By Onochie Anibeze
It was reported, during the week, that sports minister Sunday Dare has queried the Nigeria Football Federation on Nigeria’s failure to qualify Qatar 2022.
That’s the right thing to do in the Nigerian context where the sports federations including NFF are still under the supervision of the ministry.
In climes where the football bodies are totally independent, Dare may not have the powers to do that. Yes, the federation has to respond to the sports minister’s query. But the minister is also culpable. He shares in the blame.
Had he left the federation to implement their intention to quickly engage another coach he would have had no hand in the defeat we suffered against Ghana.
But the minister, I authoritatively gathered, favoured Austin Eguavoen to lead Nigeria to the Nations Cup in Cameroon on the grounds that the sacking of Gernot Rohr was too close to the tournament. Dare was said to have rightly cited past cases where Nigeria hired foreign coaches in emergency situations and failed. He, therefore, directed that Eguavoen, then technical director of the federation headed the Nations Cup crew.
Eguavoen dazzled all at the group stage, winning all matches including a spectacular 1-0 victory against Egypt, the eventual runners-up. Having seen Eagles so messy under Rohr, we all celebrated Eguavoen. I was among those who wrote that he should be given the Eagles job after watching that great outing against Egypt.
I wrote that my opinion was not based on the victory alone but more on the total performance of the players. They marked well, attacked superbly and were generally collective in that match. These were attributes that were lacking in Eagles under Rohr. Nigerians celebrated and sang Alleluia.
I was among them. Same with Dare, almost all the soccer buffs in this country sang same song at the time. Eguavoen went on to win the remaining two matches of the group stage. In the piece I wrote January 15 in support of Eguavoen after that sweet victory against Egypt, I also pointed some flaws which I hoped Eguavoen would correct.
Referring to their play, I wrote: “They could still be better if Moses Simon continues his aggressive play but runs only when the space is there. He appeared to always want to run with the ball even when it was not necessary, when the space ahead was blocked. Chukwueze also did same thing a couple of times and didn’t look good…”
Eguavoen could not correct this when we faced Tunisia at the knockout stage. Simon wanted to dribble and run with every ball all the time. They neatly caged him. Chukwueze was worse. Tunisia studied our play and knew what to do.
We played the same way and got knocked out. SAD. With the skills and speed of Moses Simon, if he was coached to play simple football of passing and running into space (two- to- beat-one) Eagles would have easily waltzed past many defence walls in that Nations Cup.
But he kept on holding on to the ball and easily losing it. Same with Chukwueze. Joe Aribo created space behind him and that didn’t help the compact game we needed deep in the midfield with Ndidi. These corrections were not made until we were bundled out.
Was our celebration of Eguavoen after the Egypt match premature? The answer lies in the manner he executed the match against Tunisia and the two matches against Ghana. It is on this basis I also fault the sports minister. He had the information we didn’t have; he knew what we didn’t know but gave in to sentiment. NFF said they found out the 1-0 victory against Egypt was a fluke.
They said when it mattered most Eguavoen didn’t have a clue on what to do. Eguavoen himself said something revealing on radio. He said that he didn’t do anything spectacular but only ‘told the boys to go in there and express yourselves, enjoy the game and win for yourselves and Nigeria.’
When I heard this, I thought it was the normal, simple statements coaches make to the media without revealing some tactics. But some of the players confided in some officials that what Eguavoen said on radio was true of his approach. I still refuse to believe this because we all know that many matches are won from the bench.
Could they be painting Eguavoen badly to rubbish him? After Tunisia exposed us, the minister and NFF appeared to be in a fix. Last World Cup qualifier was just two months away. NFF wanted a change. The minister felt the time was too short. NFF, I gathered, was frustrated on their inability to effect the changes they wanted because the superior authority did not buy into that plan.
It was clear the minister appreciated the problems and was aware of the shortcomings but feared that the sentiments of Nigerians favoured Eguavoen after the poor runs of Rohr. NFF, knowing that they were responsible for the game should have been bold to be decisive and not give in to sentiments.
Pinnick, I gathered, was so desperate to effect changes that he pleaded with some people to convince the minister to agree to quick changes. He could not at the end. They hung on to Eguavoen. We played goalless in Kumasi. After the match, sources said the minister had agreed that Eguavoen wasn’t the coach to take us to the World Cup. Another coach was to be hired urgently to prepare Eagles for Qatar World Cup. We played 1-1 in Abuja and Ghana took for them the decision they were procrastinating on. So, the minister was part of it. No scapegoat-ism.
He shares in the blame. Eguavoen made his own mistakes, so did the NFF which should be blamed more. They allowed Rohr to stay too long. Their inaction created the emergency situation that resulted in our Qatar 2022 failure.
So the trio of Sunday Dare, Austin Eguavoen and Amaju Pinnick failed us in our Qatar World Cup campaign. NFF, as currently constituted, lacks men knowledgeable in the technicalities of the game. If they had them, expertise, merit, professionalism would drive many appointments and the likes of Salisu Yusuf and Paul Aigbogun would not be part of the Eagles technical crew.
We all know Salisu’s bribery case. He was re-engaged after serving out his suspension. Shame. Aigbogun didn’t make impact in Enyimba, Warri Wolves and Under national 20 but was still sent to Super Eagles as assistant coach.
Rewarding failure? If NFF were rich in the game they would have considered a technical back up team for the Eagles. A technical back up team would not interfere in the workings of the coach but would make sound suggestions.
If Eguavoen had experienced and knowledgeable people around him, they would have advised against making up to five changes from the team that played in Kumasi. That was an unbelievable blunder.
What Eguavoen and his crew needed to change was the tactical approach to the game and not the players unless for injuries. Weather is a strong factor in football. It was a big blunder to field any player from Europe who was not used to the hot weather here.
Bassey who played from the left back would explain better. We didn’t learn from our 2006 World Cup ouster in Kano when our players burnt out in the first half against Angola. Abuja was hot and the players who played in Ghana would have adapted better in the second leg in Abuja. But five of them were changed. BLUNDER.
If NFF were knowledgeable in the game our domestic league would not be in the messy state that it is now. My friend Ade Ojeikere has not stopped writing on the state of our league. If they cared about the growth of the game those running the league would not be there now. Repeatedly, Ade has asked them to point to one strong football country with a poor league like ours. They have refused to answer.
I don’t think board members of our federation are well schooled on football matters. We are even still running football because of the revenue drive of their President, Pinnick whose marketing ingenuity earned the federation sponsorship from MTN, Air Peace, Cadbury, Zenith Bank, etc. Helped by Mike Itemuagbor’s Pamodzi sports marketing outfit, Pinnick has been able to execute some assignments without government funding.
There were times Nigeria organised Presidential dinner to raise fund for World Cup qualification and execution. Pinnick’s board has never benefited from this.
How great it would have been if this NFF had knowledgeable people in charge of technical matters, guiding our national teams and the domestic league while Pinnick continues to break every ground in marketing the game and the brand Eagles should be.
If it were so, the growth of the game would reflect on our domestic league, we would have done well in Russia 2018 World Cup, qualified for Qatar and possibly be in the last eight.
Our football would have been up there and Sunday Dare would be celebrating, not issuing query for the failure he was part of.