By Segun Odegbami
Nigeria’s Super Eagles should be one of the biggest football forces in Africa by miles. The reality, however, is that even the smallest teams in Africa now find the inconsistent team an easy opponent to take on, particularly on home ground in Nigeria.
Ordinary Guinea Bissau did what was once unthinkable – beat the Super Eagles on home soil.
Playing in Nigeria has become a nightmare for the country’s football fans as well as the players coming from Europe. For some reason, most of these international superstars always underperform. Home ground has gradually become neutral ground for most of their matches, leaving fans and the players disgruntled and disappointed. Fans now never know what to expect before matches.
Why is this so? What has happened to the invincibility of the Super Eagles at home?
There are several reasons often adduced: a new coach with unknown pedigree; not enough time foU players to assemble and train together to become a team; many new players introduced without proper grounding in Nigerian football culture and philosophy; a new football administration that is still trying to find its feet months after it’s inauguration; no funds to properly motivate the team; and so on. In short, there are as many reasons as there are persons, all claiming to be experts (they include fans, journalists and administrators), to express them.
To me, however, the most important reason is the one least discussed. It takes a special eye to be able to peer beneath the superficiality of common excuses for failure and find the missing answer. That exercise would require going back into history.
Nigeria once had two of the best football grounds in the world. Up till 1995, Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, and U.J Esuene Stadium, Calabar, had playing surfaces comparable to whatever Camp Nou offers FC Barcelona, what Emirates Stadium offers Arsenal FC, and what Stadio San Paolo (renamed Stadio Diego Armando Maradona) offers Napoli FC to date.
The players in the present Super Eagles squad, young and very gifted, individually, need to have a first class playing surface to be able to produce their best when they have very little or no time to train together and be properly organised as a solid team before matches. The poor grounds on which they have been playing in Nigeria substantially reduce their effectiveness.
At a point in Nigeria’s football history, the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, used to be a tourist site for visitors and students. People would gather on the terraces early in the morning, or in the late evenings, to watch the nurturing routine of the groundsmen on that hallowed ground. Teams were allowed to train on the field for a maximum of two times a week only. For the rest of the time, day and night, the field was nursed like a baby by an ‘army’ of groundsmen over 20 man-strong, working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round. There was a massive water storage system connected to the town’s main waterworks feeding the imported ‘Bermuda grass’.
It takes that level of dedication and commitment to manage an excellent football ground.
In 1995, ostensibly because Nigeria wanted to host the World Youth Championship, the government invited an Israeli construction company to come and do a renovation of selected stadia in the country.
When they got to Liberty Stadium and saw what was on ground, the contractors confirmed that replacing what they found on ground was going to be a big mistake. Even Israel did not have such a facility.
What they had brought to replace the playing surface of the stadium was inferior to what they met on ground.
Wicked sports administrators at the time, blinded by greed and ignorance, insisted that the destruction job must go on.
The evil deed was done, and was extended to Calabar, Kaduna, Enugu and so on.
Their handiwork can still be found spread all over these stadia, carcasses of what were monuments to great and lush grass turfs of old.
The ghost of those times has continued to haunt football development in the country to this day.
In 2001, I brought two foreign consultants on football grounds from England. They were managing the grounds of Manchester City FC under Kevin Keegan in England at the time. They came to Nigeria to look at major stadia grounds in the country and to make recommendations for their rehabilitation and upgrading to world-class standard.
We visited stadia in Kaduna, Enugu, Abuja, Ibadan and Lagos where they took soil samples.
I still have in my custody their professional recommendations about what needed to be done. The Minister and his officers in the sports ministry at that time did not even understand and appreciate the critical nature of the situation and, so, did nothing.
What the Super Eagles and Nigerians are passing through now, playing at home and looking like the visiting team, is a consequence of not doing anything about the state of the playing surfaces, not installing the right grass fields, drainage systems, watering systems, and not training groundsmen on modern technology of nursing real grass turfs.
I pointed this out to the outgoing Minister of Sport when the 10-year Masterplan Committee for Nigerian football visited the MKO Abiola International Stadium in Abuja, when latest work on the ground was going on over a year ago. I challenged the contractors handling the project to ensure that the highest standards of construction were adhered to because grass fields management had failed severally in the country and needed extra-special handling. They took my challenge very poorly even as they assured the Minister that they knew what they were doing and would deliver a world-class grass field.
The rest is history. It may be a grass field alright by normal standards, but to have the best playing surfaces to help our calibre of players in the Super Eagles today who do not have the luxury of training for a long time on the poor fields and get familiarised, is a great setback for the team and the country.
Since the MKO Abiola National Stadium, Abuja, was opened for use as the homeground of the Super Eagles last year, everyone can now see that one of the main hindrances to great performances by the national team on that ground is the relative poor state of the playing turf.
What to do?
There are no good enough grassfields in Nigeria outside the new Uyo International Stadium to do justice to the ability and capability of the Super Eagles under Jose Paseiro. Hindered by the short time before matches, it makes sense for the Super Eagles to move their matches to Uyo.
For Abuja to become a proper home ground, Nigeria must go back to the ‘architects’ of Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, and get some good advice.
One of them is still alive, living in semi-retirement in Ibadan. He is Debo Adeyele. Nigeria must go and get him, and remove the ‘curse’ from the country’s football at national teams’ level.