FEATURE ARTICLE

Cyril C. NwokejiTuesday, October 31, 2017
[email protected]
Belgium

TIME TO TAKE THE SOCCER WORLD BY STORM! (1)

INTRODUCTION

he Super Eagles have come a long way since yours sincerely started following this team in 1976. They have known a chequered history, over the years. With unacceptably long periods of lows, following the usually brief periods of success! This is unacceptable for any nation that wants to stake a claim to soccer success in the globe. Soccer being the competitive sport it is, will make life almost difficult for any nation that shows inconsistency, like Nigeria has done over the years. But surprisingly, Nigeria, despite her inconsistency, has somewhat held her own in soccer over the years, albeit at a lower level than her potential. This means that if the Super Eagles maintain a decent measure of consistency, among other re-adjustments, considering the Nation's potentials in soccer, the Super Eagles of Nigeria, will shoot for the stars! Nigeria under normal circumstances, should be among the top ten soccer nations of this planet.

In these series of articles, yours sincerely, will attempt to give his vision on how the Super Eagles of Nigeria, can take the soccer world by storm, at the 2018 World cup finals, in Russia.

Here we go:

At the time yours sincerely started following the performance of the Super Eagles, in 1976, the team was coached by a Serbian coach :Tihomir Jelisavcic, fondly called "Father Tiko" of blessed memory. He brought a direct, physical brand of attacking soccer, anchored on fast wing play, to bear on the Super Eagles' playing style. This coupled with the fact he had in his ranks, a bunch of youthful, highly talented players, ensured the Super Eagles, achieved huge successes.

Coach Tiko, qualified Nigeria for the first time for the Nations' cup tournament, held in 1976, in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. At that tournament, for a first timer, Nigeria, achieved a decent measure of success, by coming third, and winning the bronze medal. The Super Eagles could have done better, if not for domestic problems between the NFF and the Rangers International football club of Enugu, that was angry at what they termed the rather uncooperative attitude shown the Rangers, by the NFF, when Rangers played "Hafia football club"of Guinea, in the final match of the 1975 "Cup of champions" competition, the equivalent of the present," African Champions league ". Rangers lost that final, and as a consequence of the anger with the NFF, Rangers' players in the Super Eagles, as a mark of protest, initially, refused to join the Super Eagles for preparations for the 1976 Nations' cup tournament. This fact coupled with the biased refreeing of a certain Senegalese: N'diaye Youssou, made Nigeria miss out on a likely silver medal, at that tournament!

Thus, the Super Eagles under Coach Tiko, had risen to become an African soccer giant, in 1976, thus, the expectations were high for the 1978 World cup qualifiers African zone. At that time, Africa, had one spot for the World cup tournament. Nigeria, was rated as one of the favourites to get this lone African ticket to the World cup. Before the start of the World cup qualifiers, Nigeria took part in the elimination series, African zone, for 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, Canada. The Super Eagles, sweept away all opposition, including challenge from the then newly crowned 1976 Nations' cup winners: Morocco, enroute to qualifying for the 1976 Olympic games soccer competition.

During the friendly matches aimed at preparing the team for the Olympic games, the Super Eagles sweept away all opposition with monster scores, this earned them the reputation of "4-3-8-10" Eagles, that signified the huge score line with which they won their matches! However, politics, put a spanner in the works, as Nigeria pulled out of the Olympic games, for political reasons, even before the first ball was kicked! A former Super Eagle, told the press, that Nigeria pulled out at the point in time, the Super Eagles were set to win the Olympic games soccer gold medal. This assertion, realistically, was the truth.

At the 1978, World cup qualifiers, African zone, Nigeria sweept away all opposition: Sierra-Leone, Ivory- Coast, en route to getting to the final elimination series African zone, where the Super Eagles squared it up against: Tunisia and Egypt. It was at this time the tactical deficiencies of Coach Tiko, started to manifest. He could not take on technically and tactically well- oiled sides, that the North -Africans were. The Super Eagles after a rather bright start to the round-robin series, finally fell to the superior technical and tactical organisation of the North-Africans and came last in the round-robin series and, thus, missed the 1978 World cup ticket. The high point of Nigeria's failure, was the loss of the ticket on home soil, to Tunisia, on the 12th of November, 1977, as a result of a 1-0, loss to eventual World cup qualifiers: Tunisia.

