutions.”

Ikewuaku also faults Nigeria’s attitude to international competitions, saying politicians should not be allowed to turn major events into avenues to seek popularity.

“In Cameroun, when Eguavoen looked back, he saw coaches who were as lost as he was at crucial moments. Such distractions should not be allowed to happen during major competitions.

“We know that Eguavoen has his shortcomings and what I expected the NFF to do was to surround him with people of sound intellect, who have the ability to read games and come up with tactics that will change the course.

“But the NFF sees things differently. If not, why did they promote some coaches, who failed in their previous assignments, to the Super Eagles. That was a recipe for failure.”

As typical of Nigerians, the Super Eagles camp at Hotel du Ribandor in Garoau was a campaign ground for politicians and those seeking positions in government.
 
Since no visa is required to enter Cameroun, coupled with the closeness of the city to Yola, Adamawa State, people with different missions found their way to the team’s camp.

Some people, who never showed any form of support during the team’s preparation for the AFCON, suddenly became ‘Father Christmas’, dangling cash and landed materials for the players and their coaches.
 
The distraction did not end at the team’s hotel. In the game against Pharaohs of Egypt, ‘executive distractions’ took place inside Super Eagles’ dressing room.
 
NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, has a fondness of speaking with the players in their dressing room at half time of matches when team tactics and errors spotted in the first half ought to be addressed by the coaches.

FIFA set aside the 15 minutes break for the players to refresh and also talk to one another on how to approach the second half of the game.
 


Against Egypt, Pinnick was said to have abandoned his seat in the VIP for the dressing room. With ‘Coach Pinnick’ inside the dressing room was the President of Air Peace, Allen Onyema.
   
Rather than pay attention to their coaches, the players spent major part of the 15 minutes to listen to ‘executive preachers.’
The bubble burst soon after, and an ‘obedient’ coach Eguavoen had to wake up from his slumber. In the build up to the round of 16 clash against Tunisia, Eguavoen banned all form of ‘executive distractions’ in Super Eagles dressing room.
   
“We talked about timing and I am still talking about it,” Eguavoen told journalists in the pre-match media briefing.

“Motivation is good. It’s our culture. Guests can have short discussions with the team at the restaurant and not inside the dressing room. I don’t think this will happen today.”

Former Super Eagles star, Emeka Ezeugo, believes that Nigeria got what it deserved in Cameroun because of its attitude to preparation for competitions.

He described the Super Eagles’ camp as a place where there is no togetherness, passionate patriotism, diligence, discipline, devotion, dedication and determination.

“What’s so attractive about deceitfulness, the scam that Amaju Pinnick, pittance guzzling ex-internationals, his media puppets and toilet tissue papers have been perpetrating?

“Have you not learned anything from your grossly corrupt religious and political leaders?
“You blind, sheepish followers of your oppressors will still learn nothing from this treacherous expedition.”

He said Nigeria reaped from what it sowed, adding that Super Eagles’ story will never change until the real people take charge of the administration of the game.
 
“In football analysis, one must be able to integrate what one is seeing with the technicalities of what is happening,” former Green Eagles winger, Adegoke Adelabu, told The Guardian. He said Nigeria’s conquerors, Tunisia, demonstrated tactical superiority over Super Eagles in the way they prosecuted the game.

“In the first instance, they played as a team and allowed the ball to do the running while we (Super Eagles) ran with the ball throughout the game.”
 
Adelabu, a sports scientist, added: “The Tunisians took control of the midfield and deliberately played with more players from the wings to force our fast wing players to come back and at the same time restricted their ability to carry the ball and make any reasonable passes.
 
“Our major restriction was that most of the players we brought to the pitch had the same characteristics i.e., they are only effective when they have space to run with the ball. While the Tunisians varied their pattern of play several times, we only wanted to run with the ball.
 
“The Tunisians were more flexible with the ball while the Super Eagles were more athletic. Their game plan was to slow us down and control the game with their set pieces in several areas of the pitch. There was no clarity in our strategy other than to get the ball and run towards the goal area.”
 
Adelabu faults Eguavoen and his assistant coaches’ claim that the red card to Alex Iwobi was responsible for the defeat to Tunisia. He said: “Iwobi’s red card was a professional disgrace. It was a demonstration of the frustration experienced by clueless Super Eagles. I am so disappointed that Eguavoen did not see anything bad in that kind of tackle. 

