By Onochie Anibeze
When I saw pictures of the reception held for the Stallions of Burkina Faso from the airport to the stadium and their visit to the state house where the President hosted them, I tried to compare them with what happened in Abuja.
Burkina Faso showed class and we showed ourselves. The rewards to our team were encouraging and I commend the President for that. I would also want the President to appreciate other sports. Nigerian athletes are the current champions of Africa. They emerged champions in the African Athletics Championships in Benin Republic, just before the London Olympics last year. It is the equivalent of the Nations Cup that Eagles won last Sunday for which they earned plots of land, money and National Honours.
The athletes were not even recognized what more rewarding them. I hope that nobody in government complains if, at the next Olympics, we still end up without a medal. I will continue on this some other day. Back to the reception for the Eagles. My senior colleague, Paul Bassey captured the confusion he saw from the airport to the State House during the reception for the Eagles in his usual refreshing style in Vanguard yesterday.
I need not add more about our shoddy work. The pictures from Burkina Faso showed unbelievable crowd at their National Stadium, how orderly they were and how corporate the players looked in their suites with ties to match. Our players wore track suites, some in green and some in white. Even at the State House, some tied their tracks around their waist. The hall was rowdy and the presentation of the players and decoration with National Honours lacked the pomp and pageantry, the colour and candour that characterize such ceremonies outside our shores. Bassey wrote more on this.
The message from what happened from South Africa to Ougadougou and Abuja is simple. We have always lacked organization in spite of our potentials in almost every sector. I was close to the Eagles when we won the Nations Cup in 1994 and I knew how Clemens Westerhof tasked himself to deliver. Left for our organization, we would not have won in Tunisia, we would not have qualified for the World Cup in USA ’94 and we would not have won the soccer gold at the Atlanta ’96 Olympic Games.
Left for the Athletics Federation, Chioma Ajunwa would not have won that Long Jump gold medal in Atlanta. And now Nigerians are celebrating the Eagles for winning the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Government did not release money to the team in time and at almost a crisis point NFF was said to have borrowed money to set the team free from their hotel.
Who even insisted in training in Portugal when team coach, Stephen Keshi, wanted Zimbabwe or any warm country? Weather was a factor in those early matches in South Africa although there were other things. People are still wondering what inspired the transformation in Eagles. Stephen Keshi has always said that the Eagles were still “work in progress” and that he was still building a team. It meant that he was still finding a proper blend for the players he had chosen.
It happens to coaches and teams. I have done a piece before on pairing or combination of players in different positions. I was once with Westerhof when he was planning for a match. I saw him opt for Jay Jay Okocha in the midfield because Jay Jay combined well with Mutiu Adepoju and Thompson Oliha in that department. But in terms of marking Emeka Ezeugo was preferred.
He ended up fielding Ezeugo in the right back position with a special instruction to cover up for “Okocha when he dribbles and runs away and doesn’t return when we lose possession.” Ezeugo lost his usual place in the midfield because of a better understanding between Mutiu, Oliha and Okocha. And this was after he had played some matches before he discovered that ‘chemistry’ among his midfielders. It happened in South Africa.
The magic we saw in the Eagles was simply the introduction of Sunday Mba and Ogenyi Onazi for Nosa Igiebor and Fegor Ogude respectively. Go and play back the matches and you may not disagree with me. Onazi showed class and rubbished the choice of Ogude. As for Mba, the world now knows his story. I commend the coaches for the changes that produced the flair that the team lacked in their early matches. It was the flair and stability these players brought forte that changed things, brought out the best in Moses, Emenike and made Eagles so super that they won the cup.
And as they start World Cup qualifying matches, the changes will continue. It is normal in a team. Brown Ideye may have to work harder to retain his place in the team. So are Ike Uche and Ahmed Musa.
Eagles made us proud with good football. I’m not happy that controversy trailed their victory. Stephen Keshi and his crew deserve respect. What exploded in South Africa did not start there. After one or two matches, the authorities were already talking about engaging a foreign coach. They should have waited for the games to end. They should have given Keshi a chance.
But the truth is that before the competition the Sports Minister repeatedly spoken of the need to hire a foreign coach if that was what Nigeria needed not only to win the cup but also to transform Nigerian football. And after the first two matches, the leadership of the NFF bought the foreign coach option and Keshi knew about these plans. How could he have concentrated well? Mumuni Alao wrote in his column that God did it for Keshi and I agree. His case was a forgone conclusion before he beat Ivory Coast in a classic game that renewed the pride of Nigerians in football.
However, the truth remains that the NFF did not start the foreign coach campaign. But there were other issues that made Keshi conclude that he had lost the support of the federation and he brazenly told the world what angered him. Some of these issues may still play out in the coming days. We are watching.