Realistically, football-loving Nigerians will be overly ambitious to expect stellar performance from the Super Eagles’ team playing at the 33rd African Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals in Cameroun. The team, which files out against the seven times champions, Pharaohs of Egypt today, has had a poor run of results, lousy preparation and administrative blunders enough to expect little from the erstwhile football powerhouse, barring miracles of course. Indeed, a time was when the mention of Super Eagles elicited fear in the camp of opponents. That seems now to belong to history and reason to get the administrators to account for the faded glory.
For a fact, the Eagles have not been super. If they have wings, they have not shown the ability to soar. Without any pattern of play, tactic, discipline or coercion, the team right before the home fans scandalously lost to minions like Central Africa Republic (CAR) recently, having earlier squandered a four-nil lead to Sierra-Leone. Most recently, the team of foreign-based stars in Leagues across Europe managed a lackluster score-draw with Cape Verde in Lagos! That is not the senior national team that Nigerians used to know. Therefore, there is very little to hope for in the team, except surprises.
Nonetheless, it is not out of place to demand a podium finish from the national team. Nigeria is an AFCON regular that should win the tournament with a fairly good team. Since its first outing in 1963, the Super Eagles has played in the Semi Finals for 95 per cent of its qualifications and is one of the most successful countries in the history of the tournament. Irrespective of who coached the team, local or foreigner, the third place finish has been won more by the Nigerian side amid oddly familiar bumpy preparation. Following the 1994 victory under Clemens Westerhof, the late Steven Keshi won the 2013 AFCON trophy with a team of players, half drawn from the local league. It is really not the talents to conquer Africa that has been in short supply, but the commitment to good preparation to harness them for the purpose.
It starts and ends with leadership that the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) family has failed to offer. The Abuja Glass House, headed by Amaju Pinnick, has the mandate to develop Nigerian football through clear policies and programmes. The springboard of that development is a viable school sport and local football league. But with both in shambles, the quick-fix and fire brigade minded football administrators have consistently settled for foreign-based stars that are barely average players for their clubs and lack the Nigerian spirit of the 70s, 80s and 90s. The consequence is the dearth of free-flowing attacking play through the winds and shambolic performances that are alien to the Eagles of old.
The all-time low was the dubious contract that ushered in Coach Gernot Rohr that neither saw anything good in the local players nor the need to groom that downstream sector of Nigerian football. His appointment was a miserable error and administrative blunder that should not have been. It is not consoling that the same NFF has immediately appointed another foreign coach, who will be in Cameroun only to watch the team that is currently headed by an interim manager, Augustine Eguavoen! Succeed or fail, Eguavoen who led the same Super Eagles to bronze medal finish in Egypt 2006 ceases to be the coach after this AFCON.
Unfortunately too, the age-long indiscipline among foreign stars has also continued to fester in the build up to this AFCON. Neither NFF nor the coaching crew has shown more than feeble grip on the foreign-based players that apparently share a poor sense of nationhood. Ideally, donning the national colours should elicit a sense of pride that outweighs add-on benefits. Nigerians have not seen such commitment among these footballers. The Nigerian camp opened late December, ahead of the tourney that starts on January 9.
The Federal Government, through the Ministry of Sports and Youth Development, should demand better results from the NFF and sports federations generally. Enough of self-centered journeymen in sports that have no programme whatsoever for growth. Assembling a cabin-full of government officials to cheer an unprepared team up is not the cure to the administrative malaise.
No amount of jamboree will recompense for the national team’s failure to prepare. Nigerian sports are down generally, especially smarting from the disgraceful outing at the Olympics last year. It is time to rebuild from the scratch and for sustainability for the sake of sports loving Nigerians that deserve a lot more. Ideally, sports administrators must focus more on developing the sport than just representation at competition finals. There should be more to Nigerian football than qualifying for World Cups and making up the numbers with foreign-based talents. The sport should nurture the Nigerian youths and from the grassroots.
By and large, it is an unusual tournament in a pandemic ravaged period. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the world governing body for football (FIFA) were divided on what to do with the competition. Foreign leagues, at the peak of the season, were unwilling to release their African star players for continental assignments. English Premier League (EPL) clubs only permitted players too late, while some did not, for some clever reasons. Positive COVID-19 test results have already ruled out some ace players and more should be expected as the games wore on.
But the Super Eagles still has a fighting chance at this rescheduled finals, given the general slur in preparation and COVID-19 effects on the entire tournament. Besides, the Nigerian resilience in the face of odds has, in the past, produced wonderful outcomes from seeming sloppy preparation and low rating. Can the Eagles reproduce this resilience and hunger in Cameroun? The Eagles have only themselves to fear, against this background. Certainly, the winner will be the team that is lucky enough off the pitch and wants it the most in the field of play. Today’s match, and the next two encounters, will show whether the Super Eagles can justify any meaningful expectations from Nigerians