Thursday, June 13, 2002

Adebimpe Onifade, Ph.D.
[email protected]

Some football lessons for Nigeria
from 2002 World Cup (Part I)

will like to start by submitting that I am not a football expert, and my humble contribution in this article will concentrate on my personal opinion on Nigerian football, the importance of football in sport diplomacy and international relations, and the need for Nigeria to develop this vital aspect of contemporary world. In spite of the inability of our team to progress into the next stage, they still deserve our commendation for being one of the 32 teams from all over the world that participated in the qualifying matches. It is also important to credit the modern information technology that avails the opportunity to monitor the world cup on multimedia sources. These wonders will stupefy even those that lived some 50 years ago.

I draw inspiration to write this article after watching the Croatian team beating Italy 2 to one, and the next match played by Brazil in which they triumphed over the new comer, China with 4 goals to nothing. In addition, we had a short brainstorming session with some fellow Nigerians after watching our game with Sweden over a sumptuous breakfast prepared by the wife of a Nigerian Diplomat. (Please permit me to acknowledge the family of this wonderful Nigerian Diplomat). Yes, from the Croatia side, we could see purposefulness, determination to excel and the resourcefulness to succeed. We could see lack of inferiority against Italian team. Underlying these characteristics, one could infer that Croatia being a new nation and wanted to create a niche where they will have global reckoning. Football has become a big international business and countries that tried to play down its importance such as US and Japan and many Asian countries are getting on the bandwagon. On the side of Brazil, we could see a national pride in being a football playing nation. Their government had earlier permitted the workers to report late to work because of the world cup.

A noteworthy observation is the full time purposefulness in the Brazilian team save some few moments when the team resulted to "walking soccer" to while away the time. The same applied to the Croatians. We could see massive attack and mass defense. Above all, there was rejuvenation of the playing team, which is against the prevailing Nigeria's soccer philosophy of not changing the wining team. There were three changes made in the Brazilian team and two involved the goal scorers. This is something of impossible tasks in Nigeria football coaching. Yes, the greatest problem I observed in 1998 world cup under Bora Mulitnovich (apology for the wrong spelling) was that while we were loosing he did not change any of the players, whereas the wining team was changing players. In the match of Brazil versus China, the three changes were probably done to keep Ronaldo and Rolandinho for the future matches. Agreed, the additional import of such changes is that it rejuvenates the team, energizes the team, and in many cases may alter the game plan. Many are always baffled when our team handlers decide not to change the players, and the psychology and wisdom of such decision becomes difficult to comprehend when the winning team is changing while the defeated team appears unconcerned. I am emphasizing this occurrence in Nigeria team because I saw it in our teams under both foreign and Nigerian coaches, and it is becoming more or less part of our coaching doctrine not to change a wining team. Insofar as all those on the reserve bench were selected based on the comparatively better skills, then there should be a chance to utilize them maximally. We have seen in many matches that new substitutes have created or changed the course of game to victory, and some of other reasons have been mentioned earlier within this paragraph.

Now talking specifically about Nigeria and drawing issues from the present campaign in the world cup, I must owned up on one of my personal comments that there was no need to change from Shuaib Amodu to Chief Onigbinde. My second comment was that Chief is best know as a "Defense Expert", and the lack of bite of our attack in the world cup especially against Argentina tended to justify the claim. However, the greatest credit to Chief is that he broke the jinx of "sacred cows" in the national team and his capacity to think far ahead for the need for next generation of Nigeria national team. Also to his credit is the capacity to blend the old with the new and the ability to critically isolate both Okocha and Kanu and Shorounmu as major backbone of the Nigerian team that featured in the 2002 world cup. His ability to settle down very quickly on the stars to represent us and the short but good warm up matches that we had, actually boosted the morale of our boys. On the low side, the incomplete aspect of the team was the lack of a left out and this had been a major problem with the exit of Emmanuel Amunike and the less than optimal performance of Victor Ikpeba. The Chief also appear to exhibit the doctrine of "do not change the wining team".

If I can continue on the coach before moving to other specific areas in Nigerian football, I am strongly of the opinion that we do not need a foreign coach more so since Chief and others have coached foreign Clubs. My submission is that a consortium of Nigerian coach can be assigned different tasks to develop all the departments of the game. If Chief is Defense Expert, someone like Amodu and Fanny Amu could be Striking Expert, while Stephen Keshi and others may concentrate on the middle field. Coach Amodu should be a member of the coaching team because he is certainly a strategic coach that had performed wonders with BCC, and with our national team, and he could still perform the same if given the chance. Indeed, he could not be seriously blamed for Nigeria's loss to the Senegal team at the quarter final of 2002 African Cup of Nations, when viewed against the backdrop of the brilliant performance of the Senegalese against their colonial master, France, and their ascension to the position of one the best 16 national teams in the world. In retrospection and with the benefit of the available information, it would certainly serve Nigeria well to bring Amodu back to work with Chief Onigbinde and others. If the few ones form a kind of collegiate coaching crew and with a master plan, surely Nigeria could do a lot towards 2006. We must believe in ourselves before we shall be able to achieve. There are many arguments that the foreign coaches are better. This is debatable since there appears to be no country that won the senior world Cup with a foreign coach in recent times. No doubt we may be carried away with England's current experiment of using a Dutch coach, but our coaches are not in anyway inferior, if they could be given similar opportunities that are accorded the foreign coaches that we hired. A closely related problem is that our indigenous coaches lack the financial and moral authority to control and instill discipline into the team since the boys are wealthier. Chief has demonstrated within a short time that he could be totally in charge, and this should be emulated.

