Oliver Ejike Uja
Nigerians love football. The passion for the game is such that each time the Super Eagles play the atmosphere is always electrified and Nigerian supporters are one of the most adorable fans in the world. They drum, sing, dance and display such mien and flamboyance that even draws the opposing fans admirations. Whenever the national team plays, all the differences among the people vanish and such is the power of the game in unifying Nigerians irrespective of ethnic, political and religious differences. Therefore, when Super Eagles qualified for the France 2018 FIFA world Cup finals, the fans started praying, hoping and dreaming. The team’s performance in build-up to the tournament was not the best but a typical Nigerian fan still believed that Nigeria could make an impact. That was the level of patriotism and optimism.
It was a triumphant entry into the soccer fiesta in sizzling new robes and kits which earned them the title of ‘the most fashionable team’. The captain, John Mikel Obi, and other players were talking tough and the social media was agog. John Ogu was also crowned King of ‘Shaku Shaku’ dance style courtesy of his video he posted online and the BBC ‘Focus on Africa’ programme which also featured him displaying his ‘shaku shaku’ dancing skills. Conversely, the friendly games preparatory to the tournament lacked spark. The much talked about 2-0 win over Argentina was against a team struggling to raise a team from the shadows of aging players and players that were passed their best. In World Cup, players and the team must be at their peak before praying for mother luck if the team must go far. This traits and quality the Super Eagles lack.
When the competition started, fans were still in high hope hinging their optimism on that defeat of Argentina. But on July 16 that was shaken in the Super Eagles 2-0 loss to Croatia in a below average shambolic display. The only notable player by virtues of his exploits in English Premier League side Chelsea and in the qualifiers, Victor Moses, was very ordinary and the only impact was to fall at the slightest touch even when he was in a good position to shoot on target. It took Ahmed Musa’s moments of brilliance for the Eagles to beat Iceland 2-0 but against Argentina in the final group match, they could not hold on even when the team was five minutes from holding the South American team to a 1-1 draw and moving on to the next round. The Argentine scored the winner 86 minutes into the game to break Nigerians hearts.
All the same, there are some positive take homes from Nigeria’s participation in the tournament. The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) led by Amaju Melvin Pinnick for the first time in a long while had got the arrangement correct. Though preparation for any competition may not be perfect, the resolution of the ever nagging issue of players’ welfare, bonus and other benefits was a great one. There was no known rancour in the team either between the players or between the players and the coach.
Nigeria found a capable hand in Gernot Rohr, the 65 year-old German tactician who managed a team that was more or less build from the scratch even when there was shortage of quality players that are at their peak. Moreover, this was coming at the backdrop of rancorous period which led to the unceremonious exist of Sunday Oliseh, the former Technical Adviser.
The goalkeeping department has become a problematic area, especially since Carl Ikeme, who was outstanding in the post during the qualifiers took ill and was ruled out. But Rohr rose up to the occasion and gave Nigerians a worthy replacement in Francis Uzoho, the 20-year-old Deportivo La Coruna shot stopper. The keeper did not disappoint.
However, there is still a lot of building to be done. The attack was blunt, midfield uninspiring and the defence was overstressed. In all the matches that the Eagles played, they had the greatest number of uncompleted passes and gave away possession so cheaply more than their opponents. The transition of play from defence to attack was terrible and their defence of set-pieces was suspect. Nigeria no longer has midfielders in the mould of Austin Okocha, Sunday Oliseh or George Finidi. There are no longer top finishers like Rashidi Yekini, Kanu Nwankwo Emmanuel Amunike, Dan Amaokachi or Victor Ikpeba. In defence, Nigerians can only reminisce the era of Uche Okechukwu, Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Stephen Keshi and Austin Eguavon.
One thing is clear about the below average performance of the Eagles. Football is not played on the social media. The pitch is the cathedral where all the players who merit it are consecrated. Players need to ‘trend’ in the football field not on social media to hit a high in their career. Eagles could not dance ‘galala’ talk more of ‘shaku shaku’. The players winning award in the dance style could not translate it to stellar performance in the pitch. They were artless when it mattered most. ‘Fashion’ does not play the game; players do. Moreover, some people keep wondering when Nigeria has become officially ‘Naija’, to warrant the word being embossed in the team’s official jersey. Is this not the case of ‘over sabi’ as people say in Nigerian parlance? Those players talking tough ended up giving reasons for their failings to their over expectant fans. Footballers are no politicians and no team would hire a footballer solely on his oratory or promises but on the ability in the pitch.
It is time to develop young talents and nurture them to the senior national team. The practice of foraging the entire globe for players of Nigerian extraction a few months to any major competition is not the best. The focus should be on identifying talents from various leagues and competitions in Nigeria and exposing them to the big stage and bringing other exceptional Nigerian talents from other parts of the world to form a squad. This makes the task of blending and raising a formidable team much easier. Players that should be invited into the national team should be only those ready to sacrifice for their fatherland. Sadly, a lot of people have questioned the commitment of some players wearing Nigerian colours in recent years.
However, there is hope that the lesson learnt in the tournament would be a starting point to restrategize and build a compact team that will play well and even in losing, lose gallantly. It is one of the things that will save the teeming Nigerian football fans the lamentations and the Ah! Oh! Eh! that have become the refrain each time the Super Eagles play.
Uja writes from Abuja via [email protected]