Sunday, 3rd December 2023

Teranga Lions, new challenge for Super Eagles

By Segun Odegbami
24 June 2023   |   4:04 am
An event last week is nudging me back to a subject I have avoided for a long time in my sports discourse - Nigerian football.

Senegal celebrating Sadio Mane’s second goal in the Teranga Lions’ 4-2 defeat of Brazil in an international friendly game in Portugal…last week.<br />

An event last week is nudging me back to a subject I have avoided for a long time in my sports discourse – Nigerian football. 
Terango Lions quietly created history last week in Lisbon, Portugal. The world has been in a state of awe and shock, stunned by the transformation of the Senegalese national football team. The team that struggled to hold lowly Squirrels of Benin Republic to a 1-1 draw in Cotonou, became giant conquerors, a few days later, last Tuesday.

I have not read many analysts do a forensic on the friendly match of the Lions against the Samba Boys of Brazil held in Lisbon. It is as if there is a conspiracy of silence by the media? One of the strongest national teams in the world, the current third-ranked by FIFA, the country that plays with great consistency and has the best football records in history, Brazil, were taken to the cleaners by Senegal. 
Only Nigeria in Africa had ever done what comes closest to Senegal’s feat. At the semifinals of the Olympic Games football event in 1996, the Eagles came from two goals down to win the pulsating match in extra time by 3 goals to 2. Last week, the Senegalese bettered that, although in a friendly encounter that only very few spectators saw.  The final scores were 4-2. 
Senegal inflicted damage to the reputation and records of Brazil. They handed the Samba Boys a humbling defeat, surprisingly creating only ripples (not waves) across the football landscape, the ensuing ‘silence’ speaking louder than the resounding victory. 
In Nigeria, the news of the victory hardly rose above a whisper. It was as if Nigerians were avoiding the subject. The Nigerian media were either in paralysing shock, or did not want to be reminded about how badly their own national teams have been performing for over a decade.

The Super Eagles, not the Terango Lions, should be basking in the sunlight of such success, had the Eagles not derailed from their elevating climb. 

In the 1990s, Nigeria were Kings of African football, winners of the U-17 FIFA Championship, fourth-ranked team in the world, winner of the Olympic Gold medal, undisputed African champions in women’s football several times over, and the largest and most successful exporter of footballers out of Africa to Europe. 
Nigeria’s victories in the 1990s were the harvests of football seeds planted and cultivated in the two decades before. 

Success in football, as in most things in life, is a slow, time-consuming, consistent process anchored, without exception, to hard work, and quality of local players (the seeds) emerging from the domestic football architecture. The raw products from a strong domestic league are taken to Europe to be refined and fine-tuned into exceptional finished products. Hence, the evolution of an entire generation of some of the best players the country has ever produced that won the African Cup of Nations, that got to the second round of the FIFA World Cup, that won the Olympic Gold Medal, and that dominated African football across the age-grades and genders for over a decade. That was Nigeria at its best. 
In the decades following, from the 2000s, rather than grow, the country’s football has been floundering, lost in the maze of unclear visions and a good road map. Today, the country is ranked 40th in both men’s and women’s categories in the FIFA rankings. 40? What a shame.
Since a new board was elected late last year, expectations of change have been followed by things remaining the same in all but some faint stirrings in the professional league under a new dispensation.

The birth of the new board came with the promises of changes that have since been buried in the debris of international assignments that, once-again, appear to be the main focus of the current executives.

Yet, the greater work to be done to impact the international assignments is domestic. That’s where many changes are needed for Nigerian football to grow out of the deep ravine where it has remained, groping for some breath of fresh air.

There must be a deliberate and conscious departure from old failed ways, for creating the environment for new and different results, halt the recycling of ‘old’ hands and allow an influx of new people, new systems and structures. New thinking, an expanded new vision with completely new strategies will produce a completely different result. That’s what Nigeria needs now, something new, exciting and challenging. 
The introduction of new constituencies, as promised by the new board at inception, is the least that should be embarked upon now to quench acrimony brewing beneath the surface of things.
Concentrating and depending on the leagues alone will also not do, because even those need fertilising and nurturing at the grassroots. 
Meanwhile, the rate of emigration of young Nigerian footballers to every corner of the planet has become alarming. There are now more academies in Nigeria than the number of churches and mosques put together. They are in every open space all over the country. Local and foreign scouts, agents and emergency managers are springing up to swell the very lucrative trade in young Nigerian football players. Most of the players are not imbibed enough with the strong characteristics of Nigerian football before being shipped abroad, mostly to remote leagues in places such as Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malta, and even, Benin Republic.  
The tragedy is that the domestic leagues are not good enough to produce replacements for the exiting players. 
That’s why in the absence of the National Sports Commission (NSC) to handle proper grassroots development, the current NFF should supervise the establishment of a well-grounded and well-rounded football development structure and programmes through the schools system, working in conjunction with its members – the Nigeria School Sports Federation, NAPHER, the Players Union, the Coaches Association, the association of football academies (if and when it is established and becomes a member of the federation) and the NIS. 
The Interim Management Committee (IMC), already in place and doing well, should be given the autonomy and responsibility to change the face and fate of the professional league. That would require more than just throwing money at the league.

The IMC should consolidate its good start this last season, by making the leagues better all round – in organising, funding, TV and radio coverage, transparency and fair play, use of good grounds, independent supervision of referees, stringent security arrangements, and so on and so forth. 
I was a witness to the closing chapter of this last season’s  Super Six competition in Lagos. It was a great advertisement for the prospects of the professional league and the IMC, going into the future.  
It was also a good outing in the sense that the playing field was better than most other stadia-grounds in the country, but it is still a far cry from what is needed to take the country’s football to the highest levels. There is no substitute for green lush, level, and well- cultivated and nursed natural grass fields beneath the feet of footballers. 
The country must aim high; must be determined to be the best again in the continent; must act dispassionately on issues; must go for and secure predictable, measurable and visible results. 
Should the NSC come into being, again, the federation’s programmes should be anchored to the NSC’s grassroots sports development agenda, integrating specific football programmes within schools, supporting the organisation of first-class competitions between the schools, supporting the construction of better playing fields and provision of equipment to schools, monitoring and guiding transition of players to tertiary institutions and foreign clubs. The NFF should empower all its stakeholders with capacity-building programmes and introduce higher incentives to reduce tendency for corruption and hooliganism.
There are three principal keys to full success: the quality of grounds for effective training and competitions; the safety and integrity of the leagues; and the leagues must be made so good they will attract retiring international footballers to return home and choose to play out their last seasons in Nigeria. 

It is undoubtedly a daunting task, what I ask to be done. 

What is required to get started is a re-setting of the buttons of proper administration of football in Nigeria. There is a good past that can guide the present into the future. The new board should seek to know and understand the elements in that past that worked well and adopt them. 
The rest of the continent are not waiting for Nigeria. They have used Nigeria’s success in the past as a their take off. The tables have now turned. Senegal, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia are all ahead of Nigeria, even in African football. Senegal have become Nigeria’s new benchmark. 
Finally, Nigeria’s qualification for the African Cup of Nations in Cote d’Ivoire next year is a big challenge and also big relief for Nigerians. Those that have been suffering from the drought of major victories, as well as the big economy stimulated by such championships, now have cause to hope and smile to the bank. 

For now, Senegal are in the eyes of the world. Their rise is Nigeria’s biggest challenge now.