AFCON Lessons for Nigerian Football | The Guardian Nigeria News
The Super Eagles’ exit in the just-concluded 33rd Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was a flash in the pan that ended disastrously. Although the team had no shortage of aces and industry, the feast of football and the eventual winners showed that flair without adequate preparation, team discipline and national self-confidence would not win trophies in modern football. What if sports managers quickly put the pieces of the puzzle back together? the Nigerian team can bounce back from disappointment and regain their mojo in this World Cup year.
Like a house on fire, the Super Eagles made a profound statement in the Group D opener, beating the Pharaohs of Egypt – one of the tournament favourites. Besides the thin margin of a zero, the fluid pattern of play across the wings and dominating performance throughout the 90 minutes gave the entire tournament an impressive prospect. Millions of football fans in Nigeria and abroad are so quick to forget the lousy preparation and saga of coach Gernot Rhor. Subsequent performances against Sudan and Guinea-Bissau earned the team the only 100% performance in the group stage of the competition, bolstering the Super Eagles’ rating as a strong candidate for the AFCON Trophy. But it was a fairy tale that was quickly brought back to reality by the shocking loss to Tunisia – a side that managed to qualify for the knockout stage and were decimated by COVID-19 infections .
The reality is that the Super Eagles team that showed up in Cameroon was an assemblage of individual genius but not a formidable team that can turn the corner of bad luck or create technical upsets in tough matches. And that has been the unfortunate trend since the golden age of Nigerian football in the 1990s. In a desire to win without the rigors of proper preparation, Nigeria has consistently called up players to the senior national team in as far as they play anywhere overseas! The fallout is having a national team of foreigners who lack the cohesion to play to their strength. But as the Super Eagles of old demonstrated and revalidated at AFCON 2021, a squad of 11 overseas-based players can win a game, but it takes a deep squad to win tournaments. Finalists Teranga Lions of Senegal and Pharaohs of Egypt have shown that it takes more time of commitment, consistency and hard work to have a great team with an organic playing tradition. Senegal coach, Aliou Cissé was a member of the Senegal squad that played at the 2002 World Cup and shockingly beat France in the first match. The Nations Cup in Cameroon was Cissé’s third time as a coach, having lost to Algeria in the 32nd CAN final in Egypt. It ultimately took him eight years of team training to win the first AFCON for Senegal. This is how a winning national team is built that will last a while on the podium.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has made the reasonable choice to retain coach Augustine Eguavoen as the team’s interim technical adviser. His confirmation is a reward for the flashes of brilliance shown despite the team’s legacy on the eve of the tournament. Eguavoen and other indigenous coaches should be encouraged to grow, gain technical depths and aspire to heights with national teams. Enough of NFF politicians employing journeymen as foreign coaches and expecting them to deliver trophies overnight! Such a fantasy is not the stuff of a serious footballing nation or one that wants to develop its potential. If the majority of foreign coaches are no better than their local counterparts, then Nigeria cannot go wrong supporting its own. However, the sports fraternity in Nigeria, administrators, fans, journalists and others must be patient with them as they will make their mistakes and learn from them.
If the Super Eagles are to return to the accounts soon enough, the quality of football administration cannot be an afterthought. In the short term, there is a need for the NFF Glass House to focus on the crisp World Cup qualifier against Ghana’s Black Stars, scheduled for next month. That, along with the Qatar World Cup and the upcoming AFCON in 2023, all require proper preparation, if the Super Eagles are to go far. Team discipline, commitment to a common cause and clearly defined goals are important. Some of the players failed to show discipline and commitment in the lead up to Cameroon’s exit. These and the team’s deadweights should be replaced with hungrier players. All of this is achievable when the coaching staff has a free hand to innovate, build the team purely on merit, and make decisions without interference.
In the long term, NFF Chairman Amaju Pinnick and his company have a mandate to develop Nigerian football through clear-sighted policies and programs. The springboard for this development is viable school sport and local football leagues. Rarely do national teams dominate long enough without a fairly well-organized and managed domestic league that attracts domestic and foreign talent. More so, the impressive performances of ‘minions’ like Gambia, Comoros, Malawi and Equatorial Guinea who played in the Round of 16 again showed the importance of homegrown talent, if properly harnessed. The Federal Government, through the Department of Sports and Youth Affairs, should demand better results from the NFF and sports federations in general. Enough of self-centered businessmen with no development programs or track records mismanaging our sports. And the question must be asked: for how long will this country continue to deprive itself of exploiting the enormous economic and development potential inherent in football and sporting activities in general?
Indeed, the loss to the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia and the early exit from the tournament that the Super Eagles could have won was disappointing. But the setback hasn’t overshadowed the depth of Nigerian players’ potential and the hope for a better outing in the future – whether the buildup will, this time around, be painstakingly believable, patriotic and well-coordinated from the boardroom at the goal post.