“His complain about the referee was unfair and lacks substance. For a player of Iwobi’s caliber to go for another player’s ankle when all he needed to do was to use the same tackle and step on the ball, which could have still brought the player down. But the pattern of the Tunisians’ game got them frustrated. I will suggest that Iwobi should be suspended by FIFA and EPL for such unprofessional attitude during the match. He ought to know that footballers’ legs are their certificates. He should apologise to the player for such bad tackle.”
 
Adelabu also described as ridiculous Eguavoen’s insistence that Tunisia was better in every department of the pitch, saying, “Such attitude will make him unteachable and he may suffer more defeats in the future if he has nothing to learn from that game against Tunisia.”

Explaining the reasons for Nigeria’s poor outing in Cameroun, Leadership Newspapers’ Editor-In-Chief, Azubuike Ishiekwene, said the country’s performance is heartbreaking but not totally unexpected.

In an opinion published in TheCable, he said: “There’s a version of the explanation for the Super Eagles’ defeat that I find irresistible: it’s the political economy of soccer which activist lawyer, Chidi Odinkalu, extracted from a book and shared like an olive branch to soothe combatants and broken-hearted soccer fans alike.

“The book, by Franklin Foer, is entitled, ‘How soccer explains the world: An unlikely theory of globalisation.’

“In its afterword, the book says, ‘If a nation heavily exports oil – Nigeria, Russia, Mexico, Norway, the Gulf States, Iran – it is doomed to underachieve. When an economy can generate wealth so easily, even if that wealth only flows to a small oligarchy, a country can get lazy, thinking that riches will forever flow naturally to it.

“Political scientists call this the ‘paradox of plenty.’ And on the pitch, these countries lack a winning temperament and an innovative mindset. No oil-rich state has made it to the semifinals.”

Ishiekwene added: “You can quarrel with Foer all day, but the 92-year-old history of the World Cup is on his side as is the history, to a large extent, of the African Nations Cup. The top two record winners are Egypt (seven times) and Cameroun (five times).

“Ghana is next with four wins – and then, oil happened. In fact, as if in a homage to Foer about oil’s debilitating effect on the brain, out of the 14 previous AFCON winners only two – Nigeria and Algeria – are major oil-exporting countries.

“While the superstitious are blaming Buhari’s call for the Super Eagles defeat and the religious-minded are improvising moral lessons from it and a large tribe of fans are simply angry at a missed opportunity to escape their current economic misery, this might just be a good time to begin to ask for and do what needs to be done if we want a different outcome in future.

“The Cameroun outing was a defeat foretold, but Nigeria does not have to be an eternal hostage to the paradox of plenty. And Brazil, a major producer, resource-rich and record five times winner of the World Cup (though not a heavy oil exporter), has demonstrated it is possible to beat the paradox of plenty.”

He advised Nigeria to revamp the local league if it desired to change the story. According to him, “Nations that do well in soccer – and indeed in other competitive sports – tend to have a fairly well organised and managed domestic league, which attracts talents from home and abroad.

“In its current form, Nigeria’s domestic league is a confluence of government’s inefficiency and a playground for desperate, raw talents.

“Seventeen out of the 20 clubs in Nigeria’s Premier League, for example, are owned by state governments. This is a reversal of the trend in the heyday of soccer when leading clubs such as Stationery Stores, Bendel Insurance, IICC Shooting Stars, Abiola Babes, Ranchers Bees, BCC Lions, Mighty Jets, were private concerns, with Rangers International of Enugu being the notable exception.

“Over the years, the corrupt hands of government and politics have infiltrated the game, creating a cesspool of patronage and corruption. It’s time to free the space.

“The national team has benefited from the infusion of talents playing in foreign leagues, especially in Europe, staving off what could have been a more rapid decline of the game. But without a largely privately managed and truly professional domestic league, the pipeline for talent supply would continue to shrivel and the growth of the game stunted.

“Soccer is a tribal game, but even tribes bend to market rules. As things are today, local conditions are not only hostile to these rules, entrenched state interests abhor them. Unless something is done immediately, Cameroun won’t be the last heartbreak story.”