Nigerian football is in disarray. The last façade of orderliness was ripped apart last week when the national team, the Super Eagles, were eliminated from the 2017 African Cup of Nations finals, after losing a qualifying game to Egypt. The 1-0 defeat, combined with a 1-1 draw in Kaduna five days earlier, gave the North Africans an unassailable lead in the qualifying group, and sent Nigeria packing from the biennial continental fiesta. Words are not enough to capture the outcome: it’s a huge disappointment, a tragedy masterminded by inept administrators, led by Amaju Pinnick, the Nigerian Football Federation president.
The implications benumb the mind. It means that the Eagles have not qualified for two consecutive Nations Cup finals. Barring withdrawals due to political reasons and a ban by CAF/FIFA, it is the first time the nation is recording such a dreadful record. As defending champions in 2013, Nigeria, playing in the same group with South Africa, Congo and Sudan, failed to secure a ticket for the 2015 finals. This happened under Stephen Keshi as the coach. This is utterly shameful for the three-time African champions. But history has a cruel way of repeating itself; though this time, the Eagles contended with Egypt, Tanzania and Chad, who later dropped out of the qualifiers for financial reasons. Nigeria had also failed to qualify for the 2012 AFCON finals, losing out to Guinea in the first leg of the qualifiers before sealing their fate with a draw in the return leg in Abuja. This means that Nigeria would only play once in four finals.
Regrettably, Pinnick has the dubious distinction of supervising this miserable record. The blame lies squarely at his doorstep. Pinnick, who was acrimoniously voted into office in September 2014, kick-started the collapse when he hired Sunday Oliseh in July 2015 as a replacement for Keshi, who was belatedly sacked for not qualifying the Eagles for AFCON 2015. Pinnick saddled Oliseh with the task of qualifying for the 2017 Nations Cup. In a hollow tribute at the unveiling of Oliseh, Pinnick had boasted, “He is the Pep Guardiola of Africa,” in reference to the coach of Bayern Munich FC of Germany, who is widely regarded as one of the best tacticians of the game in the world.
What followed showed it was a marriage made in hell: Oliseh, with his inexperience, divided the team. The NFF appeared helpless as the coach tenuously disrobed long-serving Vincent Enyeama as the Eagles captain. The former Eagles midfielder preferred to live in Belgium and coach in Nigeria. The impact was catastrophic. Nigeria drew their first competitive match with Tanzania last September under Oliseh, who then plunged the qualification process into turmoil by resigning shortly before the double-header with Egypt. Pinnick’s claim that the government, under Goodluck Jonathan, prevented him from sacking Keshi earlier in 2015 is childish. He ought to have spoken out then or resigned.
In retrospect, Nigeria’s success at the 2013 AFCON and the qualification for the FIFA 2014 World Cup seem like a fluke. Those episodes only served to mask our decline. We should not let these occasional fits of victory deceive us into thinking we are a football superpower.
Where did it go wrong? To regain its glory – when Nigeria regularly achieved top positions in the Nations Cup – the Pinnick-led NFF should convene a roundtable with stakeholders for a real soul-searching. But first, it must stop grandstanding and admit that it has failed woefully. With all our Europe-based players, how come Nigeria won’t qualify in a relatively easy group? The answers are not blowing in the wind if Pinnick and his co-travellers will be honest with themselves.
However, the most immediate task now is the qualification for the Russia 2018 World Cup Finals, which starts when the draw of 20 teams of five groups is made in June. The winners of each group of four teams will qualify for the tournament. It is hackneyed to predict that it is going to be a feisty assignment.
Therefore, the rush by the NFF to hire a foreign coach and label Samson Siasia’s temporary tenure a failure must be carefully thought through. As coach, Siasia reached the final of the 2005 FIFA U20 World Youth Championships with the Flying Eagles, and earned a silver medal with the Dream Team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In the first place, it was rash to have fired Siasia from the job after the failure to qualify for the 2012 AFCON finals. To be fair, he inherited a disarticulated team that was destined to crash from Austin Eguavoen midway into the qualifiers. Siasia alone could not be blamed for it. And, it was double jeopardy when Siasia was overlooked and the glaringly incompetent Oliseh was hired last year. The NFF should not make the same mistake again. We urge the NFF to put Siasia in charge of the Eagles for the Russia 2018 qualifiers and support him with the necessary incentives to prosecute the assignment.
The news going the rounds that the NFF would hire a French coach to tinker the team for the Russia 2018 assignment is a delicate issue. Since the exit of the Dutchman, Clemens Westerhof, as the Eagles coach in the mid-1990s, the NFF (then Nigerian Football Association), has always found it difficult coping with managing and paying foreign coaches, leading to fiasco and confusion. There is nothing wrong in having Siasia in charge of the team; only he should be given specific targets.
Global football is moving at an extraordinary pace. Failure to reform the administration of football in consonance with the times will be calamitous. For now, the Eagles are like orphans. There is no national pattern that players can easily adapt to. The Eagles neither play in Lagos nor Abuja, the latter, a stadium that was constructed with $360 million. The Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, should discontinue the idea of the NFF going cap in hand to state governors whenever the Eagles are playing matches. It is not out of place to refurbish and return to the National Stadium in Lagos, which used to be a sanctuary of the national team.