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When public opinion shouldn’t count

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By Onochie Anibeze
id you watch the game last night? We lost against a very beatable Uruguay side. Our attacking runs were not good enough.

We still don’t know how to put pressure on opponents. We slowed or even broke the game when we should have been very direct. If we played well and lost I would not bother, knowing that we lost to a superior team and I would have hope.”

This was a text message I sent to Paul Bassey, our veteran columnist with tremendous experience in the game of football. Bassey is a CAF and FIFA match coordinator. It was hours after Uruguay beat Nigeria 2-1 in the Confederations Cup. He replied this way:

Nigeria's squad lines up before the Africa Cup of Nations Nigeria vs Burkina Faso group C football match at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on January 21, 2013. AFP PHOTO
Nigeria’s squad lines up before the Africa Cup of Nations Nigeria vs Burkina Faso group C football match at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on January 21, 2013. AFP PHOTO

’Onoch, Publish this and some ignorant people will heap insults on you. I was watching with an Uncle who hoped that the defeat would teach Eagles a lesson.”

Last week, I went ahead to publish my opinion on the Eagles that I saw at the Confederations Cup in Brazil. I supported the view of Kojo Williams who said that Eagles needed help in the form of a sound foreign coach although I maintained that Stephen Keshi should remain the head coach.

I have always known the attitude of fans. They easily forget. They act on the spur of the moment. They are sentimental. They are passionate. But I’m sorry to say that passion is not knowledge. Samson Siasia was probably the best African coach in the estimation of these fans before Guinea stopped us from going to the 2012 Nations Cup.

The same fans who rated Siasia far above Stephen Keshi, and warned that they would blow up NFF office if he wasn’t given the Eagles job, almost torched the Abuja Stadium in their violent call that “Siasia must go” on the night Guinea held Eagles to a 2-2 draw and eliminated Nigeria from the Nations Cup finals. Fans are like that. But they are fans and one must appreciate that otherwise one can easily be misled.

Let me recall Euro ’96 which I covered in England. Alan Shearer averaged a goal a match at Blackburn Rovers. He was clearly the best striker in England. But during the build-up to the European Championship which they hosted, Shearer was not scoring for England. It got so bad that public opinion was loud on Terry Venables, their manager, to drop him. Even the media joined  the campaign.  But the more they harassed Venables the more the man stuck to Shearer as his top striker. Venables knew that he had not found a suitable striking partner for Shearer.

The public did know that. They did not care to know. All they knew was that Shearer was only a club hero and was not scoring for the Three Lions and, therefore, should be dropped. Some days to the championship, Venables started pairing him with Teddy Sheringham. To cut the story short, Shearer ended Euro ’96 as the highest scorer and moved to Newcastle for a record fee of 15m pounds then.

If Venables gave in to public opinion he would have probably failed. England were, arguably, the best team of the tournament but lost in a painful penalty shoot-out with Germany in the semi-final. With Adams, Southgate, Pearce, Paul Ince, Steve McManaman, Paul Gascoign, Teddy and Shearer, they played continental football, a sharp contrast to the kick and rush football that England were known for before Euro ’96.

If you knew what Venables did at Tottenham you would not be surprised at the transformation he carried out with England. But public opinion would have probably destroyed him. I’m recalling all these to warn Keshi over the many calls for the recall of Osaze Odewengie. Even Chief Mike Umeh, the Vice President of Nigeria Football Federation wants Osaze recalled.

People cite the case of Fernando Torres who performs below expectation at Chelsea but shines for Spain to justify their call for Osaze. It is wrong. Torres does well for Spain and the manager keeps on inviting him on that basis. But Osaze was a huge flop in his last outings for Eagles.

That’s the difference. Against Guinea, he was so awful that people alleged that he sabotaged the team especially as he had issues with Siasia, the coach then. But in Rwanda under Keshi he was even worse. It did not end there. When Keshi planned to recall him he fumed over his substitution in Rwanda and said that it amounted to disrespect. Keshi left him out and he took to social media to taunt him and the federation just like he does to his club in England. Osaze was a star in the Eagles but he now lacks the power needed in African football and should be left out of the qualifiers.

The other issue on public opinion is the call for Keshi to reduce the invitation he extends to local players on the grounds that they lack the experience to play big games. I disagree with facts. Godfrey Oboabona was one of the best players in the Confederation Cup. He plays for Sunshine Stars. Sunday Mba was the Nations Cup hero. He is a local player.

Eagles, with many local players last year, played 1-1 with Catolonia, a side full of Barcelona players and crack Spanish players. Agbim was in goal, Egwuekwe, Obaobona, Gwambe, Mba, Ejike all played that match.

