By Femi Aribisala
This World Cup is done and dusted as far as Nigeria is concerned. We would be extremely lucky to get past the first round. There is no doubt in my mind that, barring an act of God, Nigeria’s chances are next to nothing. The only team we have a chance against is Iran and, even there, we are more likely to draw than to win.
Therefore, I am not writing this for this World Cup. I am writing for the next one; because it takes four years to win the World Cup. Nigeria had a very good chance of winning this year’s World Cup. We have the players that can compete at the highest level. However, one major thing worked against us: we won the African Cup of Nations under the stewardship of Stephen Keshi.
Once we won the African Cup, Stephen Keshi became impregnable. He became a shoo-in to carry Nigeria to the World Cup. No
doubts were tolerated; after all, Nigeria had not won the African Cup in 19 years! How then can any right-thinking person think of replacing our new-found champion after his famous achievement? However, the World Cup is not the African Cup. African football still remains relatively sub-standard vis-à-vis the football played in Europe and Latin America.
In any case, the players we have brought to this World Cup are a shadow of those who won the African Cup. Even though we defeated Cote d’Ivoire in the African semi-finals, we are no match for them today, as FIFA rankings testify. It does not help matters that, unlike the Ivorian players who proved their mettle by coming from behind to defeat Japan in their first match in this World Cup; our foreign-based players have mostly been bench-warmers in their respective clubs this past league season. This means many of them don’t have recent match-fitness.
In November 2013, I wrote an article in this column warning Nigerians that while Keshi was more than able to enthrone Nigeria as African champions; the hard truth is that he is not qualified to lead us to the World Cup. I was shouted down by a hosanna of Keshi’s new-found praise-singers. But people should know by now that abuse and invective never dissuade me from my opinion or from what I believe to be the truth.
The assumption that because Keshi managed the Super Eagles to World Cup qualification he is the right man to lead us to the World Cup itself is wrong. In 2006, Keshi led the Togolese team to World Cup qualification. However, realizing what Nigeria has failed to realise, they dropped him for the World Cup itself and chose a far more-experienced world-class coach, Otto Pfister of Germany, to replace him.
A lot of song and dance is made of extraordinary football players, but more than ever before, football at the highest level is a tactical game between the coaches. A good coach can ensure that you don’t see Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo throughout a match. He studies the opposing players and devises the tactics that best neutralize their strengths. He identifies their weaknesses and exploits them.
At the highest level of football, a good coach is the difference between victory and defeat. If you don’t believe me look at what happened to Manchester United in the EPL (English Premier League) after the departure of Alex Ferguson. With virtually the same players, United went from winning the English Premier League to becoming an average team in a matter of months. The answer was to quickly get rid of coach David Moyes and replace him with world-class Louis Van Gaal.
In this World Cup, Van Gaal’s Netherlands team has already made mincemeat of the current world champions by tactically exploiting Spain’s vulnerability to high balls played to the left shoulder of their central defender. Unless and until we are prepared to make these kinds of non-sentimental decisions in the choice of coaches, and are prepared to pay their high fees, we will not be able to benefit from Nigeria’s large number of world-class players.
With Keshi at the helm in this World Cup, the chances are slim that the Super Eagles will win any match in their group, not to talk of progressing beyond the group stage. Since winning the African Cup, the performance of Keshi’s Super Eagles against non-African opposition has been dismal. His fan club insists these matches are merely preparatory to the big event of the World Cup. However, these so-called preparations never ended. Keshi spent the whole time trying out players in order to choose a team. Up to the very last preparation match against the United States, he was still trying out different cocktails of players.
This means he has not had any real time to test his first eleven as a unit. As a result, Nigeria’s Super Eagles play today as individuals. They have not been blended into a team. When Nigeria played against the United States in our last warm-up game, Stephen Keshi was no match for Jurgen Klinsmann.
Unlike Keshi, Klinsmann is a World Cup veteran. He was part of the German team that won the World Cup in 1990, and he managed the German national team that came third in the World Cup in 2006. Klinsmann’s U.S. team easily exposed the underbelly of Keshi’s Super Eagles. They made us look like rank amateurs. Nigeria hardly held the ball for any length of time. We could not even string together decent passes.
