Monday, July 12, 2010

The Super Eagles Have Crash-landed

The Super Eagles Have Crash Landed
(Nigeria’s World Cup: A Post Mortem)

A time comes when a nation exhausts its stock of miracles, when its prayers for divine intervention fail like bounced cheques because it has long overdrawn its account of justifiable help from above. In the end, no amount of prayer could help the eagles’ wretched performance at the world cup. Even when divine aid was apparently delivered in the shape of Argentina beating Greece and the eagles needed a seemingly feasible victory over South Korea to grab a spot in the round of sixteen, it was beyond their talents. Instead we are left to ponder Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s ghastly miss from three yards out with the goal at his mercy. In the inquest that follows the eagles’ exit, we will revisit defining moments of our very brief world cup adventure. People will, no doubt, cite Sani Kaita’s moment of madness against Greece, needlessly incurring a red card for violent conduct and leaving his team a man down; or Yakubu Aiyegbeni (again!) failing to score when put through and Chinedu Obasi’s even more galling inability to slot home the rebound at close range. Had either of the two forwards utilized this gilt-edged opportunity, we just might have beaten the Greeks.

It is comforting to blame the Swede Lars Lagerback’s formation that deployed Yakubu as an at times isolated lone striker. Alas, all these are only symptoms. The truth is that Nigeria’s eagles have offered a mediocre brand of football for a while now. There is little a coach can tell a premier league striker about how to kick the ball into the goal from well inside the penalty box with no pressure whatsoever. Yakubu’s atrocious finishing against Korea is not a coaching matter. It speaks to the player’s motivation, hunger and sense of professional responsibility. But let’s not make this about Yakubu. For the better part of the last decade, Nigeria has fallen as a football medium power to an also ran even on the African continent. Let us remember that Nigeria made it to South Africa only after a lackluster qualifying campaign and had needed Mozambique to defeat its close rival Tunisia to win its world cup place. Thereafter, an equally mediocre showing at the African Cup of Nations earned the team an undeserved third place finish. Amodu Shuaibu who had overseen the last gasp qualification for the world cup and the dismal venture at the African Cup was sacked and replaced by Lagerback who in classic Nigerian tradition was asked to perform miracles. The Swede obliged persuaded by a contract reportedly worth twenty-five times what his predecessor had been earning. The ignominious showing in South Africa was thus foretold. In view of all this, news that a 56 year old Enugu resident and father of three died shortly after Argentina scored their goal against the eagles is especially lamentable as a waste.

What lessons can we learn from our latest misadventure? It is impossible not to interpret the eagles’ failure as a metaphor of our own failings as a nation. For decades, Nigeria has adopted an ad hoc strategy by default which discounts planning and relies heavily on talent and magical thinking. This fire brigade approach is precisely what it means. We have evolved a way of doing things that is a series of emergency protocols laced with prayers for divine intervention. Our preparation for events is a study in chaos, crisis mismanagement and damage control. In the past, we have somehow managed to get by because we had sufficient talent to gloss over our abject inability to plan. What the 2010 world cup showed is that we no longer have the talent to compensate for our organizational shortcomings.

In the current generation of the Super Eagles, there is no playmaker in the mould of Jay-Jay Okocha – a midfield general that can hold the ball and distribute it to the forwards. John Obi Mikel, a pretender to the throne was injured before the tournament and in any case has never performed in that role having been converted to a defensive midfielder by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. The most natural successor to Okocha is Rabiu Ibrahim, an alumnus of the Under 17 World Cup-winning Golden Eaglets of 2007 but he was not picked. The current eagles have no holding midfielder in the league of Sunday Oliseh, nor wingers in the class of Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke. Thus, the team had no capacity for ball-winning, retention or distribution. The forwards were starved off decent supplies but were woeful when called into action. True, Yakubu’s close range miss was one of the bloopers of the tournament but the supporting cast – Obasi, Nsofor, Odemwingie, Martins – scarcely covered themselves in glory. The obvious exception is Kalu Uche who scored both of Nigeria’s goals at the tournament. Of the lot, Odemwingie and Martins did not get much playing time. It seemed Lagerback was undecided as to a preferred striking combination. Overall the team lacked leaders on the pitch; it had no midfield general or dean of the defence. Decision-making in the final third of the pitch was often poor. The team lacked character. But let it be known that these problems did not begin in South Africa.

Success in any endeavour is not miraculously generated on the fly. It is the outcome of systems and institutions built over time. Excellence takes organization and planning, not wishful thinking, prayer, fasting or gambling. It is instructive that the eagles could not summon the will and the hunger to win even with the offer of pecuniary incentives. Tom-Tom, the team’s official candy had an initiative to reward the eagles with $1000 per shot on target. It was a creative, if desperate response to the team’s poor chances of success. Note that the prize money was for shots on target not goals. It is absurd that top footballers should need monetary motivation to strike the ball in the direction of the goal in the world’s biggest football competition. The point of the game, after all, is not that the ball should be kept in the centre circle or fired at the corner flag. Before they were knocked out, the eagles had earned $5000 for mustering one shot on target against Argentina and getting four against Greece. More tellingly, they entered the history books as the first team ever beaten by Greece at the World Cup finals. The eagles may have been among the highest paid teams at the tournament but financial incentives can only accomplish so much for a team of overpaid and overrated underperformers. Even at the highest levels of the game, playing for honour, pride and country still trump playing for cash.