Having missed out on the 1978 World cup tournament, the Super Eagles sought soccer redemption with the 1978 Nations' cup tournament, in Ghana. Nigerians expected victory at the Nations' cup tournament. The Super Eagles started brightly, but were eventually eliminated by the less- fancied "Cranes" of Uganda, in the semi-finals. Once again the technical and tactical shortcomings of Father Tiko, were exhibited, as he couldn't unravel the rather compact-playing, and technical Ugandans. It was always the case with the Coach Tiko- coached Super Eagles, there were "unidirectional" in their playing pattern: fast, physical and direct, with no tactical variations! Thus, they were very predictable in their playing pattern, and an easy prey for highly technical and tactical teams.

The failure at the 1978 Nations' cup tournament, put enormous pressure on Coach Tiko, he was given a last chance, with the 1978 All African games soccer event. He had to retain the All African games soccer gold medal for Nigeria, or be booted out as Super Eagles' coach. To further strengthen the team, two Nigeria professional players who plied their trade abroad, were drafted into the team. In the persons of: Udemba and Popoola. Helaas ,their presence didn't help Nigeria, to retain her gold medal in soccer, won at the 1973 All African games competition. They lost in the final to hosts Algeria, by the odd goal: 1-0. The final result meant to Nigeria, more of a loss of the gold medal, than winning the silver medal. Thus, Coach Tiko's days were numberd, and with the 1980 Nations' cup competition on home soil, in mind, the NFF, wasted no time, in removing him as Super Eagles' coach, but rather gave the popular coach, a soft landing, by appointing him coach of the Under-20 side, then known as the "Junior Eagles."

The end of the Tiko era, meant the NFF had to look elsewhere for coach of the Super Eagles of Nigeria. To tinker the Super Eagles to an expected success, at the 1980 Nations' cup competition, on home soil. They sought their heil in the mecca of soccer: Brazil. While on a playing tour, the NFF made contacts with : Professor Otto Gloria, a soccer tactician of renown, who lectured soccer at the soccer institute in Brazil. He led Portugal to an enviable third place finish, at the 1966 World cup tournament. It wasn't easy getting the professor and soccer tactician, to relinquish his job in Brazil, to coach the Super Eagles. But with a whopping salary offer of one hundred and eighteen thousand naira a month(118,000.00 Naira), at a time, the naira exchanged for: 80 kobo for a dollar, the soccer professor, didn't need much persuation to take up the job!

He oversaw the preparations of the Super Eagles for the 1980 Nations' cup tournament. And expectedly deliverd by piloting the Super Eagles to a Nations' cup victory, on home soil. He was rewarded with a two-year contract! Nigeria, thus, climbed to the absolute pinnacle of African soccer, under his watch. And expectations were highest for qualification for the 1982 World cup tournament in Spain, as one of Africa's two representatives.

The Super Eagles started well on this journey, as they eliminated favourites Tunisia, after losing 2-0, in Tunis, in the first leg. The second leg match in Lagos, saw the introduction of two UK-based professionals: Tunji Banjo and John Chiedozie, this coupled with Coach Otto Gloria's tactical master mind, helped Nigeria get past Tunisia. The expectations for a world cup berth only heightened, as Nigerians expected nothing but success, in the world cup adventure.

However, this was when paradoxically, the Super Eagles' s 'degradation' under Coach Otto Gloria, started. Coach Otto Gloria, with benefit of hindsight, made the mistake of relying heavily on the professionals that played soccer abroad, he invited them to camp, without ascertaning their true form at their respective club sides. Professionals who were bank sitters at their clubs and consequently didn't have match rhythm, were invited to the Super Eagles and given first team places! This coupled with his inability to develop young, local and up and coming talent, coupled with the NFF's interference in his responsibility, which saw certain players forced on him, resulted in the gradual degradation of the Super Eagles and with the high point being the failure to qualify for the 1982 World cup tournament.

