[OPINION] AFCON Back-To-Back Miss: Has Eagles Lost Her Birthright? By Nomso Obiajuru

As a young boy who spent more time watching football than any other thing in life, getting the green-white-green jersey of my country was a dream.

Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to live my dream at the age of 11, when Uncle Chidi gave me N500 for reciting “states and capital” with perfection, one Saturday afternoon.

That still remains one of the happiest moments of my life. However, the long wait for the weekend to be over, was the bitter pill I found hard to swallow.

“Can I sneak out of this house to get the jersey in Brother Emeka’s shop or should I wait till Monday to get it on my way to school?” both questions ran through my head as the urge to wear the Super Eagles jersey grew stronger.

I however had to settle for Monday as the thoughts of mama’s slap sent shivers down my spine. “You must leave very early for school on Monday, so that you can buy the jersey from Brother Emeka,” those were my last words before the morning of Monday, April 9, 2001.

I got the jersey of one of my favourite players of all time. Although, it wasn’t the real deal but the memories that came with the No 10 shirt of Austin Jay Jay Okocha was inspiring. He was so good that he was named twice – Jay Jay.

As I continued to keep tab of my favourite players and the Super Eagles, my love for the round leather game soared.

I remember as a child, I was always eager to see my country file out for action at the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), the World Cup, Olympics and other football competitions. But it never crossed my mind that my country had to compete to get a ticket to these competitions, because like every average Nigerian, I always thought the tickets were our birthrights- Being the most populous African nation, are they not?

However, it dawned on me when Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup hosted by Germany, against all expectation.

Sadly, this set the stage for the free fall that has enveloped the game in the country today as the Super Eagles recently failed to qualify for the 2016 Africa Cup of Nations. It is the first time back-to-back and the third in five years.

But how did we get to this sorry state in our football history when just three years ago, we were Africa’s champions?

The Genesis

The decline in Nigeria’s football did not start with the failure to qualify for the 2006 World cup and three AFCON competitions in the last five years.

However, the 2016 AFCON disappointment is the climax of an emerging failure that started after the golden generation of 94 left the stage, and nothing concrete was put in place to recreate that era.

Instead, the era of hire-and-fire of coaches in succession, coupled with series of disputes at the Glass House, amongst many others, gave entry for a lurking disaster to pounce on the nation’s beautiful game.

Dutchman Clemens Westerhof took Nigeria to her first appearance at USA ’94 World Cup after winning the AFCON. The team played the kind of football that till date has not been matched, as it only took the brilliance of Roberto Baggio of Italy to knock out the African powerhouse in the round of 16. However, there was no competition in 1996 as same generation won the Atlanta Olympic football gold for Africa for the first time.

But following Nigeria’s failure to build on the success of the Olympic gold, a 5th placed Super Eagles in FIFA ranking of 1994 now languish in the 67th position in April 2016.

The decline

It was the most unthinkable thing that Super Eagles could lose the World Cup ticket to Angola right in front of their fans in Kano in 2006. To sensitive followers, signs of failure had been flashing ever since a depleted Super Eagles team crashed in the second round of 1998 World Cup, and there were no signs of young bloods being drafted into the team.

Unfortunately, the result was Eagles being denied the 2000 AFCON trophy by Cameroon right in front of her fans in Lagos, followed by three third place finish in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

At AFCON 2008, Nigeria almost went out at the group stage until Ivory Coast did Eagles a favour, defeating Mali. They eventually returned home after crashing out in the quarter final to host Ghana and the same feet was repeated at the AFCON 2010 in Angola as Ghana were again Nigeria’s nemesis in the semi-final, with the Eagles picking up a bronze yet again.

For the first time since 1986, Nigeria failed to qualify for AFCON to be jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2012. Guinea’s 2-2 draw with Eagles at the Abuja Stadium marked a black day in the nation’s football history, and as expected, it ended Samson Siasia’s reign as chief coach of the team.

Another ex-international, Stephen Keshi stepped in with the mission to restore the long lost sobriquet of the Super Eagles and he did quite well by reinforcing the team with younger players and that from the domestic league.

The experimentation paid off with the likes of Godfrey Oboabona and Sunday Mbah commanding regular shirts ahead of their foreign-based counterparts. That team restored Nigeria’s pride, winning the AFCON 19 years after the feat in Tunisia.

Sadly, by the time Keshi took Eagles to the World Cup in Brazil, the relationship between him and the Nigeria Football Federation leadership had gone south. Following Nigeria’s second round exit to France in Brazil, the NFF decided it was time for Keshi to be given the marching orders in October 2014.

However, with no worthy replacement in sight for the Big Boss, Keshi was recalled in 2015 to put the Super Eagles in shape ahead of the AFCON 2015 qualifiers.

But barely 85 days after his return as head coach of the Super Eagles, Keshi was sent parking for the second time in eight months on July 4, 2015. After about three years in the Super Eagles hot seat, the African Nations Cup winning coach was sacked a second time by the NFF.

Stephen Keshi’s sack came weeks after the NFF began investigations on him over an application for the position of Head coach of the Ivory Coast national football team. It was gathered that out of the 59 applicants, who were vying to replace HervéRenard, the Ivorian Football Federation (FIF), Keshi was listed by the FIF among those who had declared interest in the job.

