Stephen Keshi was good enough to get Nigeria to win the African Cup. But he is not good enough to get us to win the World Cup.
My good friend, Jide Akintunde, Managing-Director of Financial Nigeria Limited, is what is known as a football aficionado. That means in simple English he loves the game. There is only one problem: Jide is a Nigerian and, in Nigeria, football aficionados are orphans. They live in motherless babies homes. They are football lovers without football teams. They are pounded-yam in search of edikaikong soup.
Should Jide say something like: “we are doing so much better this new season,” don’t be confused. He would not be referring to anything really belonging to him. He would be referring to Arsenal; a football club that happens to be in London, England. Arsenal is this season’s revelation in the English Premier League. Surprisingly, they are currently sitting unusually pretty at the top of the pops. But as I said, Jide is a Nigerian: he is not English. The anomaly is even more pronounced because he does not live in London. He lives in Lagos. Nevertheless, Jide has so adopted Arsenal completely as his club; he sees no contradiction in referring to it with a possessive “we.”
Can you imagine a white Briton in far-away London referring to Enugu Rangers as “we?” Can you imagine him wearing in London a t-shirt with the caption “Kano Pillars” emblazoned on it? I don’t think so! However, the Arsenal football jersey is a common feature in the streets of Lagos. So are those of Chelsea and Manchester United. Why is it that we, as Nigerians, are football orphans, forced to adopt foreign clubs as if they were ours? In 2011, Andrew Uba, residing in far away Okigwem in Imo State, Nigeria, even went as far as commit suicide because Manchester United failed to defeat Barcelona in the European Champions League final.
Years ago, I stopped watching the Super Eagles play. I only make sure I know the results of their matches as soon as possible. At best, I watch the highlights, especially if they happen to win. I came to this resolution because watching them play can be dangerous to the health of a Nigerian. You might get a heart attack out of sheer anxiety, especially given their shoddy style of play. According to reports, those who watched the last World Cup qualifier between Nigeria and Ethiopia nearly died of high blood pressure in the first half. That is the predicament of Nigeria’s teeming football lovers. They die many deaths during national football matches.
As a matter of fact, the Super Eagles hardly ever play their home matches in Lagos any more. The Lagos crowd is notoriously fickle. If the national team does not perform to expectation in the first few minutes, the orphan mentality of Nigerians quickly comes into play. The Nigerian crowd jettisons the national team and adopts the opposition. Every Nigerian move is jeered. Every opposition move is cheered. What this means is that if Nigeria plays against Cameroon in Lagos, it could very easily become home-court disadvantage. With a few hitches and glitches by the Super Eagles, Nigerians become Cameroonians in a heartbeat; cheering the visitors to victory.
Nigerians have never believed we can win the World Cup; and success must start at the level of belief. Since we refuse to believe, we have never prepared to win. On the contrary, we always prepare to fail. Indeed, we are such good failures, we succeed at failing. It takes four years to prepare for preeminence at the World Cup. But in Nigeria, we take four years to fail. We choose our coaches at the last minute. We choose coaches that are not world standard. We choose our players politically. At the last African Cup of Nations, we went without some of our best players. We failed on that occasion because we won, in spite of putting in our best effort to fail.
We don’t think it matters if the players are not familiar with one another. We only reward them if they win; otherwise they are unlikely to get paid, or to be paid on time. Recently, Stephen Keshi, the current coach, complained that he has not been paid for seven months. That is how we ensure he will not be motivated. But you can be sure the Nigerian Football Federation administrators are paying themselves even what they don’t deserve.
According to Sunday Oliseh, when Governor Peter Odili of Rivers State gave the Super Eagles money for qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, the NFF pocketed the money and refused to give it to the players. Therefore, on the eve of a friendly match with Egypt, the players threatened to boycott the game. As in everything in Nigeria, we are simply not serious. You may well ask why we should take football seriously until you realize that the game is one veritable instrument of national unity in Nigeria. It is the one thing about which virtually all Nigerians are in agreement: we want to win.