This failure put enormous pressure on him for the 1982 Nations' cup tournament. At that point in time, he started giving younger local talent a chance, but it was too late in the day, as he had little time to raise them to the required standard; this fact coupled with the decision of certain senior players, to leave the Super Eagles as a consequence of disbanding the team by the NFF, contributed to the Super Eagles' ignominious elimination at the 1982 Nations' cup competition: eliminated at the preliminary rounds, as defending champions!

This defeat as a consequence of which the Super Eagles, tumbled to unexpected lows, signalled the end of the Coach Otto Gloria era.

The NFF decided to hearken to the calls of some Nigerians, who wanted the Super Eagles' coach to be an indigenous one. They appointed the Modakeke high chief: Chief Festus Adegboye Onigbinde, as coach of the Super Eagles. He oversaw the further development of the young talent, a process started by Coach Otto Gloria. He appointed a young, rookie player: the Late Stephen Keshi, of blessed memory, as captain; this was not without controversy, but the Modakeke high chief stuck to his guns. The Super Eagles under his watch, missed qualification for the 1984 Olympic games, in Los Angeles, by the whiskers; in the process they recorded a heart-warming victory over Ghana, in Accra. They got to the final of the 1984 Nations' cup competition, and lost to the more experienced Camerounian side. Nigerians thought they put up an impressive performance. It is against this back drop, the decision of the NFF, to remove him after the 1984 Nations' cup tournament, came as a surprise to many Nigerians.

The NFF, appointed the then coach of the under -20 team, Mr. Christopher Udemezue, of blessed memory, who qualified the team to the first ever Nigerian soccer world cup, at the under -20 level, in 1983, as Super Eagles' coach. Apparently, Coach Onigbinde's result -oriented, albeit unattractive style of soccer, as opposed to Coach Udemezue's "champagne -type" soccer, with the junior team, was the reason he was removed as coach of the Super Eagles.

However, Coach Udemezue, with benefit of hindsight, proved to be tactically inadequate, for the Super Eagles' challenge. And his appointed not only resulted in another failed World cup qualification journey: for the 1986 World cup tournament, but also marked an absolute low point in the performance and appreciation of the Super Eagles, on the African continent!

The NFF tried coaches: Dr. Patrick Ekeji, Paul Hamilton, as stop gap coaches; before the appointment of the German Coach, Manfred Hoener, as Super Eagles' coach. Nigeria's Super Eagles' fortunes, before the advent of Coach Hoener's stint, remained unimpressive.

Coach Hoener, took over the team on the eve of the 1988 Nations' cup tournament; and got to the final of the 1988 Nations' cup tournament, losing narrowly to Cameroun. This was a good performance by the Nigerians and the Super Eagles' stocks were once again on the rise.

However, this rising stock of the Super Eagles, was rudely jolted by a disasterous performance, at the 1988 Seoul Olympic games . The Super Eagles, lost all it's first round matches; this coupled with a rather strange tactic: 3-5-2, that de-emphasised the use of conventional wingers, made Coach Hoener, "persona non grata," and, consequently, he unceremoniously left his job!

The NFF appointed Coach Paul Hamilton once again as stop gap coach, pending the appointment of Coach Westerhoff, in 1989.

Coach Westerhoff, supervised the final World cup group's qualifier, against Cameroun, in Yaounde, and lost 1-0; this, signalled another botched World cup attempt, for Nigeria; the 1990 World cup competition.

Coach Westerhoff, however, bounced back from that initial set back, to achieve great things with the Super Eagles of Nigeria: he won the Nations' cup bronze, silver and gold medals. The 1994 Nations' cup -winning team, that also qualified for the 1994 World cup tournament in the United States of America, is till date the best ever assembled team of the Super Eagles! A team that brimmed with talent! The team had in it's ranks, the highest goals scorer, African zone of the 1994 World cup qualifiers, the 1993 African footballer of the year, the then 12th best player in the world. That player was the late Rashidi Yekini, of blessed memory! The team also had in it's ranks, the 1994 African footballer of the year: Emmanuel Amunike. The team qualified for the second round stage of the 1994 World cup competition, losing by the whiskers to Italy. They were rated the most exciting team of the 1994 World cup, because of their, exquisite, expansive, quintessential, offensive soccer style, patterned after the popular Dutch soccer style: "Total football!" They were deservedly rated the fifth best team on the planet! The best ever rating for the Super Eagles!

