There is palpable anxiety within the football community in Nigeria over the team we are fielding at the World Cup in Russia in two months time. The Super Eagles fine run in the qualifiers raised hopes, especially taking into consideration, their opponents in the group. Namely; almighty Cameroon, Algeria and resurging Chipolopolo of Zambia. But Nigeria conquered them all, not minding the avoidable blunder against Algeria where ineligible Shehu Abdullahi was fielded to the advantage of the North Africans.
Suddenly, there is apprehension and justifiably so. Yet, neither the coach Gernot Rohr, nor the NFF can be blamed for the present lack of faith by most Nigerians in the Russia-bound team. Truth be told, both the coach and the football governing body have done excellently well in preparing this team for the global soccer fiesta. We have seen a flawless organisation and packaging, something different from recent past experiences.
But, there is a huge problem with the team and it has to do with the quality and fitness of most of the players. From goalkeeping to defensive areas, there is cause for worry. From midfield to attack, nobody is smiling. Latest reports have it that the coach is ‘combing’ Europe in search of strikers. Some ex-internationals have also called for immediate recall of aging players like Obafemi Martins, Brown Ideye, goalkeeper Austin Ejide among others. There is panic with just two months to the kickoff of the tournament.
Incidentally, Nigeria is not the only country losing sleep as the World Cup draws near. There is a similar concern in England for instance. The England manager, Southgate, who had a super ride in the qualifying series is reaching out to experts, including journalists to find ways to strengthen the Three Lions, even with the abundance of World class players from the best leagues in the world.
Sadly, the views of sports journalists in Nigeria, no matter their experience and exposure are always considered harmful to our ‘know-it-all’ administrators and their attack dogs. These hangers-on allow the fear of job insecurity to blind them from separating the message from the messenger.
There is fear that England, the home of modern day football may not go beyond the quarterfinals if certain urgent steps are not taken to address areas of concern. Recently, a respected football columnist with the Daily Mail Newspaper in the United Kingdom, Martin Samuel wrote an article, expressing his fears why England, with all their stars, may not go beyond the quarters. He captioned it: “There is only so far England can go at the World Cup without a playmaker”. What you are likely to get from the managers and the administrators in England would be appreciations and corrections. But here, your constitutionally guaranteed rights of free comments attract insults, even from Lilliputians on the field.
Instructively, England’s case is similar to Nigeria’s, hence the need to highlight the points raised in the English writer’s submissions, hoping Nigeria can take some lessons from there. Martin Samuel’s position is that England may not have problems qualifying from their group G, made up of Tunisia, England, Panama, and Belgium. He also contends that beating their likely opponents in the next stage from group H of Senegal, Japan, Poland and Colombia might not be a problem.
However, he predicts that England is likely to end their campaign at the quarterfinals where they might meet either Germany or Brazil. His reservation about England not going far is based on their limitations in the midfield. In his opinion, which is the same problem with the Super Eagles of Nigeria, “there is only so far a team can travel without a gifted playmaker at the heart of the team. A player who can keep possession and dictate the pace and flow of the game. England do not have that player,” he insisted. And the similarities with Nigeria continue. Do we have that player in the present Super Eagles? The answer is a resounding no.
He argues that any team without the likes of Toni Kroos of Real and Germany or Andre Iniesta of Barcelona and Spain, and I should add Modric of Real and Croatia, stand no chance at the global stage. The two players who would have played the role effectively for England, Henderson of Liverpool and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, he opined, are not fit and prone to injuries; that it would be suicidal for England to anchor their midfield on the duo. The same applies to Nigeria. Those who would haven done it for the Eagles are either not available or not fit. Proffering solution, the columnist submitted that it would need a “stunning plan and extraordinary shifts at the back and from the forwards to overcome the absence of a playmaker in a team.” This is the major issue facing the Nigerian team. There is no creativity upfront. Who is that Super Eagles player today that will keep possession, dictate the pace and flow of the game?
Unlike the England manager, his Nigerian counterpart does not have many options in almost all the departments. How many of the present players in the national team are in the starting lineups of their clubs? How many of them are fit? Everyone is worried about the goalkeeping position. The two wingbacks are still not totally reliable, but we can make do with Shehu on the right on a good day. What of the left? Not certain yet. There are concerns in the defensive midfield, but I think we can count on Ndidi, Onazi and Mikel, depending on where the coach wants to use him and his fitness too.
The real challenge is finding creative midfielders upfront, led by a playmaker. This is why Nigerians will not forget the likes of Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu in a hurry.
Regrettably, we are also witnessing dearth of deadly strikers at this point of preparing for the World Cup. Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and Ahmed Musa are all not at their best. What a time to lose form and fitness. But, somehow I trust Rohr. He has shown capacity technically and tactically. He can still freshen things up. Unfortunately, time is not on his side.
Let us not heighten expectations by believing we have world-beaters in the present Eagles. This team is still work in progress. We can’t be searching for strikers, goalkeepers and playmakers two months to the World Cup and still be boastful. We know in football anything can happen. Let’s see how best to make use of what we have. The good news is; with Gernot Rohr and the support of the NFF leadership, the future is bright.
Till next week, keep attacking.