The Americans realised that Nigeria’s strength was on the left flank and quickly shut us down there. Nevertheless, there was no change of tactics from Keshi as we spent the entire match trying to break through the left flank to no avail. It is this inability to read the game and change tactics accordingly that is a major handicap of Stephen Keshi. But that is precisely what makes the difference in football at this level.
The strength of Jose Mourinho of Chelsea, the highest paid coach in the world, is in reading the game. This ensures that Mourinho’s second half is often a revelation to his first half. Arsenal will always have a problem playing against Chelsea in the EPL because Mourinho is a better reader of the game than Arsene Wenger. This league season, Liverpool was a better team than Chelsea. Nevertheless, Liverpool lost 2-0 to Chelsea because Mourinho outfoxed Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers.
You can also tell the dexterity of a coach by the substitutions he makes during a game. With the world-class coaches, their substitutions immediately change the game. None of these skills are evident in Stephen Keshi. His current team is inadequate even at the basic level. The Super Eagles are predictable. They lack speed, match-stamina, ball-possession, accurate passing and clinical finishing.
Keshi is a tactically deficient coach. A seasoned coach would have a field-day exploiting Nigeria’s tactical deficiencies. The ball is easily won from us and then we have a problem retrieving it. We have a problem penetrating our opponents’ defenses. We don’t seem to have strikers hungry for goals. Because our recovery from a failed attack is often slow, we are highly vulnerable to fast counter-attacks.
Nigeria’s players are not driven and motivated. We play as if nothing is at stake. Our defense is lethargic and flat-footed. Captain Joseph Yobo is way past his prime. Against the United States, American strikers easily danced around him. Jozy Altidore only managed to score one goal for Sunderland throughout the entirety of the last EPL season. But playing for the United States, he was too much for the Nigeria’s lackluster defenders. Jurgen Klinsmann discovered that there was a gaping hole in the left flank of the Nigerian defense. As a result, journeyman Altidore became a local hero, scoring two dazzling goals against Nigeria.
If he could do this, I wonder what to expect from Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic of Bosnia Herzegovina. I shudder what Lionel Messi and Kun Aguero of Argentina would do to us. If not for the fact that Nigeria has in Vincent Enyeama, one of the best gold-keepers in the world; some of the matches we played recently would have ended up as goal fiestas against Nigeria.
Our mid-field lacks creativity. The players are experts in back-passing the ball. They run up and down with little inventiveness as to how to open up the opposition’s defense. Mikel runs like a spider with the ball with little intention to go forward. He is one midfield player who never scores goals. Even during set-pieces, he lacks ambition and will hardly approach the opposition’s eighteen.
Our attacking line-up lacks bite. The players seem bereft of innovative goal-scoring ideas. They are easily shut out of the game. Speed and dynamism are the hallmarks of today’s football. That indeed was the distinguishing feature of our World Cup winning Junior Eagles. We have already seen this in evidence in this World Cup, which has already become a goal-scoring extravaganza. However, the Super Eagles lack pace and speed. Their attacking system relies on a slow build-up, ensuring that the opposition easily decodes their intentions a mile off. Only Victor Moses seems inclined to carry attacks into the opposition’s penalty box.
2018 World Cup
What needs to be done? It is too late for this World Cup. But immediately thereafter, Nigeria needs to get a world-class football coach. There is no room for misguided nationalism here. Luiz Scolari is Brazilian; nevertheless, he coached the Portuguese national team. Fabio Capello is Italian; nevertheless he coached the British national team. It is not about being nationalistically pig-headed. It is about insisting only the best is good enough for Nigeria.
Coaches like Keshi may be good enough to get Nigeria to win the African Cup. But they are not good enough to take us to the World Cup. They don’t have what it takes to tactically outsmart maestros like Germany’s Joachim Low or Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque. That should remain the enduring lesson of this World Cup, after our cookies have crumbled.