Coach Westerhoff resigned his appointment after the defeat to Italy, in the 1994 World cup competition, after a five- year stint with the Super Eagles; a decision he regrets till date! He will go down the annals of Nigeria's soccer history, as one of the best foreign coaches ever to coach the Super Eagles of Nigeria!

Coach Westerhoff's departure, signalled, the beginning of the 'degradation' of the Super Eagles, due to unfortunate circumstances :

The NFF couldn't appoint the Brazilian, who was scheduled to replace him, as a consequence, the late Coach Amodu Shaibu, of blessed memory, had to be used as stop gap coach;

The NFF finally appointed Coach Bonfre Jo, as substantive coach, he was denied the opportunity of defending the hard- won Nations' cup of 1994, in 1996, at a time the Super Eagles could have easily retained the trophy, considering the abundance of talent, at it's disposal, due to political reasons ;

As a consequence of the failure to appear at the 1996 Nations' cup tournament, CAF banned Nigeria from the 1998 edition of the Nations' cup tournament, this had negative consequences for Nigeria's soccer development ;

The NFF's decision to sack Coach Phillippe Troussier, who qualified Nigeria, for the World cup tournament in France;

The concomitant appointment of Coach Bora Milutinovic, who had just six months to tinker the Super Eagles at the 1998 World cup tournament, in France!; and the concomittant not- too- impressive performance, at the world cup tournament.

The above stated factors, conspired to rob Nigeria a great deal of the hard-earned credit under Coach Westerhoff! Nigeria, thus, struggled again!

Coach Bonfree Jo, was reappointed again as Super Eagles' coach, after his adventure in the golf states, to tinker the Super Eagles for the 2000 Nations' cup competition, jointly hosted by Nigeria and Ghana. He almost fully succeeded in the expectations, as Nigeria lost the final match on 4-3 penalties, to the "Indomitable Lions" of Cameroun, in Lagos.

However, a 2002 World cup qualification loss to Sierra -Leone, signalled the end of the NFF's adventurism with Coach Bonfree Jo; he was subsequently sacked, and replaced by the indigenous trio of coaches: Amodu Shaibu, ( head coach), Stephen Keshi and Joe Eric( the assistant coaches).

They succeeded in delivering the 2002 World cup ticket to Nigeria, and a bronze medal to Nigeria, at the 2002 Nations' cup tournament. But were eased out of their job, as a result of players' 'mutiny', at the Nations' cup tournament.

The NFF, in it's infinite 'wisdom', decided to disband the team, with three months to the 2002 world cup competition, and appointed a new coach: Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, who had to raise a team from the scratch! Needless saying the Super Eagles went to the 2002 World cup tournament, to make up the numbers! Nigeria's soccer fortunes plummeted to an all time low.

The appointment of Coach Christian Chukwu, as Super Eagles' coach, didn't improve the Super Eagles' fortunes much, because Coach Chukwu among other disadvantages, had to cope with the loss of a significant number of the golden generation of Nigerian players, as a consequence of the 2002 disbandment of the Super Eagles.

The Super Eagles' fortunes, were not much helped with the appointment of Coach Austin Eguavoen. In the NFF's desire to get the swinging Super Eagles of the late seventies, early eighties and early and middle nineties, the NFF, went foreign again, with the appointment of Coach Berti Voghts.

However, the adventure with Coach Voghts was short, due to his surprisingly tactical deficiencies! As a consequence of his misadventure with the Super Eagles, the Super Eagles were given the unenviable nickname of "Super Chickens," by the disappointed Ghanaian fans at the 2008 Nations' cup tournament, held in Ghana!

The NFF, made what with benefit hindsight, was a rather wrong decision, by appointing Coach Amodu Shaibu, substantive coach of the Super Eagles. At a time Coach Shaibu, was not involved actively in soccer coaching. This decision had a big disadvantage, as the Super Eagles' qualification for the 2010 World cup competition, in South -Africa, was more through sheer good luck, than through decent technical /tactical manoeuvring, by Coach Shaibu. The 2010 Nations'cup tournament, further exposed Coach Shaibu's tactical/technical inadequacies, notwithstanding Nigeria's third place finish.

