As in the majority of instances when it comes to Nigeria, I find that events are better understood and analyzed when viewed against the prism of distance. So, once again I’ve decided to let things simmer for a while, allowing the din that is ubiquitous with all things Nigerian to die down before offering my candid views on the complete disaster that was Nigeria’s participation at this year’s World Cup.
In the usual time honoured tradition, the reaction from the Nigerian authorities to the Eagles misadventure was knee-jerk. Banning the national team from all competition was a solution that was so bizarre that it was perhaps only a matter of time before this ill-advised move was rescinded. The Nigerian government has promptly reversed its earlier rash decision barely 72 hours after taking it in the first place, lending credence to the view that it was driven more by cheap populist sentiment than any concerted efforts at deciphering the reasons for our woeful performance and putting measures in place to forestall a re-occurrence. The irony of the whole thing is that it is the very same voices that were raised in protest urging the government to take the draconian step in the first instance that would later force it to reverse the decision.
We’ve been at this same cross-roads so many times in the past that it’s truly mind blowing how the Nigerian Football Authorities and by extension the government keep getting it wrong. The sizzling passion that is so evident in the Nigerian populace when football is involved is a force that can be as potentially destructive as it can be cathartic. The administration of football in the country is run by inept and some would say chronically corrupt individuals whose election into office is frequently masterminded by the very same Government that eventually cries foul and attempts to make gestures at pacifying the irate Nigerian public.
This tradition of constant precipitate action and a decision making process that is reactive rather than pro-active, is fuelled largely by the bellicose Nigerian media and has been the bane of Nigerian football for decades, but matters are now coming to a head. The same elements in the Nigerian media forced a gutless Nigerian Football federation to sack the technical crew of the Super Eagles just a few months to the world cup. The protestations of a few of us who felt that it was suicidal to attempt a complete revamp of the Nigerian National side within the limited time before the competition were drowned out in the cacophony of noise no doubt induced and amplified by the selective Nigerian Media. Ahmodu’s crime at the time was coming a respectable third at the Nations cup and not passing what a good friend of mine would call the “eye test”. Lars Lagerback was subsequently employed with the mandate of reaching the semi-finals of the world cup but amazingly the same FA that sacked Ahmodu for achieving his semi-final target at the Nations Cup and qualifying Nigeria for the mundial were content enough with the work of Lagerback to offer him an extension on his contract.
So, could Nigeria have done better under the tutelage of Shuaibu Ahmodu ? I have to answer resoundingly in the affirmative. A lot of people complain that he lacked technical ability but when quizzed more closely about this they don’t seem able to give tenable explanations. What they point to as an improvement in the super Eagles performance at the current mundial as opposed to the previous experience under Ahmodu is simply an improvement in the conditioning of the players. This meant that the players appeared fitter and showed more grit under Lagerback than they did under Ahmodu. However Lagerback’s tactical rigidity and predilection for sticking to players who could function within the fixed parameters of a system that he viewed as being sacrosanct meant that he was never able to get the best out of the players since he could not get the team to play to its strengths. Under Ahmodu, the players were more expressive as they could function in positions to which they were more naturally suited as well as take advantage of a formation that afforded the coach the use of his best players.
The evidence of how Lagerback’s tactical naivety cost us the World Cup can be gleaned from the Eagles performance against the Albiceleste in their opening game of the mundial. The conventional wisdom would have been to crowd out the Argentine midfield and restrict supply of the ball to Lionel Messi. Instead for some inexplicable reason Lagerback chose to ship Sani Keita who had shown during the nations cup that he could do a very decent job of hounding opposing midfielders and giving them little time to settle to the right flank and completely disregarded Osaze Odemwingie, the Eagles most potent attacking threat during the Nations cup just a few months before. Osaze could have been counted upon to take advantage of the weakness posed by the Argentines most glaring weakness, the absence of a natural right full back. Instead, the Nigerian team showed the Argentines too much respect in a game in which I still believe we could have won. Just for emphasis, the Germans didn’t make the same mistake in their quarterfinal against Argentina where they completely choked off the supply of the ball to Messi forcing him to go deeper into the midfield in search of the ball and thus nullifying the threat he would no doubt have posed if he’d been allowed the kind of service he got against Nigeria. Three of their goals also came by exploiting the weakness of the Argentines in the right full back position a weakness that Lagerback refused to exploit.
That game laid the groundwork for what would be a most uninspiring campaign and another lost opportunity for Nigeria to take the place it undoubtedly deserves among the pantheon of great footballing nations. Instead, we are left to ponder what could have been and to go back to the perennial |”drawing board” that has become a lexicon in Nigerian football lingo. All this could have been well and good if any proper soul searching and resulting blueprint for improvements in the future could be expected as the natural outcome of our unimpressive performance at the mundial. Instead, expect the usual fare of bellicose posturing from the media and the damning verdict of the populace leading to the usual knee jerk reactions from the football authorities that means our football continues to regress. In summary, a return to the vicious circle from which we seem unwilling or unable to escape.
The obvious first step in ensuring that we can begin the proper job of developing football in this soccer-mad nation should involve the Nigerian Government withdrawing from interfering with the affairs of the Nigerian Football Federation thus allowing credible people to emerge at the helm of the country’s football administrative set-up. Not that I expect the government to pay any heed to this. Which means Nigerian football is likely to be stuck in the doldrums for a long time to come.