The problem with Nigerian football
I am watching the ongoing matches in Qatar but all I am thinking about is my country, Nigeria.
As I am writing this, the last of the African teams, Ghana, just played their first match and lost against one of the teams considered favourites to win the FIFA World Cup, Portugal. It was a close match, one that spoke volumes.
Nigeria could have been in Qatar. Ghana halted Nigeria’s qualification in two qualifying matches that left genuine football persons wondering what to make of both teams. Between them, there was little to choose from. In both matches, try as much as I can, I am unable to remember a single outstanding moment of brilliance or creativity that lingers in my mind.
Meanwhile, everyone knows that the Black Stars have not been at their best these past few years. They have been, like the Super Eagles, a shadow of the team that was often described as the ‘Brazil of Africa’. In my humble estimation before the World Cup qualifiers against Nigeria, that particular Black Stars team was the weakest I have ever known. In Qatar, little wonder, Ghana is the lowest FIFA-ranked team.
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So, I have just watched Ghana take on Portugal. It was a rather uninspiring performance, yet they were only narrowly beaten. The difference between the lowest-ranked team and one of the favourites is a very thin line, not planets apart.
Even in losing Ghana scored two goals. With a little bit of discipline in the organisation of the team, the match could have ended differently. Acquiring that level of ‘discipline’ is the most difficult mountain to climb in world football. That’s what separates the giants from the rest.
I am only using the Ghana/Portugal match as a benchmark for my following academic excursion. Bruno Fernandes, the talismanic player in the heart of Portugal’s midfield, described the Nigerian national team’s performance, after they met in Portugal’s last friendly match before Qatar 2022, as weak and of a very low standard.
Fernandes’ words hurt and haunt me. Yet, they speak the facts. Nigerian football is in limbo, like a rudderless ship in the middle of the sea. How did Africa’s football powerhouse at a time derail from an ascendancy that was acknowledged by the greatest football player in history as a potential World Cup-winning?
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In 1989, Pele, the Brazilian football genius, was in Scotland for the FIFA Under-17 Championship. I was there too.
Together we watched a young Nigerian team put up raw, pure and unadulterated football for that level.
Without much tactical organisation, they put up a display that portrayed them as uncut Diamonds. Pele predicted that within 10 years (before the turn of the last Century) an African team (referring to the Nigerian team) would win the World Cup.
This is from a man who knows his football, one that comes from the most successful football culture in the world. Pele knew Nigerian football very well. He played 4 or 5 times over a period of 10 years in different friendly matches in Nigeria.
Pele saw something special in the young Nigerian lads that evening in Glasgow. I knew what he was talking about. I had been a part of that upward rise of Nigerian football, the result of a deliberate architecture put in place to achieve a specific objective to conquer the world. I cannot forget 1979.
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The Green Eagles were sent to Brazil for the first time in their history, spent 3 months in an isolated camp in Rio de Janeiro, tutored in the Brazilian art of football, and played against various clubs across Brazil.
The country hired the most respected Brazilian coach of that era, a professor of football, the coach that took Portugal to the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup and headed the Brazilian academy of coaches. Nigeria sent several Nigerian club coaches to Brazilian academies to imbibe the Brazilian football system.
By the time the Eagles and Nigerian coaches returned to Nigeria, the players and the teams had transformed. Within a few months of their return, the beauty of their newly acquired style had infected the entire country’s domestic football. Even ordinary warm-up sessions by players all over the country took on the Brazilian style, to this day!!
Spectators that came to watch the Eagles train and play matches could see the difference between the old and new Eagles from a mile away. The team had added fresh dimensions to the kick-and-follow style of Nigerian football pre-1979. They had added some flamboyance, rhythm, individual expressiveness and flair to their natural power, speed, physicality, fighting spirit and dribbling.
Thus was birthed a lethal combination of Nature and Art in Nigerian football. Etim Esin, Daniel Amokachi, Benjamin Ezeakor, Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Tijani Babangida, Rashid Yekini, Samson Siasia, and a whole generation of individually gifted players were no accidents. They were products of a deliberate system put in place.
The only ingredients missing are the organisation and discipline required for team tactics, a technical aspect of the game that belonged to European football. Nigeria started to churn out exceptional players from the domestic leagues, full of new confidence, and playing with freedom and panache. They started migrating to Europe to become complete and armed to compete with the best in the world. That’s part of the seed that Pele saw in 1989, blooming.
Less than one year into this new project and realm in 1980, Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations. The success was not an accident either. It was not a fluke. Although not mature yet, a tradition had been conceived, designed and executed in the boardrooms of the Nigeria Football Association and the Sports Ministry.
Nine years into the project, Pele saw the product of that scheme in Scotland. Five years after Pele’s prediction, Nigeria won her second continental trophy, played at the World Cup and was 14 minutes away from qualifying for the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Nigeria rose in ranking to fifth in the world.
A few weeks after that, England played an African team in a friendly on the hallowed ground of Wembley stadium for the first time, a venue reserved only for the highest level of matches in England. It was a clear demonstration of how good Nigerian football had become and the level of respect the country’s football now commanded. Two years later, in 1996, the country won the Olympic Gold medal in football. The achievements of that era were not an accident or a fluke. They were the products of a deliberate scheme yielding fruit in a bounty.
A change in football culture does not happen in a day. It takes time. Losing it also is a gradual progression in a Southern direction. That’s the catastrophe that has befallen Nigerian football in the past two decades, silently and steadily, in the hands of inexperienced leadership, to the point where the Super Eagles and clubs in the domestic league now play without a discernible style and organisation, the point where a Bruno Fernandes would have the audacity to describe Nigerian football as weak and of a low standard.
Nigerian football needs to be rescued from the hands of those with limited knowledge and experience in the deep matters of the beautiful game.
New Sheriffs are required to restore the wandering ship.
They must come up with a plan and a strategy to get Nigerian football back on track. Too many technically limited leaders have led the country’s football astray for too long.
Foreign coaches that do not know Nigeria football’s genesis and trajectory, who only understand the culture of European football and want to convert Nigerian football into a European brand, have only accelerated the destruction of the fabric and foundation of the rich traditions of Nigerian football as reinforced by the 1980s’ Brazilian project.
What we saw of the Eagles against Portugal shortly before Qatar 2022 is Nigerian football at its worst, destroyed by ignorant leaders – weak and of low standards.
Bruno Fernandes is right after all. The problems can never be solved by outsiders but by ourselves for ourselves. The answer also lies here at home.