How Odemwingie won AFCON for Nigeria

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AFTER Nigeria’s Super Eagles first match against Argentina in the on-going football World Cup (SA 2010), some writers and analysts were quick to impress it on enthusiasts that they saw significant impact of coaching on our boys.

Personally, I saw much less of that. What I saw was much more the impact of some marginal shift in attitude. Imagine a Super Eagles team playing with the same zeal, commitment, uncompromising attitude and dogged spirit as our politicians and rulers deploy in election rigging and treasury looting!”

That was the opening paragraph in my piece, “Super Eagles and spirit of a failed state” of June, 2010 which trailed the eventual (ignominous?) elimination of the national team from that year’s World Cup competition in Mandela-land. I had submitted that the Super Eagles acclaimed above average performance in the opening match against the world giants was not because of the presence, on the bench, of any “world-class foreign coach”, or any such theory being propounded at the time. It simply had to do with the temporary resurgence of the right attitude in the circumstance. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the momentum could not be sustained. The required spirit again took a routine flight!

In my “Letter to Samson Siasia” of November, 2010, I challenged Nigeria to “give me five Nigerian players with the spirit and attitude of Osaze Odemwingie, three players with the raw determination and patriotism of Rashidi Yekini and two players with the ‘workaholic’ level of Garba Lawal and even I, a football coaching nonentity, would not need more than three weeks to prepare a formidable World Cup squad”. That was informed by the recurrent chants about “rebuilding” and “building a new team” which really were more of veiled attempts to prepare excuses for anticipated failures, as I later argued in my “Super Eagles: The fallacy of ‘new team’” of March 2011.

When the current Super Eagles technical regime took over, it was the usual familiar song. Then it became Vision 2014 World Cup. Just before the commencement of the just concluded AFCON 2013 which the Super Eagles, against all expectations, won, it metamorphosed into Vision 2018 World Cup because, according to Coach Stephen Keshi, he would need five years to get to the promise land. Now if by Keshi’s theorem, it takes five years to build a championship-winning side, how then was he able to achieve the feat with a team he himself described as “just five-week-old”? Magic?

It could be! But the magic wand lies in what I described as the ‘Osaze spirit’ in my tribute titled “Osaze Peter Odemwingie!” of January 2010. I had submitted inter alia: “Osaze has demonstrated, beyond question, that he is an epitome of the dream spirit, the spirit of give and give, the spirit long departed from the polity of the Nigerian nation… Osaze has demonstrated, in his own little way, that even within the decadent system, the spirit of asking not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country could still be nurtured to thrive.”

The proof! According to Russian football chief, Alexie Sorokin, Locomotiv Moscow FC supporters’ problem with Odemwingie had nothing to do with racism but that they had often accused him of playing better for his country than their team. Rashidi Yekini of blessed memory never played for any giant club in Europe. But Nigerian strikers who plied their trade in “big” clubs were no match for him in the green and white colours because he was a national team player. These rare attributes the “gangling” former African Player of the Year shared with ever-recurring decimal Garba Lawal, bulky but astonishingly swift Danny Shittu (unarguably Nigeria’s best defender at AFCON 2010) and Odemwingie who were and are always at their best playing for their national team.

Coach Keshi won AFCON 2013 because he had bestowed on him the grace of an unusual collection of boys possessed (temporarily?) of this Osaze spirit. Perhaps for the first time, John Obi Mikel played for his national team with greater commitment than he does for his foreign club.

At any point in time, Germany will present a machine-efficient soccer squad because they are never “rebuilding” a structure that never collapsed but only maintaining. For any occasion it is required, the US will present a formidable basketball team because they are never “building a new team”. That is working philosophy.

That was the philosophy of Shaibu Amodu whose major undoing was dearth of players with sustained right attitude. This is why he took over from the wobbling Bonfrere Jo in 2001 and dramatically qualified Nigeria for the 2002 AFCON and World Cup. He came again in 2008 and qualified the country for the 2010 AFCON and World Cup, winning his first seven matches (home and away) scoring 12 goals and conceding none! That was the world of the one whose two World Cup postings in only as many attempts with two AFCON bronze medals as fringe benefits, was described by French legend, Alain Giresse, as “massive feat”.

Another World Cup qualification series and FIFA Confederation Cup are around the corner and Keshi is in trouble! Amodu’s soldiers were ‘big boys’ who rose through the ranks en-route to becoming big boys. Keshi’s soldiers are overnight big boys. (There will always be big boys, you know?) Take a peep into the Nigerian culture and assess the difference in the attitude of Nigerian millionaires and that of emergency-cum-overnight millionaires. No wonder Amodu opined that dealing with super-star footballers on national assignments for a nation no one is enthusiastically willing to blow himself up for, requires tact and spirit of accommodation and not na-me-be-oga showmanship; he was accused of taking bribes from the players.

Mr. DELE AKINOLA, a commentator on national affairs,wrote from Lagos.

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