By Onoche Anibeze
Callistus Ibare, with his camera man, put me on the ‘dock’ ten minutes before Nigeria engaged Namibia in Calabar.
I had told him I supported Stephen Keshi’s programme, insisting that the building of a new national team with special attention on the local players was one good way out for Nigeria’s football.
I reminded him that many of the foreign-based stars severally disappointed Nigeria at the crucial moment and that going by the ill-fated Nations Cup qualifier against Guinea in Abuja last year and the match in Rwanda in February this year it was clear that the time of many of them was up.
I maintained that Keshi was on the right track and should be allowed to continue the good work. Then came the last question. “If Keshi loses this match will you still support him?” I said absolutely yes and reminded Callistus again that there was no other way out other than Keshi’s ongoing programme. Building of a team takes time and when the players are local players it could take longer time because two major things will suffice – developing their technical and tactical abilities and exposing them to modern life, facilities and even the atmospherics of big occasions so that they will not easily be overwhelmed.
Exposure is very important. I heard that the matches against Egypt in Dubai and in Peru were eye openers to the boys. Some of them admired the streets. When they entered the stadium in Peru the noisy fans overwhelmed them and this contributed to the poor first half we saw in that 1-0 defeat.
Keshi consulted when he got the job and I was among those who told him to focus on our league players because I knew that potentials abounded in our league. But I warned him that it required hard work and the ability to transform raw talents to finished products. I knew that not all coaches can do that. Not all coaches are developers.
Some are good in managing stars but cannot develop talents and vice versa. Keshi assured me that he would start a programme similar to what Clemens Westerhof did. Repeatedly, I said that Westerhof was a gift to Nigeria from God and that people should not expect to see, so soon, another foreign coach who would love Nigeria and be as committed as Westerhof was.
You may even have somebody very committed but who lacks the skill to develop players especially within our harsh and deplorable conditions. Keshi picked his team and went to work. And the result now is what we have in players like mesmerizing Ejike Uzoenyi, Kalu Uche, Henry Uche, Sunday Mba, Papa Idris, Gabriel Ruben, Oshanuwa, Godfrey Itama and Egwuekwe.
After watching the games in Rwanda and in Calabar, I wonder what could have happened if Keshi didn’t start this ongoing programme. I bet his job would have been on the line because we would have fallen by now. In Rwanda, the five local players who played saved Nigeria from defeat. In Calabar Ike Uche gave Nigeria victory with great contribution from players Keshi is currently grooming. The three substituted players (Obiora, Utaka and Victor Moses) all ply their trade abroad.
Does this send any signal? I will never join those asking Keshi to totally shut the door on foreign-based players. We need the ones who can fit into our game, those who can fight and play well in our World Cup and Nations Cup qualifiers. African football, I maintain, is always different and there are some players groomed in Europe who don’t fit in here.
After watching Gabriel Ruben of Kano Pillars in the defensive midfield of Eagles, I don’t see Mike Obi taking his place now. Against Argentina in the international friendly in Bangladesh, Obi toyed with the ball, lost it and never gave a chase until Argentina scored with it.
That’s characteristic of him in Eagles. Against Guinea in Abuja, after 15 minutes, he was supporting his waist with his hands. At a time he was walking on the field. I’m scandalised by those who argue that Jose Mourinho destroyed Mikel Obi’s game by making him defensive. For about six years that he has played for Chelsea did Mourinho tell him not to score or even make an assist? They say he is a good passer of the ball. I agree. But most of his passes are either backwards or to his side.
He rarely puts pressure on opponents. It was against this back ground that Keshi called him after his first training session with him and passed these words to him. “I want you to express yourself on the field, feel free, go forward and score.
Don’t restrict yourself in anyway.” Obi thanked him and walked away. The next day he said he was injured and that was how he missed to play against Botswana in Benin and Zambia in Kaduna, Keshi’s first match and second matches. After this disappointment, Keshi left him alone. Up till now Obi has not shown any sign of commitment to the national team.
Even when Barrister Chris Green, chairman of NFF Technical Committee tried to make a case for his invitation after the Champions League victory of Chelsea a mail came informing the NFF that he was injured. Green fumed. I have told this story so that nobody puts pressure on Keshi over players who lack the fighting spirit for Nigeria.
For nowm, Ruben is giving us more, Ohanuwa is better than Taiye Taiwo and Kalu Uche, Sunday Mba will be more deadly than some of the strikers abroad especially against African countries. Let’s use them and do what Kojo Williams suggested. Take them to Europe and expose them and make them stars. Let me recall what the former NFA chairman told me:
“When I took Eagles to Sweden they hit us 7-0 in our first match and Westerhof and I hid this from Nigerians. In our second match they beat us 3-0. We were building a team and knew where we were headed. The third match we won 3-2 and we started gathering the momentum. We have more money now than then so let Keshi embark on tours in Europe to train these local players who will be great stars tomorrow if we do the right thing. Exposure will help a lot.” I agree, Kojo.