Keshi also lost his job after a run of bad results in AFCON 2015 qualifiers caused Nigeria an opportunity to defend her trophy she won in South Africa.  The Big Boss was sacked for a rookie coach, Sunday Oliseh.

In July 15, Oliseh was unveiled in Abuja by the NFF as the new head coach of Super Eagles. However, an awry relationship between Oliseh and the NFF dented Nigeria’s chance again to be at the 2017 AFCON edition to be hosted in Gabon, with the ex-International quitting his job.

The Problems

From hire-and-fire of coaches in succession, to series of disputes at the Glass House, to lack of quality players, down to the underground politics going on in our football administration, many factors have contributed to the Super Eagles abysmal performances of late.

Following the drama of Sunday Oliseh’s resignation as the coach of the Super Eagles, NFF president AmajuPinnick, was quoted to have said the football federation will no longer engage indigenous coaches for the national team, under his leadership.

But according to ex-international and former Eagles assistant coach, Joe Erico, the statement credited to Pinnick is laughable.

He said: “If Pinnick wants to hire expatriate coaches, then he should also be thinking of bring in expatriate administrators. The problem of Nigerian football is not a coaching problem.

“If you compare the performance of the expatriate coaches and that of the indigenous coaches, there is no difference. The only foreign coach that achieved much was Westerhof and he had five years and direct access to the Presidency. Who will have that and not do well?

“The farthest the best of these expatriate coaches have gone is winning AFCON and reaching second round in the World Cup and indigenous coaches have done that also. So there is nothing special about these expatriate coaches except the colour.”

Since the pre-Independence era till date the Nigerian national team has been managed by at least 19 foreign coaches. The first being Englishman John Finch in 1949, and the last being Swedish coach Lars Lagerback in 2010.

However, only two of these foreign coaches —Brazilian, Otto Gloria, who coached the team that won Nigeria’s first Africa Cup of Nations in 1980 and Clemens Westerhof, the Dutch coach, who put together the team that won the African cup in 1994, won major trophies.

Apart from Gloria and Westerhof, not much can be said about the Eagles’ foreign coaches in terms of winning major tournaments.

While some believe the era of hire-and-fire of coaches of the Super Eagles is killing the team, others believe the nation’s woes in recent times can be tied to poor developmental programmes by the NFF.

“The NFF must learn to change its recruitment procedure for coaches. They must learn to place emphasis on aptitude and demonstrable abilities of these coaches before giving them the job. The NFF must learn to have articulated technical programmes which will ultimately lead to progression in our football

“What is happening in our country is a national problem, not a football problem. Nigeria is a country where as a chairman; I can appoint a carpenter who helped some years back to head a technical committee. The problem is not weather one coach is going to succeed or not. We have to sit and re-examine our football administration,” former coach Chief AdegboyeOnigbinde told NAIJ.com.

But while some believe Nigerian administrators have failed to crack the problem by setting out proper developmental structures, Nigerian players also contribute to their problems when they arrive in Europe, the ultimate football destination – with hopes of having successful career.

It is believed that many Nigerian players in their quest to land a contract outside the shores of the country jump at any offer abroad. This has contributed immensely to the decline.

RafiuLadipo, the president general of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, told NAIJ.com: “The real problem with the Super Eagles is simple. When our players are playing, when they are doing well, we should remember a time when they will start to dwindle in performance, then we should have replacements for them.

“Using a crop of players for 10-15 years not having reserves for them is bad. That has militated against our football. In 1994, we were the 5th best team in the world, how come did we drop to 67th? That means certain things have been wrong and they are that we did not have replacements for players who served us so well.

“Before now, there were programs in those days; we discovered them and supported them to become stars and celebrities.

“But we have forgotten that those days, we get these men from the schools, from the grassroots before they became stars. We should go back to the roots. Get those competitions revived. We should also know that football is big business that no player wants to play for fun.

“Gone were the days when the likes of SegunOdegbami, AdokiyeAmasiemaka and the rest of them played for the love of the game. Football is business and we should do football business like.”

Tussle for Leadership

Just like the drama that goes on the pitch of play, Nigerians also get to experience spectacles in our administration. The NFF president AmajuPinnick and rival Chris Giwa almost came to blows at a meeting arranged by Solomon Dalung, the minister of Youth and Sports in January 20.

The meeting was convened to settle the crisis that has engulfed the football house for almost two years.

Pinnick and Giwa both contested the NFF presidency in September 2014 in Warri, Delta state. In the aftermath of the elections, both FIFA and CAF congratulated Pinnick as the new man at the helm.

Giwa lost his case both in FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) but had his hopes of becoming NFF president restored on April 8 as Pinnick was sacked by a High Court in Jos.

The NFF however responded by filing an appeal, a motion to vacate the order and a motion for a stay-of-execution against the judgement of the Jos High Court.

The appeal filed on the same day means the status quo remains, meaning Pinnick remains NFF President pending determination of suit.

The crisis that followed the power struggle for the NFF presidency, largely contributed to why Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2015 edition of the African football showpiece in Equatorial Guinea.

Hopes

As always, Nigerian football fans are hopeful about a few youth prospects. Players like Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi have been dubbed to be super stars in the nearest future. There might not be a large-scale excitement, but many will be quietly optimistic that the new bright hopes of Nigerian football will find their way to the top of the game. Another golden generation might emerge someday. The question however is how soon will this day come?

 

 

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