Between Dalung and our fumbling NFF
Nigeria first announced its football potentials to the world at the senior level during the 1994 World Cup in the United States of America. Although we won nothing, we showed enough promise with our brand of swashbuckling football that endeared the team to neutrals around the world. Two years after Nigeria became the first African nation to win a major world football championship with the Olympic Gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Nigeria was expected to build on its encouraging performance at both tournaments in the quest to be listed among the elite football nations of the world. Not even our second round exit at the World Cup in France two years afterwards should have slowed that momentum.
With some supremely gifted individuals in almost all positions, Nigeria was a delight to watch. The team played with the sort of class and fluidity a particular East African commentator once mistook for arrogance, but the confidence and ease with which the team exchanged passes suggested as much.
The 1990’s can truly be referred to as the golden era of Nigerian football. Even the best teams Africa had to offer dreaded the occasional trips to Lagos to confront Nigeria. They got hammered in the brutal sense of the word. Scores like 4-0, 4-1 and 3-0 in favour of Nigeria were not only common, they also became too predictable. Two major factors contributed to the team’s deadly efficiency. I will take one after the other.
As talented as the Nigerian team was at the time, it would not have achieved much without conscientious decision taken by the National Sports Commission (NSC) in 1989. Pained by our inability to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, the NSC appointed the brash but tactically efficient Dutchman Clemens Westerhof as the team’s handler. Before his appointment, Nigeria, in the hands of a legion of local coaches, and their stone-age tactics, routinely lost to the more tactically equipped teams from North Africa.
In 1981, just months after Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 1980, Lakdar Belloumi and the rest of his Algerian teammates showed up in Lagos to hand us a football lesson. It was a match that created the legend of Godwin Odiye and the own goal.
The backbone of the team at the time were home-based, but incredibly, just weeks before the crucial match, the Football Association prevailed on the aged coach to include a plethora of big name overseas based players in the team that faced the Algerians without the slightest consideration for their match fitness! The equation: they sweated like goats in the humid Lagos sun as the Algerians ran rings around them. Nigeria failed to qualify for the World Cup in Spain in 1982.
We suffered the same fate in 1985 when Tunisia, another team from the Maghreb, halted our match to the 1986 edition held in Mexico. The team was handled by the late Christopher Udemezue. After the roasting it received at the hands of Algeria in the opening game of the African Cup of Nations in 1990, Westerhof extracted revenge for Nigeria three years later in two crucial World Cup qualifiers in Lagos and Algiers. We beat Algeria 4-0 in Lagos and drew 1-1 away to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
The new Minister of Sports is a likable person who approaches the multiple tasks before him with a lot of enthusiasm; but in his alleged opposition to the appointment of a competent foreign coach for our national teams I strongly believe that he is misinformed. His position is neither backed by logic or the damning antecedents of our local coaches and the national team in the last three decades.
With the exception of the late Stephen Keshi – who was a trail-blazer in many respects – almost all the local coaches Nigeria appointed in between, contributed to the calamitous decline of the team since Bonfrere Jo – the last of the two Dutch handlers departed in year 2000. From then onwards the team has struggled to impose itself on even the most mediocre opposition on the continent. Our victory at the AFCON tournament in South Africa in 2013, momentarily raised expectations, but it eventually proved to be a false dawn. Khaki is always different from rubber, as they say, in these parts.
The sins commonly associated with our local coaches are numerous, but the most damning include nepotism in team selections, and barefaced corruption, on and off the field of play. They allegedly collude with player-agents to detriment of the team. More tellingly, they lack the capacity to handle a team of the caliber of Nigerian in the modern football age, and cannot with all honesty, give what they do not have. Even expecting them to deliver in the present circumstances is, in itself, a worst from of corruption in my opinion.
The Honorable Minister should support the patriotic position of the NFF Board in its desire to high a competent European for the team provided they can arrange for sponsors to pick up the bills. I have my grouses against the NFF, but the decision to appoint a foreign coach is the most logical they have taken in a long while. But if the minister insists on stopping them then he must also be prepared to share in their failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
Coaching successful international teams these days has gone beyond hope and prayers. It now involves the frequent calibration and re-calibration of tactical formations and systems using mini tablets and other IT platforms in actual match situations. It includes the intricate understanding of the most up-to-date fitness regimes that our pot-bellied local coaches and fitness trainers have no knowledge of.
Like the local coaches, it is apparent that the NFF is also afflicted with corruption. Its incompetence is equally glaring. The incessant crisis in the body is indicative of the selfishness of its members. It explains why they struggle for funding in an ocean of opportunities.
Ours is an oil economy for God’s sake. We have also experienced the proliferation of international telecom companies riding the crest of the boom in the industry. With proper organization and branding, the NFF should never be short of sponsors itching to capitalize on visibility provided by our national passion. But the corruption remains a major inhibition for the NFF and one way the minister can help is to urge the EFCC to take more than a passing interest in its affairs.
That brings to the matter of the other critical success factors from the past. One thing that contributed to the high performance of the Nigerian national team in the 1990’s was the intimidating atmosphere of the National Stadium in Lagos where the team played all its home matches. Back then, the National Stadium was slaughter house to visiting teams. The players obviously benefitted from the consistency of playing at the same venue over a prolonged period. It became their fortress. The overwhelming number of spectators that showed up each time the team played also galvanized it to greater heights.
That explains why I fully back the Minister Dalung who I understand has directed that future home matches of the national team should be played at the national stadium in Abuja henceforth. The decision is both timely and logical. Only the NFF can explain why they decided on the alternation of match venues for the team in the first place, but it is obvious that corruption was a contributory factor.
Why should a modern stadium be allowed to rot away in Abuja in preference for smaller venues across the country with the attendant risks of over-crowding and sanctions? One acute lie the NFF has often advanced is the paucity of spectators in Abuja but the view is actually indicative of their own incompetence.
The greater majority of the fans in Abuja do not reside in the city center where the stadium is located. They live in satellite towns like Nyanya, Mararaba, Karmu, etc. The NFF cannot claim to be unaware of this. Almost all the major stadiums in the world are located adjacent to major transportation hubs.
The challenge for the NFF is to develop a strategy to get those fans to the stadium. Before the metro-line in Abuja is completed, the least the NFF can do engage the Abuja Mass Transit company on match days to ply the relevant routes with more buses and to make the fans aware of the arrangement. It is not rocket science. The fact that the NFF is yet to explore that angle tells its own story. As usual, they shun the hard work, but are always on the lookout for the easy money. That is not how to run football.