The importance of football in today’s world cannot be overemphasized. Nations invest heavily on football, and it has become an instrument for international diplomacy. Nigeria’s battered image receives positive acclaim when it comes to football and other sports. On that ground, at least, the country should give premium to sports that burnishes her image. Football has also become a potent force that unites Nigerians. Nothing else comes close to achieving that feat. Football forges national unity and harnessing the power of football to realize the united Nigerian dream is a task worth pursuing. It is just as well that the President waded into the crisis rocking the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF). But in typical fashion, Jonathan took executive authority to ridiculous levels when he ordered the reinstatement of Stephen Keshi as coach of the Super Eagles. Keshi’s unceremonial sacking by the Amaju Pinnick-led NFF board was a mistake; but his reinstatement by presidential fiat was an even grievous mistake. The President’s action challenged sundry observers to query the meaning of executive authority and the general belief is that Jonathan’s overzealousness was actuated by self-serving grandstanding.
Keshi was fired by the NFF for poor results; Nigeria is third in Group A of the Morocco AFCON 2015 qualifiers after losing to Congo Brazzaville in Calabar and Sudan in Khartoum, while drawing with South Africa and beating Sudan in the reverse fixture in Abuja. For Nigeria to still make it to Morocco the Eagles must win the remaining two games; away against Congo and at home against South Africa on November 19. That would give them 10 points and a likely place as runners up or the best third-placed team in the series. It is difficult but not impossible!
But first, Nigeria must confront the stark reality that the country’s football is in serious trouble! Since the exit of Ibrahim Galadima as NFF President, Nigerian football has not known peace. Somehow the gravity of the ailment in administration did not seem to affect the fortunes of the national football teams as they continued to win and provided essential life support for the impunity, mediocrity and Corruption Inc. that is Nigerian football. Many would fault Keshi for Nigeria’s stuttering AFCON 2015 qualifiers, but complacency, lack of tenacity of purpose and over confidence by the players, combined with the absence of a sense of unity of purpose by warring NFF officials to deflate hopes of a brighter future, after the Super Eagles won the 2013 nations cup in South Africa.
That triumph broke a 19-year jinx after the last victory in Tunisia (1994).Keshi also qualified Nigeria for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. The soul-lifting victories which returned smiles to the faces of millions of exasperated citizens yearning for socio-economic emancipation, was a classic example of the tested Nigerian resilience to excel against odds. But the victory was achieved in spite of failure by football administrators to provide the atmosphere conducive to optimal performance. Not surprisingly, Nigerian leaders seized the occasion to blow muted trumpets and seek undeserved credit from the victory. It never bothered them that Keshi and his assistants - Amokachi and Ike Shorunmu were owed seven months’ salary. Contrast this with expatriate coaches, who are paid huge salaries, sometimes upfront, with all perks, yet achieve nothing; and the disrespect for Nigerian coaches becomes a monumental national embarrassment. Had a foreign coach achieved what Keshi did, he would have been treated like god; but since Keshi is a Nigerian, he was instead insulted. Incidentally, it is not the first time Nigerian coaches have been treated so shabbily. Christian Chukwu, Shuaibu Amodu, Samson Siasia, Austin Eguavoen, and others have suffered the same fate.
Keshi might be the most successful indigenous coach in the history of Nigerian football, the man that took Nigeria to the World Cup, the man that was “begged” by the President to return when he resigned after winning the African nations cup; the man who was sacked and reinstated by presidential fiat, but he is also the man who has struggled to win just one match in the last five outings of the Eagles. In his years as manager of the Super Eagles, he may have done his job the way he knew best, and worked under excruciatingly difficult conditions, but in the process, he stepped on the toes of some powerful men in Nigerian football with his style and character. These are men who would not sleep until they get their pound of flesh. So his sack did not come as a surprise.
Now that he is back, Nigerian football fans must look beyond their glorious past and come to terms with the fact that this generation of players are playing some of the worst kind of football in Nigeria’s recent history. The team may fumble and even qualify for AFCON 2015, but the reality is that the players are not good enough to compete at the highest levels, yet. Most of them are minnows in the hierarchy of great artists of yesteryears. The Nigerian domestic league is not developing great football and, definitely, not breeding exceptional footballers. Nigeria is now reduced to searching for players in the unknown lower leagues of Europe, Asia and America. The team has been playing as if in a trance, without style or flair, or creativity.
What this simply indicates is that the Eagles are very much a direct team who are heavily reliant on fitness, temperament and the honesty of battle to win matches. That, though, is worrisome. In years gone by, superior physical fitness was always associated with technically superior Nigerian teams like the 1994 squad of Yekini, Amokachi, Oliseh and Okocha. This combined with their never-say-die attitude on the pitch to compensate for deficiencies in other areas. This clearly is not the case anymore. As technical issues confound the Eagles and make them certain also-rans in any elite tournament, their tactical set-up also conspires to make them second best. The coaching employed by Keshi is simple and easy to follow but it is for that very reason that players often turn off and fail to pay attention. When Keshi sets up a session, he usually concentrates on one aspect of training; set-piece or set-play. It is a relatively simple tactic used by most coaches, but Keshi insists on getting it exactly 100% right. In layman’s terms this means an incredible amount of repetition. Quite often, the team will spend hours just working on a counter-attack on one side of the field; if players on the other side fail to take up their correct position as the play develops, the “Big Boss” brings it all back to the start. This monotony erodes the balance between player and coach. In short, players get bored and stop listening.
Ultimately, Keshi will lead Nigeria to Brazzaville with the weight of an expectant nation behind him. However, the Red Devils will be waiting to ambush the Eagles should they come unprepared as they did in Calabar. In Brazzaville, Keshi will be between a rock and a hard place; in essence, he will be taking a knife to a gun-fight. When all is said and done; Keshi is doomed to failure because Nigerian players are not good enough. They aren't good enough because coaching systems at youth level marginalize talent over physicality and push conformity over imagination. Keshi and the team will fail not for lack of effort, but because Nigeria, quite simply, does not have the players to succeed on the big stage. To expect miracles from this generation of players is unrealistic; and that is why Keshi is ultimately doomed to fail.
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