The Current Super Eagles team finds itself in an unusual position. The teams that represented the country at the World Cups in the United States in 94’ and France in 98’ , were discernible for the glut of talent running through them. The Super Eagles team that both astonished and enthralled the world in the United States for instance, could count on the ebullient talents of players like Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, George Finidi, Daniel Amokachi and Samson Siasia while the Nation’s representatives at the France 98’ edition also had Victor Ikpeba, Tijani Babangida, and Nwankwo Kanu.
For the current team however, the situation is completely different.
Thus the challenge for the new Super Eagles handler, Lars Lagerback, has got to be how to get the whole operating more efficiently than the sum of the parts as opposed to the situation Nigerians had become accustomed to, where successive Super Eagles teams’ achievements belied the unmistakable surfeit of ability that they possessed.
In order for Lagerback to meet this challenge, he has got to borrow a leaf from the Capello play book. Fabio Capello assumed the reins at the England set-up and immediately realized that the most pressing problem with England was with psychology. He wondered aloud how such exceptional talents as Frank Lampard and Stephen Gerrard could turn in scintillating displays week in, week out at their clubs only to turn in the most tepid and underwhelming performances when in the National colours.
The Nigerian National team faces a similar conundrum. Lagerback will be making the right prognosis if he realizes that psychology probably holds the greatest key to unlocking the undoubted potential of the current team of less individually brilliant but perhaps more worldly wise and tactically savvy players. Ahmodu Shuaibu realized this and had started the job of placing more emphasis on getting the players to work for each other as opposed to playing for themselves first and for the team second. Unfortunately for him, some poor selection choices in the course of the Nations Cup, noticeably against Egypt in the first game, meant that individual mistakes cost the team and the resultant drop in confidence this engendered, prevented him from getting the best results from the new course he was attempting to chart.
If Lagerback is to avoid those pitfalls however, he has got to get his selection spot on from the onset. His recently released provisional list of 30 gives some hope in that regard as he seems to have avoided any obvious howlers. The trimming of the squad to the final 23 should give a clearer indication of just how effective the team can be at the mundial.
However, like I have posited earlier, the key to a successful outing at the mundial lies primarily with psychology. The current Eagles team has been so battered by constant media criticism and the lack of belief in their abilities by a large majority of the Nigerian populace that their morale is probably at an all time low. Lagerback’s ability to re-invigorate the players floundering spirits and build confidence in their ability to function as a unit will go a long way in determining how successful the Super Eagles can be at the World Cup.
Apart from strengthening the bonds of the fledgling team ethos that had begun to be built under Ahmodu’s tutelage, Lagerback has to take this a step further by helping the team rediscover the famous Nigerian resilience that has been sorely lacking in the more recent performances of the Super Eagles. Gone are the days when the Nigerian team used to be renowned for it’s never –say- die attitude and the obdurate refusal to lie down meekly and take defeat without giving a fight. What Lagerback can do to rekindle this spirit, I can’t say for sure, but for guidance perhaps he can turn to some members of his backroom staff who had been members of previous Nigerian teams. As Daniel Amokachi has insightfully noted, the camaraderie that existed in the National team of his era, where the players were accustomed to singing War songs in their local dialects while in their training camps has been replaced by the tendency of players to be plugged into their i-pods and other electronic gadgets in recent times. The need to recapture that special bond that served to unify the team in previous campaigns is a task that simply has to be accomplished.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly Lagerback has to find a way to deflect the enormous amount of pressure owing to the weight of expectation from the Nigerian populace that his team will undoubtedly come under. For the Nigerian public is notorious for its desire to not only see it’s team win, but see it win playing beautiful football. In our ever increasingly globally interconnected world, the expectations of Nigeria’s teeming 150 million Football crazy fans will invariably communicate itself to the players. How well he is able to manage these huge expectations or channel his squad to take advantage of them instead of being weighed down by the enormity of the task at hand will go a long way in determining whether the Super Eagles will once again soar at the World’s premiere showpiece football event.