I’ve refrained from making any comments in the aftermath of Nigeria’s woeful performance against Greece up to now for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve been a bit busy at my day job and couldn’t get much free time to put my thoughts to paper. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to avoid a knee jerk reaction to a game which had it’s subplots in order to avoid the inevitable pitfalls of jumping to conclusions which were premised more on seething passion than measured, rational analysis.
To say that the game and its outcome have generated massive disillusionment among the Nigerian Populace will be merely stating the obvious. The manner of the loss, following from Kaita’s inexplicable moment of fleeting insanity, made it ever so more difficult to swallow. Kaita’s egregious transgression was something that the Nigerian football public is unfamiliar with, as he exhibited a trait that is almost completely foreign to the Nigerian football culture. Quite simply put, he made a grievous error, becoming almost instantaneously horrified by the sheer folly and the grave consequences of his actions and has since deemed it fit to apologize. And that, as far as I’m concerned should suffice for everyone.
However to put Nigeria’s loss simply down to Kaita’s faux pas would be an oversimplification. Australia had Harry Kewell sent off in the early minutes of their encounter against Ghana and even had a penalty awarded from which Asamoah Gyan converted but that didn’t precipitate the kind of capitulation we witnessed by the Super Eagles side against a Greek side that looked for the most part, quite ordinary but were able to take advantage of the lack of character and fighting spirit in an Eagles team that had heads dropping almost as soon as Kaita received his marching orders. Up to that moment the Eagles had a slight comfortable, if not a completely dominant grip on proceedings. The manner of the Eagles implosion suggests that this is still a team with fragile confidence.
However, what was most worrisome about the Eagles display was the inability to take their chances that was a common thread in both the matches against Argentina and Greece. Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s work rate continues to show signs of improvement but in his link up play and finishing he still seems completely ineffective.
Lagerback hasn’t helped matters by persisting with a formation that requires the players to play above themselves, something few of them with the possible exceptions of Kalu Uche and Vincent Enyeama have been able to manage thus far.
The Eagles simply do not seem at ease in Lagerback’s preferred 4-4-2 system with players like Osaze Odemwingie and Sani Kaita who had flourished under Ahmodu’s 4-3-3 looking decidedly like ducks out of water in the more restrictive 4-4-2. The defensive responsibilities this formation has placed on Haruna Lukman also means that he has so far been unable to live up to the potential he showed during the few warm up games of the Eagles before the World Cup.
The Nigerian Football Federation’s decision to dispense with the services of Shuaibu Ahmodu prior to the commencement of the world cup is now beginning to look hasty and ill conceived. Yes, Lagerback has improved on some aspects of the team, notably in discipline and work ethic, but his inadequate knowledge of his players is now being thrown into sharper focus. A pointer to this apparent weakness was the inordinate amount of time it took the technical crew of the Eagles to make a substitution for Echejile after he was stretchered off against Greece. If Lagerback had a better knowledge of his players, he would have known that Joseph Yobo is also a very effective right back and deployed him to the right full back position while switching Chidi Ordia, who is adept at both left and right back positions over to the left. Obviously, this isn’t Lagerback’s fault as he was appointed barely 3 months to the mundial and has only had the odd 3 weeks before the world cup to get to know his players but surely Ahmodu Shuaibu wouldn’t have performed worse and could have been counted on to at least deploy our players in the positions where they are the most effective. This is not to say that I am doubting Lagerback’s tactical ability (he has already shown in the two games Nigeria has played an ability to make telling in-game changes and seems to have the confidence of his players) but, as I had advocated for before Ahmodu’s precipitate sack by the Nigerian FA, Ahmodu could have at least been left to tutor the team to the mundial while Lagerback should have been engaged after the World Cup.
This is all water under the bridge in any case. Do I still hold out much hope for the Super Eagles advancing beyond the first round ? Very little. The obvious dent in the players confidence is the primary reason for my pessimism. The only chance for progressing lies in Lagerback discarding his trusted 4-4-2 formation and allowing the players to play to their individual strengths and the teams collective benefit as well as bringing in Obafemi Martins to feature from the start to provide some attacking impetus, both steps which I think the rigid Swede will be loath to take.
So, we may just be forced to accept that once again, a Nigerian team will fail to fly the country’s flag with distinction at this, the world’s showpiece football event. Not because of any lack of footballing talent or ability but simply because Nigeria, as a Nation refuses to learn from the mistakes of it’s past. For sadly, we have been here before. The same circumstances in almost uncanny similar detail played themselves out when Ahmodu Shuaibu qualified the Nation for the World cup in 2002. Then as now, he was unceremoniously shown the exit door and a new helmsman appointed to take charge of the National team. The result? A new coach with new tactics ensured the Super Eagles didn’t get beyond the first round. Eight Years later, the same story. I had held out some hope, after Lagerback listed a squad of players which was a virtual clone of that used by Ahmodu to prosecute the World Cup qualifiers and the Nations Cup that he would be a realist and make only those changes that would boost the self belief of the players and enhance their ability to function as a unit but alas it seems this has turned out to be a pipe dream.
So, what do we have to look forward to ? Almost certain elimination. Let’s just hope that if this happens the country’s football authorities can finally begin to address the many ills that currently bedevil the game in this, Africa’s most populous Nation.