It was in the second half that the likes of Uche Kalu and Emenike came in. The match ended 1-1. In Miami, USA, local players formed the bulk of the team that beat Venezuela 3-1 last year too. Before then, an all local team went to Peru and lost by a lone goal after a horrible flight schedule that saw them miss their connecting flight at Madrid and forced them to sleep at the airport. On arrival they had no rest before the game and lost to fatigue.

The problem I saw in the team in Brazil was not what one would attribute to local players. Is Brown Ideye, arguably, the worst player in the Nigerian team a local player? The problem was in our approach although one cannot rule out the shortcomings in some players. And it will be wrong to blame our failure on the absence of one or two players.

If we were direct and played with power we could have done better against Uruaguay and Spain, a team we beat at France ’98 and Nigerians now don’t believe we could even hold them even if we played to our potential. Too bad. Unfortunate public opinion. Before Brazil muscled Spain in the final, our people believed that Spanish football was made in heaven. No doubt, they play good football. But if one looked critically into our match with Uruguay and Spain you would agree that we could also be on our way to the heavens if we play up to our potential, exploiting our attributes, in our own style.

It is doable. It is a matter of style backed by suiting training that will compel our players to play tactfully with aggression, pace and pressure. An approach can bring out the best in our players. With all his skills Westerhof kept Okocha on the bench. It was not because Okocha wasn’t good. It was simply because Okocha would like to dribble when Westerhof wanted a direct play. Okocha had to change a little but was still not playing all matches.

Westerhof knew when to use him. It depended on the style of opponents. If he needed a direct and fast game, he kept Okocha on the bench and brought him after we would have scored a goal or two. Okocha was to tell me one day that he had come to realise what the man wanted only that, sometimes, he felt that the thousands of fans who pay to watch games should have something for their money.

Crazy guy. The team we took to Brazil for the Confederations Cup could do better if they knew the way. I hope they learn although one must commend Keshi for the job he has done so far. They have improved but they still need a lot more to be among the best in the world.

Public opinion, based on passion, would not support any assistant for Stephen Keshi following the Nations Cup victory. Expert opinion, based on the current capacity of the technical crew, would strongly recommend a help if we are to attain a higher level and rank among the best in the world. But our officials will always bungle it. They also lack the capacity to engage the good one for us. Public opinion can also mislead them on this.

I could even branch out of football. Public opinion is against withdrawal of oil subsidy because of the immediate hardship it will subject the people to. But expert opinions argue that at the long run Nigeria would be better for it if subsidy was withdrawn.

They have argued with facts and figures but because of the level of corruption in government circles the people don’t give a damn about their facts. After all, it’s corruption that first brought us to this unfortunate state, so all the facts the experts project lack human face to them.

It’s always difficult to go against public opinion. But public opinion is not always the best especially on technical matters like football. Unfortunately, overnight ‘’experts’’ have emerged in Nigeria from watching foreign leagues on television. Everybody is a football coach in Nigeria and technocrats should beware of public opinion on technical matters.

Expertise matters. And that’s why Keshi must be firm on what he believes. And that’s why I support Kojo Williams on his informed opinion on Eagles. And that’s why those running our football must not easily be swayed. They once publicly admitted making appointment on public opinion. I hope they learn.

Thompson Oliha – Just Putam for Vanguard

He was once the favourite player of Prince Lemmy Akakem, the man who managed Iwuanyanwu Nationale, at a time they were one of the great sides in the continent.

Thompson Oliha’s commitment to the game impressed all. His work rate in the field wore down opponents. He was a midfield general. His ability to defend, create in the middle and join the attack to lay assists was awesome. Clemens Westerhof liked him so much.  He also became one of his favourite players.

I remember him for many things. In 1993, the Eagles were training in Holland, I joined them. My passes were still there. I tried to compete fairly in training although I couldn’t boast of same fitness as the players.

In one charged contest for ball, I tackled Thompson. He was injured and fell. As I gave a hand to lift him from the ground I said “I’m sorry, Thompson.” He replied, “Don’t worry, just putam for Vanguard.” He wanted me to publish what had just happened.

I did in a diary material I wrote while covering their training tours and camps. The injury kept Thompson out of training for a day and Uche Okafor would always remind me that Westerhof respected me a lot otherwise he would have frowned bitterly at me for hurting his favourite player.

Okafor died two years ago and Oliha joined the heavenly choir last Sunday. I go putam for Vanguard was a common joke in his Flying Eagles days under coach Chris Udemezue.

Etim Esin, Lawrence Ukaegbu, Ene Okon, Ahmed, Willy Okpara, Adekola were among the members of 1987 Flying Eagles with him.

Eyobong Ita and myself self so covered the team that what they ate,  how they trained and even slept were always captured with details on a daily basis that if a player offended his team mate or did anything funny, the response in camp was “I GO PUTAM FOR VANGUARD”.

Oliha exhumed that in Holland, this time with the Super Eagles. I will sorely miss him. He was always warm and smiling. May his soul rest in peace.

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