Football is also a sport where Nigeria can definitely excel. Indeed, I daresay, some of the very best footballers in the world are, and have been, Nigerians. We are the country of the football prodigies, such as Nwankwo Kanu, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Rashidi Yekini, Segun Odegbami and Stephen Keshi. We are still producing quality players today, including Victor Moses, Vincent Enyeama, John Mikel Obi, Emmanuel Emenike, and Osaze Odemwingie. So why is it that, in this particular area, Nigeria is not on top of the world? That is one of the many tragedies of this dear country called Nigeria.
On three different occasions, Nigeria actually won the under 16/17 World Cup. It is on record that we have won it three times; in 1985, 1993 and 2007. We have also been runners up three times. Indeed, Nigeria is the most successful country in that competition; better than even Brazil, the second most successful country. This year, we have already qualified for the semi-finals taking place today in Dubai. Even more significant is the fact that Nigeria won the gold medal in football at the 1996 Olympic Games, beating Brazil and Argentina in the semi-final and final respectively. This is itself is eloquent testimony that we have what it takes to win the adult World Cup.
When we first won the under 16 tournament in 1985, many saw the handwriting on the wall. Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, otherwise known as Pele, predicted that Nigeria would soon be a major football nation. We named a road in Lagos after Fatai Atere, one of the star performers. Thereafter, virtually all the players in that victorious team fell off the football raider. What exactly happened? The inside story is that they went into retirement. We called them under 16s, but they were actually already over thirty.
What needs to be done? In the short-term; Nigeria needs to get a world-class foreign coach. Stephen Keshi reigned supreme at the African Cup of Nations, but by the time we featured at the Confederations Cup in Brazil, he was completely out-foxed. Keshi does not have what it takes to tactically outsmart coaches like Brazil’s Luiz Felipe Scolari or Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque. Football matches are not only played between teams: more fundamentally, they are tactical contests between coaches. In the Confederations Cup, Keshi was tactically outplayed where it mattered. We went down to a woeful 3-0 defeat by Spain.
There is no room for misguided nationalism with regard to the choice of a coach or technical adviser. He does not have to be Nigerian. Luiz Scolari is Brazilian; nevertheless, he coached the Portuguese national team. Fabio Capello is Italian; nevertheless he coached the British national team. It is not about being nationalistically pig-headed. It is about insisting only the best is good enough for Nigeria. Stephen Keshi was good enough to get Nigeria to win the African Cup. But he is not good enough to get us to win the World Cup. To retain him without sophisticated technical backing for the World Cup is to resolve we cannot win.
There is no indication that the Super Eagles have improved since the Confederations fiasco. You don’t improve by playing friendly matches against nonentity football nations like Jordan. Jordan has never ever featured in the World Cup. So what exactly was the point of Nigeria playing against the Jordanian team as we did recently? How do we explain the fact that we even lost? You don’t improve by defeating non-descript Ethiopia by sheer luck as we did recently, with an Ethiopian goal that clearly crossed the line mistakenly disallowed.
Keshi is also temperamentally unsuitable for the World Cup. He is a politician. He went to the African Nations Cup without star players like Odemwingie, and somehow got away with it. But this proved to be disastrous at the Confederations Cup where it became clear that both the coach and the players lacked experience. Can you imagine Argentina going to the World Cup without Lionel Messi? A coach must be an adroit manager of men. Apparently, Keshi cannot handle the temperamental but experienced players. It is the job of a good coach to tame them.
Disbanding the NFF
In the medium-term, Nigerians of integrity need to take over the NFF. At the moment, it is yet another institution where money-grubbing Nigerians go to make money. That needs to come to an end. The onus here is not on the government to bring this about. The government is not allowed to interfere in football according to FIFA rules. The onus is on us, Nigerians, deciding that enough is enough and then mobilizing to get serious-minded people elected into the NFF. One of their jobs will then be to completely overhaul the local league. Let us bring back the glory days of the Stationary Stores. Let us get the Jide Akintundes of Nigeria excited about Nigerian football and not just the foreign English Premier League. Let us use football as a test-case. If we cannot excel at football, then we cannot excel at anything.