The NFF, made another wrong decision, by removing him, very late in the day, with three months to the 2010 soccer world cup competition! Consequently, notwithstanding a whopping 1,5million dollars spent on Coach Lars Lagerback, the Super Eagles of Nigeria, flounderd at the 2010 world cup, and failed to qualify from a seemingly easy group. A friend of mine in reaction to what he saw of the Super Eagles at the 2010 World cup competition, summarised to me in pidgin English:" We no get team!" Meaning, Nigeria, then, had no decent soccer team at the highest level. The Super Eagles, thus, flounderd to unacceptably lows!!!!

It was thus necessary that an urgent 'surgical' operation, was needed to get the Super Eagles going again. The NFF did this, albeit, with benefit of hindsight, wrongly, by appointing Coach Samson SiaSia, coach of the Super Eagles, after an interregnum with Coach Austin Eguavoen. Coach Sia Sia, made a name for himself with the junior teams, but proved not equal to the task as Super Eagles' coach. The Super Eagles flounderd to another low, by missing out on qualification for the 2012 Nations' cup competition, for the first time in twenty -six years!

The NFF, consequently, sacked Coach Sia Sia, and appointed Coach Stephen Keshi, of blessed memory. Coach Keshi, with benefit of hindsight, turned the fortunes of the Super Eagles around, with success at the 2013 edition of the Nations' cup competition in South-Africa. He also qualified Nigeria for the 2014 World cup competition in Brazil and got to the second round of the competition. Thus, the unenviable nickname of "Super Chickens," logically, disappeard and the more enviable and befitting nickname of "Super Eagles", reappeared!

However, a combination of paradoxically, the NFF's belligerent attitude to Keshi, in particular and to Nigeria's soccer in general, coupled with Coach Keshi's arrogance, saw once again to the 'degradation' of the Super Eagles and the concomitant failure to qualify for two successive Nations' cup competitions, for the first time in Nigeria's soccer history!

The NFF, consequently, had to act quickly, and radically, by appointing Coach Gernot Rohr, to oversee Nigeria's qualification for Russia '2018, from a so called "group of death." Happily Coach Rohr deliverd as expected.

The point one wants to make with the above narrative, that summarizes the chequered fortunes of the Super Eagles, from 1976, till date, is to make the point that to do well in the senior World cup competition, a country needs to be consistent, in her performance in all soccer competitions.

Brazil, has not missed any world cup tournament, since it's inception! Germany, has also been consistent at the world cup tournaments, over the years. Italy has also been consistent. It is thus not surprising, that they are some of the leading nations, in the world of soccer, and with the greatest number of FIFA senior world cup titles under their belt.

However notwithstanding Nigeria's unacceptable and glaring inconsistencies over the years, inconsistencies, which could have 'ruined' many a soccer nation, Nigeria, surprisingly, bounces back, when the stakes are highest and nobody gives them a chance of success! For example at the 2018 world cup qualifiers, nobody gave them a chance, considering Nigeria's previous failures and being drawn in a "group of death." But surprisingly, they made it, with one round of matches to go! That is what yours sincerely calls the triumph of the "Nigerian spirit!" Which is one of the reasons yours sincerely believes in the Super Eagles of Nigeria, soccerwise!

Thus, going forward, now the Super Eagles are on top again, the NFF, should be wiser not to allow another 'degradation,' certainly not before Russia 2018! Some people may wonder how the NFF, can work against the fortunes of a successfull team, with about seven months to the world cup. The truth of the matter, is that, the NFF, has in the past made this silly mistake: They sacked Coach Phillippe Troussier, after he qualified Nigeria, for the world cup tournament in France, with a round of matches to go! They gave as reason that he wasn't a world class coach; a decision, for which Nigeria paid dearly at France '98; and which was apparently regretted by the NFF. They apparently, tried to appease Coach Troussier in 2005, with re-appointment as Super Eagles' coach, but he declined!

Thus, now that everything is going well for the Super Eagles: they have a sound coach, who has spent about fifteen months with the team; there is an NFF board that is apparently pro-active, with regards soccer administration; and of course a co-operative Federal government, the omens appear bright for a successfull participation at Russia '2018. Nigeria should seize the opportunity!

TO BE CONTINUED!

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