As Nigeria Battles Egypt…
As Nigerians battle to contend with the mind-boggling revelations from the ongoing investigation and trial of prominent figures from the immediate past administration for various acts of stupendous corruption, the much anticipated AFCON 2017 qualification double-header scheduled for Friday, this week, is timely.
To millions of Nigerians, most especially fans of the beautiful game, still shaking their heads in disbelief at the size of the billions allegedly pilfered from our common treasury; the build-up to the encounter, if not the match itself, offers temporary relief from the almost daily deluge of earth-shaking stories of thievery and debauchery perpetrated by the tiny clique of shameless politicians in civil dress and khaki. When the history of this great nation is recounted for future generations of Nigerians, I am certain that a convenient place at the foot of each page would be found to document their infamy.
For now, though, the focus of most sport loving Nigerians is on Friday’s match with the Egyptians, and the return leg scheduled to hold on their home turf in the coastal city of Alexandria, made famous by Roman Generals and of course, the incomparable Cleopatra. Nigerians will be the first to admit that their collective zeal and passion when it comes to any informed discourse of the nation’s senior men football team dubiously called “The Super Eagles” has never been matched by the quality of our preparations for important encounters or major tournaments.
The status-quo has persisted since a combo of Dutch coaches - Clemens Westerhof and Johannes Bonfrere-Jo - brought a semblance of organisation into the affairs of the Super Eagles in the 1990s when Nigeria ranked number five in the world at its peak. Since their departure, it has been a free fall, no thanks to mishandling by a succession of local coaches and shambolic organization of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF).
When I hint at ‘organization’ in relation to the Super Eagles, I am not merely referring to the nauseating politics prevalent in the NFF which negatively impacted on the performance of the team for far too long than anyone can care to remember, I am also alluding to the technical preparation of the team since the two the Dutch coaches departed. Can anyone recall the last time the Super Eagles scored directly from corner kicks since the goal Emmanuel Amunike scored against Italy at the 1994 World Cup?
Since the affairs of the team was entrusted to local coaches the Super Eagles have continued to decline except for the single moment of glory when providence and the grit and determination of a few players, more than the abilities of their erstwhile handler Stephen Keshi won the AFCON in 2013. To prove that the victory was a fluke, Nigeria failed to qualify to defend the same title barely two years afterwards.
While shambolic preparations has since become the norm for matches and important tournaments, it is also all too obvious that our local handlers lack the critical technical competence or the ability to fix the fine details to take the team beyond its present level. And the tragedy is that neither the NFF nor the local coaches are prepared to admit the obvious. I will address each at a time.
Nigerians will be shocked to their bone marrows to discover that for the return leg with the Egyptians on the 29th of March, the NFF has concluded plans to fly the Super Eagles to Alexandria on –wait for it- Egyptair! No sense of pride and no thought was given to the psychological impact the decision is likely to have on our players. And the only reason the NFF gave ignoring the services of Arik Air - which is the closest thing we have to a national airline we have the moment - is the paucity of funds. They claim it is cheaper to fly the team on Egyptair. We may as well allot the three points at stake in the tie to the Egyptians. Granted that sports is not akin to warfare; but which is more important to the NFF? Is it the need to save money or a successful outing for the team?
The decision to fly Egyptair is typical of the NFF. Although the current management has been in office for upwards of two years it still apparently lacks the ability or capacity to partner with critical sponsors to pick up some of their bills in a nation bristling with oil conglomerates and telecom giants. A substantial amount of time was also lost to Boardroom squabbles. But the major debilitating factor is that the NFF, like most public institutions in Nigeria, has not been spared from the scourge of endemic corruption.
Few sponsors are willing to put their money in an organization with an accounting system that belongs to the Stone Age. Even as I write this, a few of the NFF’s past executives are still entangled in litigation over allegations of embezzling funds that accrued to the nation for participating in FIFA tournaments during their tenure.
For far too long the NFF has chosen to lie to itself in its preference for local coaches. And yet available statistics does not support their choice. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) organizes no fewer than three tournaments annually, how many of them were won by Nigerian club-sides handled by our local coaches in the past several decades?
The blunt truth is that they cannot give what they don’t possess, and in this instance it is technical and tactical acumen. Sentiments aside, none of our coaches including Stephen Keshi, Samson Siasia and Sunday Oliseh can rub shoulders with the very best the world has to offer at this time. The best among our coaches are shamelessly compromised by acts of nepotism and unprofessional conduct too numerous to be recounted here.
The quality of our domestic league is also not the best even on the continent as successive results from the participation of our teams in African tournaments has proved far too many times. For emphasis, two of the three Nigerian club sides fielded by the NFF were bundled out of continental competitions at the weekend. Also, how many of our referees have officiated in major world tournaments in recent times?
When the Egyptians fly their chartered flight into Kaduna today, like they have planned, they will have on-board a certain Argentine coach called Hector Cuper who made his name in the Spanish La-liga managing Valencia in the last decade. He will bring with him the sort of tactical wherewithal and experience Samson Siasia can only dream of. Cuper will be at the head of an eleven man technical crew which already knows everything about our players. They will be coming to frustrate us for lengthy periods on our own turf and score the odd goal on the counter. We have seen it happen before.
Except we delude ourselves, the sooner we engage the best of the European or South American coaches the better it will be for long suffering Nigerian football fans. Make no mistake about it; I am a patriotic Nigerian. But my patriotism demands that I uphold the truth at all times. My views are also not borne out of inferiority complex.
The reality is that if Nigeria seeks to dominate world football, the raw athleticism and abundant skills of its players cannot take us all the way. On Friday, it is just possible that we will have too much of both to overcome the Egyptians, but the technical and tactical deficiencies of the team are certain be exposed sooner, rather than later.
To be able to beat the best in the world, Nigeria requires an NFF that is free from petty politics and a management which functions in strict compliance with good corporate governance. Even more crucially, since we are not competing against ourselves; we need a coach who can best the best the world has to offer. The Super Eagles need a handler who will pay greater attention to all the fine details. We require a coach with a plan for every single minute in a ninety minute encounter. What we certainly have no need for are the legions of noisy local coaches who keep deluding themselves and Nigerians that they can match the best in the world presently. I insist that they can’t give what they do not have.