VERY little of recent has shown the Nigerian spirit in its best light as the Super Eagles at the 29th African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Johannesburg, South Africa.
It was Nigeria’s third victory in the Championship, but coming 19 years after the last, Nigerians under 25, an estimated 80 million people, have no memories of Nigeria’s previous victory!
The team was given no chance. Seventeen of its 23 members – or 74 per cent – were at their first Nations Cup. In addition, five of the players were from the domestic league. The coach was new and had a rancorous relationship with his employers. The first three group matches were testy enough for the search for a foreign coach to be openly mouthed.
Victories over highly rated Cote d’Ivoire got the team attention, but the scepticism still persisted. The final counts – the Cup, the Golden Boot for Emmanuel Emenike, five players in Africa’s First Eleven, and Stephen Keshi the only Nigerian coach to win the Nations Cup, and the second African to have won the Cup as player, then coach.
Other highlights were that two former players Slyvanus Okpalla (1980) and Daniel Amokachie (1994) were assistant coaches in the winning team in South Africa. The victory threw up many possibilities about the Nigerian and his spirit.
Keshi, in a move that bordered on sheer suicide, overlooked some established players, and threw new players into his team. The emphatic fashion in which the team won has earned the team respect at home and abroad.
Cash gifts, property, national honours have poured in from governments and individuals. The Senate broke protocol and gave the team a standing ovation. The grand reception in Abuja put aside all matters, including the sudden resignation of Keshi to press home his anger at interference from the Nigeria Football Association.
We are proud of Keshi, his coaching crew and players for braving all the criticisms to exhibit the typical Nigerian spirit of excelling no matter the odds. Our countrymen and leadership have shown their appreciation through a showering of financial rewards and honours. Suppose these rewards were promised as incentives to the team?
Victor Moses deserves commendation for his unique commitment to Nigeria. His parents were killed in a religious riot in Kaduna. He fled to England, played for its national junior teams but honoured Nigeria with his prodigious talents. He could have had enough reasons to take up foreign citizenship.
As the euphoria continues, there are grounds to advise that we institutionalise rewards. Winners of the 1994 Nations Cup got nothing. The uncommon attention football gets neglects other sports. It is neither good for football nor for the country.