By Sunnie Ephraim
It began in 1986 when the Super Eagles failed to pick a ticket to the World Cup Finals in Germany.Â Then, many thought it was an aberration, nay, a mistake that will soon be corrected.Â However, like a bad dream, it refused to go.Â Last year in Ghana, the Eagles had their worst outing in decades, crashing out in the second round of the Nations Cup, with only one win in four matches.
Perhaps, if it had stopped with only the Super Eagles, there would have been less cause for concern.Â But that was not the case, one tournament after the other, Nigerian teams have continued to crash like pack of cards.Â In the whole of 2008, the soccer house recorded a catalogue of failures in virtually all competitions both in the junior, senior and female categories where our Falcons used to hold sway above all in the continent.
Last year, Nigeria was eliminated from the African Under-17 soccer championship in Benin Republic just in the second round of the qualifiers.Â As a result, the Eaglets were not in Algiers were the African finals took place.Â They were however in the world finals on the automatic qualification rule as host of the event.
In the under 20 category, although the Flying Eagles then under Ladan Bosso qualified for the finals, in Kigali, Rwanda, they could not go beyond the semi-finals, beforeÂ they were dismissed.Â However, their efforts earned them a ticket to the global finals in Egypt.
The result from that outing in Kigali was considered too poor by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) leading to the sack of Coach Bosso, and subsequent engagement of more enterprising Samson Siasia who had earlier recorded a very impressive feat in the tournament with a silver medal at the 2005 edition of the championship in Holland.
Moreover,Â Â Coach Siasia, considered Nigeriaâ€™s hottest football tactician on current rating following his success with the Under -23 team which he led to win the silver medal at the Beijing Summer Olympics, was drafted in to reshape the squad and take them to the finals in Egypt.
That switch was however not good enough to give the Flying Eagles the needed steam to win the tournament.Â Indeed, the best the make-shift Siasia team could get was a second round knockout after qualifying from the group play offs as one of the four best losers.
Since inception, the Falcons of Nigeria have been the number one team in Africa, winning the continental championship for a record five times, that is 1998 in Kaduna, 2000 in South Africa, 2002 in Warri, 2004 South Africa and 2006 again in Warri.Â The story is the same in the All Africa Games where the Nigerian girls carted home the gold medals from Abuja and Algiers.
But the story changed last year in Equatorial Guinea where Nigeriaâ€™s invincibility was broken with impunity. Our dear Falcons fell in the semi-finals, not to Ghana, Cameroon or South Africa but host Equatorial Guinea and finished in third place over all.
The Falconâ€™s dominance in Africa has also seen Nigeria to all the FIFA Female World Championships and the Olympics since it was introduced.Â But her once enviable performances have gradually declined and last year in Beijing, it was without a point.
At the U-20 category played last year in far away Chile, the Falconets crashed in the quarter finals to return without a medal.Â The story was even worse in the U-17 category played in New Zealand.
Thus, from January when the NFF opened the year with the dismal performance at the Nations Cup in Ghana losing to the Black Stars in the quarter-final, to the end, Nigeria captured no single diadem in football both at the national and club levels despite the numerous competitions she participated in.
What could have been responsible for this abysmal downturn in the fortune of the once enviable football glory? Where did we get it wrong? Are we at a point of no return?Â How can we get ourselves out of this mess? These are the many questions begging for answers.
But things do not have to be this way.Â Dr. Tijjani Yusuf, former secretary general of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), said that the problem with Nigerian football and sports in general was â€œour failure to appreciate excellence and give due recognition to past heroesâ€.
Dr. Yusuf pointed out that Nigeriaâ€˜s woes in football started in 1992 when those who qualified the nation for the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States were shoved aside by the powers that be and in the process thwarting all programmes put in place for the development of the game.
â€˜Nigeria was rated 9th at the USâ€™94 and later climbed to number 5 in the world in Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) rating.Â But what do you have after that? Our rating has continued to nosedived to the extent that we are nowhere in the top 30 in the world,â€ he lamented.
The way out
Former Image Maker in the football house, Mr. Austin Mgbolu, who was part of the team that qualified the nation for the World Cup Finals on three consecutive occasions in 1994, 1998 and 2002 advised that the nation must seek a total re-engineering of her football administration, with greater emphasis placed on grassroots development, rather than â€œhobnobbing with readymade materialsâ€.
Mr. Mgbolu explained that there is the need to go back to the basics to tap the abundant talents that abound in the country, whatever the cost, stressing that the Board of the NFF should be more pragmatic in its approach to soccer development, instead of politicking.
He stressed that the idea of â€˜winner takesÂ allâ€™ should be de-emphasized, adding that football administration is a family affair and not a battle zone.Â Hence efforts must be made to consult widely and work as a team with all the stakeholders pointing out that everyone that has something meaningful to contribute should be given the opportunity to do so.