Still focusing on Nigeria, there can be very little doubt that the team’s final outcome in the group games was exactly what should have been realistically expected from the team by even the most ardent and optimistic of supporters. Qualifying from the group was a beautiful feeling even amidst the largely predictable loss to Argentina in the last group game when the Eagles lost 3-2 in a thrilling match. And with regard to the dearth of quality throughout the squad, this became clearer as the tournament progressed and the demand for a wider use of squad depth was required.
It was not merely cluelessness on his part that Stephen Keshi could not make some changes when everyone expected him to do so. It was not as straightforward as everyone thought because, right there on the bench, the team did not seem to have the sort of players you could bring on to really change things radically. And so the coach was, in my opinion, severely hamstrung.
Players like Shola Ameobi, with all due respect to his professional experience and commitment, went to the World Cup short of what the tournament requires. Others like Mikel Obi and Victor Moses, although went with a higher reputation but never lived up to expectations in many regards. Victor Moses seemed uninterested, and never bothered to put in any extra yards. And in truth, the Chelsea FC of England attacker has been like that – lazy, lifeless, uninspired and uninspiring – for some time now. It is the reason he was flogged out on loan to Liverpool FC last season and also why he barely played also for Liverpool during his loan spell with them.
As for Mikel, he created more problem for his central midfield partner, Onazi Ogenyi, who, as a result had to run double shift of midfield duties in playing his own role as well as covering for the near-absence of Mikel who seemed more interested in losing the ball from opponents even when it seemed easier to give it to a team mate than trying to prove how physically strong he was. Although this weakness in Mikel’s game had been obvious even before the tournament started, and was all too glaring for all to see, the obvious lack of other players in the squad with the experience and mental know-how (relatively speaking) required to replace even a so-obviously ineffective Mikel meant that changes by the coaches were a premium choice to have.
Of course, the culmination of that was that once Michael Babatunde got injured in the last group match against Argentina, the Eagles were faced with a big battle to plug a largely Mikel-induced Babatunde-sized hole. It therefore came as no surprise that the moment Onazi got injured during the last 16 match against France, things went horribly pear-shaped very quickly with the shape of the team, especially in the midfield engine room, falling apart beyond redemption. But why take players to the tournament at all if some of these players could not be counted on to come in to help change things a bit? And the answer takes us back to the fact that, at the moment, we simply do not have enough players playing at a high enough level of competitive club football to supply the national team with the required players for a level such as the World Cup.
So, in a few, simple words, the failure of African teams – with the relative exception of Algeria – at the World Cup cannot be too far removed from individual and collective absence of tactical discipline as well as lack of quality at the highest level. Discipline here also applies to off-field issues that dogged a few of the teams at the competition. Cameroun, Ghana and even Nigeria, to some extent, fall into this category.
Cote d’ivoire also unsurprisingly got it wrong for the umpteenth time at a major tournament despite boasting arguably the finest collection of African players of the current generation plying their trade for some of the best football teams around. One does not require the services of a Sharman to know that the Elephants came short, once again, because they failed to harness their undoubted potential into an individually and collectively astute team, tactically and technically.
As for Nigeria, Keshi did not seem to have been allowed to operate with exactly a free hand in spite of what many would think. There were some whispers that Joseph Yobo for instance, as well as one or two other players, were foisted on him. Also, he seemed to be working perpetually under the menacing gaze of the NFF, the sports ministry and others – who were merely praying for him to falter in order to crucify him.
Obviously, Keshi himself cannot get away without sharing in some of the blames. As the coach of the team, if one may ask, why was it that the Super Eagles did not have a plan as to what to do with set pieces other than to simply lump the ball towards the penalty area and hope that there is a lucky connection in favour of the team? Tactically, more astute teams always seem to be able to be inventive with set pieces, and while they don’t always work to plan, at least, it keeps providing the opponent with surprises. Costa Rica, for instance, tried a particular routine on free kicks three or so times in their group game against Uruguay and eventually got a goal from it in the second half. Germans provided a routine against Ghana which looks rather comical and even nonsensical simply because it didn’t go to plan. France scored their second goal against Nigeria from what was an intelligently executed corner kick routine. In a similar vein, defending corners and free kicks, the best teams often have a clear strategy – Germany triumphed due, in some ways, to doing this well. And there is where you put the blame on the doorstep of Keshi and the coaching crew.
There is also some measure of indiscipline we took to the tournament which you cannot necessary coach or ‘un-coach’. For instance, on the field, Osaze Odemwingie, who came from the wilderness back into the team, was, without doubt, one of our better players at the tournament. But there was something wrong in his overall game altogether. The needless urge to hug the ball and showboat, especially in risky zones like in and around his team’s defensive third, was reminiscent of some of the reasons Keshi might have elected to keep him out of the team for a period in the first place. He did that a lot in the previous matches but it became more glaring in the crucial match against France, getting away with it a few times before eventually losing the ball that led to the corner kick leading to the fatal second goal. That answers why some of us felt the team was not primed to go further than they did get: if your most experienced players would act like Osaze did, then what hope do we have on the other less-experienced players?
The hope is that by the time the next World Cup comes around, Africa and in particular, Nigeria, would have imbibed enough lessons from this latest failure at the grand global stage. More realistically though, I think we should be planning more for the World Cup after that (2022) or even the one after that (2026). It took Spain a planning process that began in approximately 1992 to get to win the World Cup in 2010. Similarly, Germany could be said to have arguably started on the road to winning the 2014 World Cup around a decade-and-a-half ago, following a very wretched campaign at the European Championship in 2000. And that is merely just a phase of more concentrated preparations as the Germans have always attended tournaments with teams good enough to jostle with the best. We simply must be more realistic in our expectations and more committed to the true growth of the sport by building better stadia, committing more resources, and the whole gamut, to the game.