After The Nations’ Cup

The waiting game continues for Nigerian football. Once, again, the once revered Super Eagles couldn’t even fly in the African Cup of Nations. So much for naming big African teams after powerful animals. It was the Pharaohs of Egypt who retained the coveted trophy, thereby becoming the only country to have won the African Nations Cup for a record six times. They beat everyone’s erstwhile favourites, the Elephants of Ivory Coast, and twice for that matter, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon.

So much for footballing miracles. It abruptly ended when the ‘Super’ Eagles won their final group match against the lowly rated Benin. For the records, that was their only victory in four matches; they lost the other two and drew one. They scored 3 goals and conceded the same number. “This is perhaps the worst performance of Nigeria in maybe 16-26 years,” said Segun Odegbami. Only a few would disagree with this assertion. Don’t blame the disappointed fans who re-christened the Eagles Super Chickens.

Never before in the history of Nigerian football have we seen eleven overgrown men with bloated egos struggling for fluidity on the football field, while donning the national colours. To over 100 million Nigerian fans, it felt like watching a bad Nollywood movie in slow motion. Despite the faith of Nigerian fans at the stadium who tried hard to cheer the Eagles, the chorus turned into a broken record when the Eagles eventually lost to Ghana in the quarter-finals. “The lackluster performance of these highly paid players is abysmal,” fumed former Super Eagles player, Efan Ekoku “why didn’t they fast-track the U-17, U-21 players into the team?” he asked angrily. From his point of view, these young players would have shown more hunger and drive than the ‘big boys’ showed.

When John Mikel-Obi was still in diapers, Jay-Jay Okocha had already come of football age. Before the Aiyegbenis and Utakas of this world graced English Football, one Daniel Amokachie had already tasted champagne from one of its trophies. In terms of European football, Finidi George had seen it all. The real Super Eagles in the glory days of Clemens Westerhof showed enough commitment, passion, discipline and patriotism on the pitch. But for the big boys in the Eagles team today, playing for the national team is just to fulfill all righteousness; after all, the premiership requires a particular number of matches for any player to be eligible for its competitions.

But one shouldn’t just blame the players only. It’s the administration of football that is largely at fault. Nigerian football, which has been teetering on the edge, is almost falling over the precipice; unless something drastic is done.

How did it find itself in such a mess?

The warning signals had been there for years. But it was ignored by the authorities. Nigerians don’t help matters as well, especially those who could influence how the game is being run by our administrators; they have a short memory. When the Eagles were thrashed in the second round of the ’98 World Cup, they said the team would rebuild with younger players and a driven and seasoned coach. When they were bundled out of 2002 world cup, everyone said this was a young team that if groomed well, could conquer Africa and the world in few years to come. It was not to be. The Eagles lost out in the semi-finals of the Nations Cup in 2004 and 2006, under the guide of recycled coaches. When they finally failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup courtesy of once minnows, Angola, they promised to go back to the drawing board and tackle the sliding of Nigerian football into disrepute. Now it’s 2008 and fans were rewarded with the worst showcase of Nigerian football in the just ended African Cup of Nations; and yet, the administrators are still telling us the same old story, with synonyms. How long can a football-crazy nation put up with all these; lack of preparation, gross mismanagement, lack of patriotism from its ‘big’ players, and a general lackadaisical attitude from the top to the bottom. How long will the nation’s authorities keep giving excuses for failures when we have enough potential for continental and global success?

The North Africans have been dominating African football in recent years like they did in past decades due to their efficient organization of football. “Things have got to change in the backroom of Nigerian football. There is a lot of work to be done,” said Ekoku; only if the administrators (and players) would listen. The pitch is crowded by too many charlatans than men truly given to a just cause.

This is not a case for Berti Vogts. But sacking the embattled German is like cutting off an infected plant when it is the soil that is polluted. The root problem of Nigerian football is the pollution in the system. Until the system of managing Nigeria football administration is changed and treated, nothing would change in the long run. Even if Louis Van Gaal eventually becomes Nigeria’s coach, he might just end up as another infected plant. Let change begin from home. The Nigerian football league is one of the most poorly organized in Africa. The NFL management could borrow a leaf from the Egyptian example; encourage budding players and investors by setting up a chain of management that would make it attractive even to expatriate coaches. They should also study what makes the Premiership tick, or better still, the South African league, despite its lack of (or maybe the abundance of) genuine talent (like it’s found in Nigeria) , they have been able to package a juicy product. Imagine if an Aliko Dangote buys over Kano Pillars and a Femi Otedola invests heavily in another club. Anyway, that issue is for another day. It’s actually baffling that with all of her potentials, Nigeria seems to always fall short on the global stage.

In one breath, what Nigerian football needs are the right people to pilot its management. Afterwards, the rest pieces of the puzzle would fall exactly in place. Then, we can proceed from there. Or maybe the Supporters Club can switch allegiance to Boxing and Samuel Peters, Nigeria’s first World Boxing Heavyweight champion.

Former Chelsea coach (The Special One), Jose Mourinho, believes that an African team would finally get to the World Cup semi-finals come 2010. It seems like wishful thinking. For the sake of patriotism, many hope it would be Nigeria first who make this wish come true. But if the gross, patient and elongated mismanagement of Nigerian football continues on and off the pitch, it might even prove very difficult just to put the genie back into the bottle.

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