Wingless Eagles! By Dele Agekameh
Sad enough, a treacherous, lousy Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign ended with the Super Eagles of Nigeria, the current champions, spectacularly failing to get the required result right in front of their home fans at the last hurdle. With this, they crashed out of contention for the ultimate African football glory. And so, for the second time, the Cup of Nations will be played without a defending champion come January/February 2015.
Nigerians are still in shock, trying to rationalize just how a team that shone so brightly in South Africa, last year, could have had such a wretched outing in the just concluded qualifying series, culminating in a limp exit. Of course, this is setting the team’s pedigree against the background of the fact that they were involved in a group in which bookmakers would have ordinarily concluded that picking one of two spots was a given. In Group A of the African Cup of Nations qualifying series, was Nigeria alongside South Africa – a team still feeling its way through football on the continent since its golden period of the mid-90s until the early 2000s. The South Africans have always struggled to survive under the shadow of their more illustrious Super Eagles opponents whom they had hardly ever even picked a point off in football. There was also a plucky Congo (Brazzaville) team that had failed to qualify for the tournament since the 2000 edition. And then, there was a Sudanese team who had been a lackluster force in African football and had never, ever even scored a goal against Nigeria.
Now, given this statistical and historical edge Nigeria had against the other teams in the group, it was certainly too hard to believe that Nigeria could not pick one of the two automatic qualifying spots. However, with six unconvincing performances and a measly eight points, the African champions limped out of the qualification with their chance of defending their crown come January 2015, emphatically ended. In the final, decisive match against South Africa on Wednesday last week in Uyo, the Eagles only managed a 2-2 draw when an outright victory would have taken them to 10 points and given them second spot behind the already-qualified South Africans. It was perhaps instructive of the wretched journey through the series that the team’s ultimate implosion came in Uyo, a few kilometers from neighbouring Calabar, in Cross River State, where the path to perdition was laid by the home team on September 6, 2014, when they lost the first match of the series 3-2 to Congo, a loss they never recovered from. Now, a lot of people are busy with forensic examination of the tragedy that Nigeria’s qualifying campaign was.
But then forensic examinations have never come any easier to conduct if you eschew unnecessary sentiments and look at the picture matter-of-factly. The on-off relationship between Stephen Keshi, the Super Eagles’ coach and the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, certainly did not help matters. It would be recalled that on Thursday, October 16, 2014, the NFF had announced the sacking of Keshi as the Super Eagles coach. This followed several tension-filled months dating back to the Nations Cup in South Africa, during which time it seemed that even as the most successful indigenous coach to ever handle the Super Eagles, Keshi was perennially living on borrowed time. Such a poisoned atmosphere never augurs well for a team, no matter the difference in opinion.
And speaking of differences, it seems that Keshi has always been too ‘different’ even for his own good. This, no doubt, affected his team selection many times as he was always at loggerheads with this player or that player. For instance, he only recalled striker Ikechukwu Uche to the fold for the final two matches of the qualifying campaign after keeping the player in the cold since the Nations Cup in South Africa. This was despite repeated calls from many Nigerians and the good form the player exhibited for Almeria, his Spanish league club. Keshi also famously had fallouts that ended up robbing the team of the services of some of its best players at crucial times.
Looking back on the Uyo match, one may also have to ask why it seemed 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. At the last World Cup, 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. France scored their second goal against Nigeria from what was an intelligently executed corner kick routine. And there is where you put the blame on the doorstep of Keshi and the coaching crew.
But the team’s problems obviously run deeper than Keshi. For one, Nigeria currently lacks enough players playing regularly at the highest level of club football, so match sharpness seems to always be an issue. That fact was cruelly exposed at the last World Cup when Nigeria got as far as they could by qualifying for the round of 16. Anything else would have been a bonus, a huge one, given the overall playing quality of the team. Removed from the sterner test of the global stage and the likes of Argentina, Nigeria admittedly had enough to do better against the lesser might of the likes of South Africa, Congo and Sudan.
This means that the team has problems that are not related to skill only. Starting from the performances at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it was clear that there are all sorts of problems with the Super Eagles. This is not to say that the issues were not there even when they won the CAN in South Africa anyway. The fact is that a coach may be able to coach many things into a footballer, but then there are occasions when you expect a team to put its life on the line for the cause. You will be hard pressed to find higher motivation than to play a must-win match in front of your own fans, against an opponent that had hardly ever picked points off you, and who in this case, does not have the added pressure of needing the points to advance. Yet, that was the scenario the Super Eagles handled with such lifeless, insipid and uninspired approach last Wednesday.
Obviously, the reasons for Nigeria’s ultimately doomed qualifying campaign are many, but the hope is that by the time the next competitive engagement comes around, the football authorities would have imbibed enough lessons from this latest failure of grand proportions. However, we must learn to keep aside our sense of entitlement as far as football is concerned and realize that we must grow football from its roots up if we are to find our true bearings, rather than our continued accidental or artificial success in the game. Going into the Nations Cup come January, 2015, Algeria will be one of the early favourites.
The beauty of that is that starting from the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola and then the World Cup in South Africa later that year, one could see that the Maghreb nation was quietly building its national team. What they have done during the past four years is to accept their inadequacy and go into tournaments more focused on collective progress and the long term result than expecting to win. Today, they are Africa’s most organised, technically astute and formidable team. And if they end up winning the cup in February, it will not be a shock. We can toe a similar path. We simply must be more realistic in our expectation and become more committed to the positive growth of the sport by building better stadia, committing more resources, and the whole gamut.