It is significant that the last generation of Nigerian footballers to win international laurels – Oliseh, Okocha, and Rasheed Yekini etc. – emerged during the reign of the Dutch manager, Clemens Westerhof. What was remarkable about the Westerhof era was not the man himself but the fact that he had considerable latitude in terms of time and primacy over national football matters. Westerhof coached Nigeria from 1989 to 1994. In those years, he scoured the local league, unearthed raw diamonds like Finidi, Uche Okechukwu and Daniel Amokachi among others and saw to it that they moved to foreign clubs for cutting and polishing. He gave Kanu his senior debut and was not afraid of experimenting with new finds from the local league. But the point is that Westerhof was given time and full authority over the national team. He was able to focus on his work without the distraction of meddlesome dolts in the football federation. Just as important, Nigeria had a local league that was worth the name at the time. That was when Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Shooting Stars, Ranchers Bees and Sharks of Port Harcourt could still engage the imagination of football followers. Then it was possible for Finidi George to move straight from Sharks to Ajax Amsterdam.

If today, our national league commands scant interest even from local sports journalists, it is not because of the ubiquitous presence of the English premier league or the Spanish La Liga. It is because it simply fails to capture our soccer-loving hearts. With pitches better suited for grazing cattle, poorly run clubs with players on slave wages, all too common hooliganism and a monopolistic corporate sponsorship deal that reeks of graft, the Nigerian league is hardly a spectacle of the beautiful game. Over the years as the local league has degenerated, there has been a dearth of talent coming into the national senior team. Consider the fact that since the departure of Amuneke, we have not had a natural left footer on the left side of midfield. During Westerhof’s time at the helm, Dotun Alatishe, Friday Elaho, Amuneke and the two-footed Victor Ikpeba variously occupied this position. Since Okocha’s retirement, we have lamented the hole in the centre of the eagles’ midfield. The misguided calls by some analysts for Okocha to come out of retirement signify the dearth of talent in our time. Under Westerhof, we had able midfielders like Moses Kpakor, Friday Ekpo and Mutiu Adepoju who marshaled the midfield with distinction. Indeed, Okocha played second fiddle for a while to Ekpo, and did not become a regular starter until Westerhof’s departure because Samson Siasia (converted from attack to midfield) was preferred.

Without a well run league, there will be no nursery for fledgling talent. Our most promising footballers will continue to falsify their ages so as to play for age-grade teams and market their skills on the world stage or simply sign away their lives in slave contracts with foreign clubs. The effect is that when such players eventually make it into the eagles, they shine brightly but briefly as supernovae rather than stars. Their careers are cut short by diminishing marginal returns and recurrent injuries brought on by middle-aged limbs protesting their overuse. Consider Julius Aghahowa, Pius Ikedia and a host of talented players that have gone too soon into retirement or obscurity. Like Shakira’s hips, hamstrings and muscles in the throes of midlife don’t lie.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s reversed decision to suspend the eagles from international football may have been well-intentioned but was consistent with the Nigerian tradition of taking sensational and superficial actions that appear populist but have little beneficial practical value. The presidential decision risked incurring a FIFA ban on Nigeria. That would have been unfortunate. For Nigeria’s ascent as a football power was cut short by similar presidential meddling in 1996 when the Abacha junta pulled the eagles out of the African Cup of Nations being hosted in South Africa for political reasons. That earned the country a ban by CAF for another two years that stalled our progress. There is still room for presidential action but it must be directed at fundamental causes rather than superficial symptoms. Government control of football is an important cog in the wheel. The fact that candidates for the leadership of the football federation often court the backing of the presidency is a problem. We need to resuscitate the local league, renegotiate the silly contract that has placed local football in the pocket of one corporation. We need to revitalize school competitions, the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) and our soccer academies – the seedbed of football talent. Whether or not Lagerback is kept on as coach, whoever heads the team should be given a long-term contract with an eye on the next African cup of nations and the Brazil 2014 World Cup. We should start planning for the future now.

Long suffering Nigerians will want to believe that our misadventure in South Africa will mark a radical change in football administration in this country; that the national disappointment will provoke dramatic transformation of Nigerian football. History suggests otherwise. It seems more likely that our inability to learn lessons from the past will once again take hold of events. We have, after all, been here before. Remember that we did not even qualify for the last world cup, Germany 2006 and that we suffered a first round exit in Korea-Japan 2002. Neither failure sparked off any revolutions. Crocodile tears were shed and some recrimination ensued, but nothing transformative happened. The same thing might happen now. Nigerians are jaded having been hurt for so long by their underperforming footballers. The parallel with the relationship between Nigerians and their political leaders is unmistakable. Overpaid footballers break our hearts and overpaid politicians dash our hopes. It is so easy to pessimistic. But we can still hope, can’t we?

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