It would been ideal to talk sports in a holistic manner, by looking at sports, its development and place in building up a country thriving in health, productivity and great image, not many know great has correlation to mighty economic development. It would have been wonderful to talk sports development really, especially coming after another terrible outing at the recently concluded Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. We miss it and keep missing, harvesting failures and disgrace. It is a big matter and should demand separate a different kind of treatment given the very weighty matters involved. That discourse is postponed for today; this much you the reader can see already. It will come very soon, may be as a follow up to this piece. I have chosen to take another critical look at one small aspect of sports, football – the king of sporting events and in particular activities surrounding the senior national team that goes by the name “Super Eagles” – a name they got sequel to superlative performances in 1994.
Since after very scintillating outings in competitions between 1991-1993, and then in the 1994 World Cup in America under Dutch coach, Clemence Westerhoff, where our team played so well it almost got into the quarter final and where it returned with a ranking of the fifth best playing team in the world, the best we have attained so far since after that period, as many Nigerian soccer lovers know, remained a shadow of its old self. Under various coaches, Amodu Shuaibu, Sampson Siasia, Sunday Oliseh, the team we have seen all this while the team remained at best, at the level of a “trial” team, not a well-established squad with a clear standard measure. Today, it is very difficult to know the names of our national team stars because of inconsistencies, the call to camp keeps going as long as there is identification of new players even from countries that ought be far below our standing in world football development.
There are those for who this approach is good. But for me it is no plus. Great teams are to an extent predictable. They have character and norm. One can look at them and hazard a guess as to the extent they will go in a competition and it will turn out correct. No one, except the incurable optimist, will dare to indulge in this kind of exercise regarding the Super Eagles today. Why? There is no team. It is true that in 2013 the team under Coach Stephen Keshi won the African Nations Cup in South Africa, that team was nowhere near what anyone could boast of in terms of a national team good enough for a footballing society with a huge estimated population of about 2 million people. We have talents and should be on top level.
The Keshi squad was as usual top class in terms of individual talents and determination arising from having been ruled out even before they left our shores but very deficient in team cohesion, technique and tactics. Individual skills can win us laurels in Africa, especially with a little passion added to the mix but we stand no chance in world competitions. This much we saw when that team went on to play in Confederation Cup for continental champions in Brazil, a month or two after that team played defensively and struggled in most of their encounters with quality teams. Since then the story has remained that of mediocre performance even under Coach Genor Rohr, who has been with this team for about five years, same period it took Westerhoff to give us a national team that was classy and capable of conquering the world. During that period before anyone mentioned football in Africa, Nigeria got the first mention.
Super Eagles went to last African nations cup in Egypt in 2018 not certain of the level they would go; the coach wasn’t certain either. The team wasn’t ranked among the favourites for the cup like Senegal, Algeria, Egypt and even Tunisia. If this wasn’t disgusting, then someone should say what else could have been worse. in the semi-finals of the competition, Algeria which eventually won the cup took the Eagles out. The lack of technical department in the team was glaringly exposed. We got bronze and rejoiced for a team and nation, which by now ought to have assumed the status of Brazil and Argentina in African continental football. In the last World Cup in Russia we couldn’t make our traditional second round appearance. Instead we were bundled out in the first round even when few minutes separated us from stepping into the second round. We saw how our defence in very crucial moments of the game with Argentina was caught napping. All the players pushed forward, all they required was a draw, leaving large space behind; at a point segregated defence arrangement was very imperative.
Some of us concerned football enthusiasts, who watched the recent UEFA and South America national cup tournaments from what we saw can authoritatively say that our national team has no quality trainer. Rohr has succeeded so far within Africa not by reason of his excellence in techniques and tactics; rather he did as a result of preponderance of individual skills always available to us. Every elementary football follower knows that great teams are essentially not about individual players, it is more about team cohesion, tactics and techniques.
The Super Eagles under Rohr is incomplete in terms of manpower; the coach is yet to find a world class goalkeeper, one in the shape of Emma Okala and Peter Rufai in their days in the national team. The Super Eagles team is in need of goalkeepers whose presence in the goalpost would impose confidence and whose agility, reflexes, posing, territorial control and starting of the games will be excellent. The defence is far from a champion line up. What Rohr has would cave in when matched against teams with quality. We have seen that time and time again. There is total absence of play makers in the mold of Austin Okocha, who by way of holding the ball, quick dribbles and excellent ball distribution can dictate and change the nature of games in play. This is partly the reason the strikers are not scoring goals, even though they are prolific in club assignments. But club is in so dimensions different from national teams. Given where we are we need strikers with special qualities.
The strikers we parade are not the kind that on self-initiative can take on defences frontally, neither are they the kind that work very hard to break through and score vital goals when it matters most; in nearly all their matches we have not seen the ability to force opponents to make those costly mistakes especially when it matters most; the ones on parade under Rohr wait for passes that hardly come besides a few occasional untargeted crosses from the flanks. One could be wrong, many of us are yet to see our strikers score from very difficult situations or take advantage of half chances. It is like we have done away with wing play. The game approach under Rohr is sluggish, so much short passes in our half of the field with no touch of urgency, giving out the impression of a team that is afraid to lose or one not eager to put the match away as early as is possible. The team is not pacy, neither does it switch tactics, transition from defence or midfield to attack is so slow, giving opponents enough time to regroup. On the psychology, the win or die attitude is not there.
The hallmarks of champion teams include grit, a good team must have verve to stand out heated moments, the stamina must be seen, teams that must excel must have ability to take on opponents anywhere and display excellence in all areas, it should be a team that can maximize spot kicks, throw-ins and corner kicks. Many of us are yet to see these in the Super Eagles under Rohr. As the team commences her World Cup qualifying bid, discerning observers would see the team lack a pattern. It would be difficult to say when the Super Eagles are about to score a goal and that is because there is no clear tactic in their approach to games. Rohr, like other coaches of the team, relies on foreign players; even then molding them into a formidable force has been a problem.
As usual this Super Eagles team will beat Liberia, may be Cape Verde, struggle and scrap through any strong quality team to qualify for the World Cup just like they have done with African Nations Cup holding in Cameron in January. This for us should not be the yardstick at our level. The goal should not be to compete, it should be to compete and win whether it is African or world competitions. This is where the sporting world expects us to be. Would there be a change? I have my doubts, because “No man can give what he doesn’t have.” Rohr may have good intentions but it takes more than intentions to be a champion. It takes a tested cap.