Be­tween Dalung and our fum­bling NFF

Daily Trust - - SPORT -

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.

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