By Onochie Anibeze
Before Stephen Keshi was officially announced the new Super Eagles coach, I had the privilege of discussing the problems of the Eagles with him.
Samson Siasia had just been disengaged and Keshi was on line for the job. He was in the United States and we spoke on phone. I told him the challenges he would face as the new Eagles coach. And when he got the job, I repeatedly told him what I strongly felt was a way out. Keshi agreed entirely and told me he did exactly the same thing in Mali and that if he had stayed on as the coach in Mali the country would be reaping from such a programme now.
And what was this way out? A return to our local league. Selecting the potentials from there, training, exposing them and using them in matches. I recalled the days of Clemense Westerhof and Keshi himself told the rest of the story.
’’Each time we came home for international matches, we met quality players from the local league. They were in camp with us and the competition for positions was strong. I would ask him, coach, where did you get these players from? He would answer by telling me ‘’I tell you, it is not every match that I’ll need you. Some of the boys here, Huuuummm.’’
Westerhof’s exclamations had a way of sending messages across. Victor Ikpeba, a great striker in his time, never forgot how Westerhof made the national team very competitive even when they were at the top of their careers; when they thought they could walk home and pick first team shirts.
Westerhof would gather them before training and reel out some names of the local boys doing well and say openly that the boys from Europe were not better than the local ones, insisting that the difference was just having the opportunity to sign contracts in Europe.
He told them that their own opportunities were coming soon. And before the foreign-based players, Westerhof would say ‘’I have some terrific players here. Barnabas Imenga, Huuummm. Precious Monye, Huuummm, Abdul Sule, what a strong man. Thompson Oliha, Ah! Yaayayaaaa. … I tell you, something will happen here today.’’
The home boys who had been so profiled would put everything in training to justify the rating of their coach. And the foreign-based would exact so much energy and finisseto prove their class. That way, Westerhof achieved his objective – to bring out the best from the players. Training was like match situations.
Sometimes, he even staked money for the winning side although they did more tactical training than 11-a-side. And the local players were playing some matches. When we played Uganda in Lagos, Westerhof invited only two Europe-based players in Dan Amokachi and Samson Siasia.
And Eagles beat them 2-0 with goals coming from the two players. Against Benin Republic in Cotonou, he used local players and Eagles won 1-0, the goal coming from Ishaya Jatau. I recalled all these to Keshi and he agreed that the best way was to make the Eagles competitive again by investing his experience on the local league players. I told him what the foreign-based players did to Siasia.
I told him how some players started walking in the field just ten minutes into the game. I reflected on the performance of Osaze Odewengie and how Kashimawo Laloku concluded that ‘’Osaze was so bad that I suspect he played a revenge game.’’ He was referring to the feud between Osaze and Siasia who excluded him from some matches because he broke camp rules.
Mikel Obi, Emmanuel Emenike, Peter Utaka were pathetic in that same match against Guinea in Abuja. The 2-2 draw ensured Guinea knocked us out of the Nations Cup finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Siasia lost his job.
The neglect of the local players started with Bonfrere Jo after Westerhof left. All the coaches that followed, including indigenous coaches, found nothing good in the local league.
But we knew that they either lacked the technical competence and ability to transform potentials or that they were simply lazy and wanted to continue with already made materials. But it got to the stage that the so called already- made materials were disappointing the country badly.
Keshi set down to work with is team. Note that three new guys in the technical crew were never part of the past coaching crew that never saw any thing good in local players. Keshi, Sylvanus Okpala and Valere Houndinou. They believed that local players were worth giving a chance and set down to work. The federation saw wisdom too in looking inwards and backed Keshi and his team.
They provided the funding for long-term camping and training of the local players. The new programme started. Okpala had coached in Enyimba and Rangers and knew some good players in our league.
Valere had contact with our clubs as he was into football business as players’ agent. He also knew good players from the league. This programme gave room to the emergence of the likes of Sunday Mba, Ejike Uzoenyi, Azubuike Ekwuekwe, Uche Kalu from Enyimba now in Europe, Chigozie Agbim, Gabriel Reuben, Papa Idris, Gambo Mohammed, Godfrey Oboabona, Gomo etc.
In Keshi’s first competitive match, a Nations Cup qualifier against Rwanda in Kigali, Osaze proved that he was not vengeful against Siasia in the Abuja match but simply showed that he was no longer strong in African football which I always say is different from European football. He was worse in Kigali.
I returned and wrote that it would be long for Osaze, Dickson Etuhu and Yakubu Aiyegbeni to play for the Eagles again. I said that Rwanada match might have been their last under Keshi. It was a back page lead report in Vanguard.
Uzoenyi, Egwuekwe and Oboabona were outstanding in that same match that the foreign-based players failed totally. They rescued Nigeria from defeat. Juwon Oshanuwa was another good local player. Egwuekwe remained a rock in the defence of the Eagles but unfortunately for him he fell sick in the camp before Nations Cup and never played a match.
Mba was on and off until the Nations Cup where he became the hero of our team. I once wrote that with Gabriel Reuben, Keshi could do without Mikel Obi. I said that even with Mikel, we would need a strong marker like Reuben. Obi is a great passer of the ball but lacks the kind of marking ability Eagles would always need in front of the back four or back three depending on the formation.
Papa Idris is another player I’m hoping would have a chance someday. Kalu Uche (different from Kalu Uche in Spain) was brilliant but his stay in the local Eagles was short as he moved to Europe. Uzoenyi became the star in Eagles until his form dropped just before the Nations Cup. Reuben went forward from his defensive position to score in Malawi and we knew a star was in the making.
Suddenly, the local players began to have a name in our Eagles again, courtesy Keshi’s programme strongly backed by the NFF. You can then imagine how, as someone close to the team, I felt when same NFF withdrew from CHAN, an Nations Cup meant for players who ply their trade in the continent. CHAN is a developmental programme which I thought Nigeria would take seriously. I had been against appointing different coaches for that competition.
I wanted the Eagles coaches or one of the assistant coaches to be in charge of the Local Eagles. This is to make for smooth transition to the main team. And when it appeared we were getting it right with local players, the NFF withdrew from a competition that is a development programme, a competition that we ought to be clamouring for, going by the standard of our general football.
Yes, NFF said that it was due to paucity of funds. They could have planned better and entered for the competition. While they may have reasons to downsize in their different departments including the large staffing in their secretariat, I think it was wrong to disengage two of the technical staff of Keshi especially without the consent of the head coach.
And these are the two guys very instrumental to the local content that we are now celebrating in the Eagles. It is possible this was an oversight. And it is on this basis I plead with them to reinstate Okpala and Valere for the sake of the good job that they are doing with our local players and the entire team under Stephen Keshi.
Everybody should embrace peace and make progress. And while I feel for the NFF over paucity of funds, I’m equally taken aback that this problem is being pronounced more after winning the Nations Cup, when the Eagles ought to have become a better brand that could attract more money and all sorts of sponsorship. We are African champions.
This means better rating of Eagles, more engagements, endorsements, better exposure to our kit and other sponsors and the attendant material and morale benefits etc.
Against all these backgrounds, I plead with NFF to reinstate Okpala and Valere and re-enter for CHAN. Even government appreciates our football more now and I thought that NFF would seize the opportunity the Nations Cup victory provided to gather more than discard some of the factors that led them to the top.
Sincerely, NFF deserves some credit for the Nations Cup victory. Unfortunately, the controversy that followed the victory denied them this. But they could reverse this rather than aggravate the controversy. Building the local content continues. They even need to do more. We are watching.