It is often said that beyond uncommon greed and selfishness nothing unites Nigerians like football, and so it proved last Sunday when the Super Eagles won their third AFCON title, 19 years after their last triumph in Tunisia in 1994. Before then, of course, they had also given Nigerians reason to walk tall when they won the cup in 1980 – our first since our first appearance at the event in 1963.
Before their latest diadem which, if we wear to be honest with ourselves came as a pleasant surprise, the only the Gold medal won by the male Olympic football team at the Atlanta Games came close in terms of the nationwide euphoria the victory generated among Nigerians.
Suddenly, a team none of the nation’s leading football pundits were willing to give a chance at the tournament can do no wrong! And Stephen Keshi the coach who had the courage to drop most of its biggest names before the tournament is the best coach ever to handle the team. Success it is often said has many parents while failure remains the eternal orphan. Nothing succeeds like success.
Before the team surprised everyone perhaps including themselves to out-class perennial pre-tournament favourites the Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals, there were reports largely on account of their laboured qualification through the group stages, that the nation’s sports authorities had all but concluded plans to sack Keshi!
Other accounts hinted that they had already purchased Keshi’s and the teams return tickets to Nigeria before the crucial game against Ivory Coast in the belief that the team was sure to lose. Indeed, at few post-match news conferences in the run-up to that infamous quarter-final clash with the Ivoirians the gaffer gave clear hints that he knew about such plans and was prepared to throw in the towel at the end of the competition.
Suddenly, instead of searching for a new job he is set to be feted by the president along with his victorious players this evening. It’s obvious that even if Keshi were to tender his resignation today it is sure to be roundly rejected. What a difference a few victories achieved over a few days can make in the life of any coach, and not just Keshi.
And for all those nations planning to ambush the team at the next edition of the AFCON scheduled for Morocco in 2015, the frightening thing is that the new African champions are not quite where their coach wants them to be yet. They are still a work in progress according to Keshi.
The way the team played in their last three matches gives much room for optimism. The old team spirit and hunger for success that was absent for much of the past decade seems to have been restored. A solid team is gradually emerging from the ruins of the past when the big names chose the matches they would play in. That is welcome development heading into the World Cup 2014 qualifiers and the FIFA Confederations Cup to be held in Brazil next June when Nigeria will represent Africa.
Without getting sucked into their blaze of glory obviously the a lion share of the credit for the team’s current lofty heights should are attributable to the way Keshi has handled the affairs of the team and by that I am not merely alluding to his tactical abilities. Until the team tangles with the best the Europeans and South Americans have to offer during the FIFA Confederations Cup in June, the jury is still out in that respect.
But I was pleasantly surprised with the courage he displayed when he dropped the so-called senior players like Osaze Odemwingie, Taye Taiwo, and Obafemi Martins from his final team and the manner he resisted the tremendous pressure applied on him to included them. And if he did that for the sake of moulding a team or getting it to play in a particular way that was preferable to the coach it has surely paid handsome dividends to the joy and gratitude of millions of Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora.
Initially I was among those who doubted his wisdom for the omission of the players especially the on-form and free scoring Martins, but the last three weeks have removed the log from my eyes. I now understand the logic in his move.
For any coach to succeed, he must be the master of the team’s dressing room. That is what has made the likes of Alex Fergusson and Jose Mourinho such colossal success stories. Our most successful foreign coach to date Clemens Westerhof, also had such qualities. Any coach worth his onions must essentially stamp his authority on the team to get results.
I have nothing against the likes of Martins, Odemwingie and Taiwo. They are high profiles players abroad no doubt. But their collective exploits in Nigerian colours also did nothing to enrich our trophy cabinet in the last decade and more. And that is not all.
If your name is Stephen Keshi, with the big profiles of the dropped players matched only by their massive egos, their potential to disrupt any dressing room could never be discounted. Apparently, that was a luxury Keshi could not afford. The end has now clearly justified the means. Keshi has now proved that he is not called “Big Boss” for nothing.
With the team’s success in South Africa, and the attraction of the Confederations Cup in June to be followed by the World Cup in Brazil next year to follow, our big name players now know they must dispense with their bloated egos if they hope to appear in the national colours anytime soon. With such prospects not only has Keshi become the winner but the long-suffering Nigerian soccer fans as well. Instead of such players turning up late and believing that they can waltz straight into the team they now know without been told that they have to work hard just to earn a call-up. It’s a win-win situation for the coach and Nigerians and the unexpected victory in South Africa has made it possible.
That is what informed my belief that the Super Eagles are capable of soaring even higher in the coming years. In South Africa I not only saw a team that played with enthusiasm, even glimpses of the swagger displayed by our dominant teams in the 1990s resurfaced.
This team has completely dispensed with the laboured midfield build-ups of the immediate past often hinged on the erratic play of plodding holding midfielders like Seyi Olofinjana and Dickson Etuhu. In the current team the only fellow whose play brought back memories of the two was perhaps Fengor Ogude who mercifully never got another look-in since he was suspended after our first two matches.
Now, the team’s midfield is suave and extremely mobile. They support the defence and also transit between midfield and attack with consummate ease as if they invented the game. Instead of ten passes that end up in a cul-de-sac, we saw how two or three incisive passes played behind the opposition defence created the necessary room for our pacy forwards to wreck maximum havoc. In just under three weeks, this team has not only made its name but also defined its own character and the rest, as they say, is now history.
Still, like Keshi said, we must not make the mistake of assuming that the team we saw in South Africa is the finished article. It may have won the trophy to its credit, but there are obviously areas in all departments of the team that must be strengthened. Besides, we don’t need to be reminded of the popular dictum which stipulates that getting to the top is far easier that staying there. But that is a task for the coaches to worry about.
For now, I join over 150 million Nigerians in congratulating the team for bringing us this momentary joy in these troubled times.