Out-going (?) Super Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi, might have effectively made a tacit admission: his February, 2013 African Cup of Nations victory came only through sheer luck and providence. He came on board in November, 2011 promoting the usual Nigerian football musical chart-buster starring the weather-beaten title track, “Building a New Team.” As Nigerians eagerly expected the emergence of a formidable squad, his team remained “work in progress.” Almost three years on, the music has not changed. After crashing out of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, he described his collection as “a very young team.” Only sheer luck and providence could have, sixteen months ago, given a title as big and competitive as AFCON to a team which even today still remains a young, new work-in-progress over other teams that were not only good and established but also solid, compact and ready.
In my piece, “Super Eagles: The fallacy of New Team” of March, 2011, I recalled that we embarked on our latest journey to the world where new teams are built in 2002 when we prematurely hounded out a number of our established and battle-tested stars just because they had one poor AFCON outing against a Senegalese team that was on its way to conquering defending World Champions, France, only four months later. I also prophesied, in the same piece, that by the time the 2014 World Cup comes around, we would still be building a new team. Now, even at the quarter final stage, it had become clear that the World Cup was not for new, young work-in-progress, but for teams that were complete, formidable and ready.
FIFA, the world’s football governing body, itself, never expects a young team at the World Cup. That is why the Under-17 championship was put in place. The world does not expect a new team at the highly competitive global show. The Under-20 tournament has been institutionalized for such teams. The football family does not deploy so much time and resources just to watch works-in-progress in action. That is why nations have the option of not registering to participate in the competition. Administrators, organizers, analysts, commentators, enthusiasts, die-hards and fee-paying spectators converge at multi-billion dollars state-of-the-art stadia, sports studios, viewing centres and family lounges to watch a football world war being prosecuted by nations’ best generals and formidable armies.
There is perhaps nothing shameful in being beaten at any stage at the World Cup. There are several strong and exceptional teams but only one would go home with the title at the end of the day. Defending champions Spain, with all their “world-class” stars, were humiliated and did not go beyond the group stage. Former champions, Italy and England, fared no better. But when it becomes easily discernible that a nation’s woes were consequent upon ego-inducing man-made factors, including going to a world war with the best generals shut out of reckoning, nothing could be more disheartening.
Genuine title-chasing teams at the World Cup are not only complete, formidable and loaded up to the hilt, but also operating at full capacity. Unlikeworks-in-progress, they not only parade a strong field, but also maintain a quality bench. Unlike Nigeria’s Super Eagles, they substitute a Pele and bring on a Maradona; they take off a Messi and introduce a Ronaldo. Yet, Nigeria left behind the country’s hottest attacking and striking property in the close season, Ike Uche, with the coach giving certain excuses and reasons that were better told to the marines. With Coach Keshi’s comments after Osaze Odemwingie came on to change the complexion of the game against Iran, we now know what it means not to play to instructions under the “Big Boss.” Imagine Arjen Robben being left out of the Netherlands team on such questionable grounds!
There, realistically, also, is nothing objectionable in taking rookies to the World Cup. But the introduction of “young, new” players into a national team is a gradual, phased, programmed and step-by-step process. Nwakwo Kanu made his international debut for Nigeria in May, 1994 against Sweden and was considered on the waiting list for the USA ’94 squad. He later became two-time African Footballer of the Year and Nigeria’s most decorated player ever. Theo Walcott was taken to the 2006 World Cup by Sven Goran Eriksson, but did not get to kick a ball. He is today one of the 5-star generals in the English football army.
Coach Luiz Cesar Menotti refused to take emerging prodigy, Diego Maradona, in spite of his world-acclaimed budding talents, to the 1978 World Cup on account of age and inexperience. Argentina went on to win the title and the coach tipped the youngster for the then forth-coming 1079 Under-20 championship where he expectedly announced his arrival on the world stage. The former Argentina captain later played in the 1982 World Cup and finally captured the world at his feet at the 1986 show after he had been romancing the national team for eight years.
In another piece of mine, “The foreign coach distraction” of November, 2009, I made a strong case for local ahead of foreign coaches based on comparative factors over the past two and half decades. Unfortunately, the “Big Boss” allowed the 2013 AFCON success to get the better of him such that he arrogated to himself the status of Napoleon who could never be wrong. And that, beyond question, turned out to be our undoing in Brazil.
Whether he is retained or not, whoever emerges as the next Super Eagles coach (local or foreign) should focus on the real deal of preparing for Nigeria a squad that is, at any point in time, solid, compact and formidable. Denmark did not even qualify for Euro 1992. They were only invited to take the place of disqualified warring Yugoslavia only eleven (!) days to the commencement of the competition. But because they had a standing army, they went all the way to clinch the title.
Some ex-internationals and commentators have counseled that we focus now on the 2018 World Cup. That is why we do not need a coach that will embark on building a “new team.” That notion is a fallacy, as a national team, like life itself, is a continuum. Or else, I feel cool to prophesy again, that by the time the next edition in Russia comes around; we will still be building a new team.