Some major features of the Nigerian football team, as I see it, are as follow. There is abundant demonstration of complacency and over confidence on the part of the players, team handlers and the press in Nigeria. Many a bookmaker has given Nigeria team the day above the Sweden. Yes, being confident is an important ingredient to success, and like in 1986 world cup, while the German Coach would boast that he is going to beat the opponent, the calm headed Argentina Coach, Dr. Carlos would rate the game a possible win-win as a sign of respect to the opponent. Yes, while different coach employs different styles, the totality of Nigeria crew are sometimes carried away with the "outside" talk and this had contributed to our demise not only in our most recent match with Sweden, but when we look back at our dismal performance in Chile 1989, where the mass media overrated Etim Essin and the Nigerian team, and yet we failed to live up to expectation. Some sport or rather football psychology need to be embraced by both the players and handlers of the Nigeria team. We should be mindful of the mass media and the pressmen. Focusing on the press could be strategically distracting, and the uniformed may not fully understand the antics. For instance, could we ask of what particular importance was the categorization of Group F as zone of death, and the FIFA rating of Senegal before the world cup? Beyond their usefulness in colloquial discussions and allotment of teams into groups, they seem not to have any useful impact on the real eventual outcome. However, in a way, the underrating of Senegal might have sensitized them to determine to excel, and the over-rating of France is now inimical to their chances. While it is important to keep tab of the occurrences in the press, it is more important to be focused on the real objective of the team. Mass media sometimes inadvertently create fear and apprehension, and it takes the strong mind to maintain cool-headedness and remain focused under such massive barrage of information.

I will like to dwell further on this issue of football doctrine of Nigeria because football has assumed a benign "war" status and counts heavily on the country's pride. I have seen that in spite of the coaches and several changes in composition of the team an enduring aspect of Nigerian football is our preposterous tendency to force our opponents to play to our style. Yes, this had worked successfully for us in the past, but those countries that really knew us have contrived strategy to make such efforts impossible. Let us cite very quick examples, Coach Arrigo Sacchi of Italy commented that he knew that Nigeria 1994 world cup team was built on Daniel Amokachi, and he instructed one of his players to go in and get him out of the field, so was the task accomplished. In the current world cup, it seems the Argentina handlers knew the pivotal role of Kanu in the attack of Nigeria in spite of being moved inward and the arrowhead being "Aghawonder"; he was removed very early in the game and the Nigerian attack lacked the necessary bite to make the difference. A Peruvian friend commented that the Argentina team did the same to their national team during the qualification for the world cup. It is therefore important that our handlers should prepare for such strategies from their opponents and provide answers to it in advance. Besides the strategic incapacitation of Kanu, the Argentines also prevented Nigeria from determining the pace of the game.

Football demands a lot of intelligence and it is known that a lot of the players have very high intelligence quotient and they stand very close to genius in their ranking. Similarly, the coaching crew could not afford to be less than this. We frequently asked ourselves whether Nigeria coaches could read the game like Westerhoff? I sincerely believe that Amodu had demonstrated very good ability to read games. In our football doctrine, we really need to define whether entertainment, over-dribbling, and short passes remain permanent within our playing strategies. Sure, all these attributes originated from the Brazilians, but the Brazil that played against the less favored China appear to be moving away from or relying solely on these doctrines. We could see Brazil using long tailored passes, less long distance dribbling, fast and unexpected shorts, and less entertainment even when they were leading. Another lesson that could be drawn from the game between Brazil and China was that in spite of China being novel into world cup, the Brazilians apparently made sure they secured a good lead and they were still apparently hungrier for more goals. Sure, this could not be said of Nigeria since once we have a "small lead", then entertainment becomes our next focus at the expense of goal scoring. We must admit that our team is yet to improve on these common characteristics. Although, many would like to blame Okocha and Pius Ikedia for over-dribbling, but we also need to know that individuals developed their styles over the years, and in spite of this, there could be great improvement as have been demonstrated by Okocha in the current world cup. Nevertheless, the dominance of these sub-champion characteristics in Nigerian football justifies the need to come to terms with real objective, which is scoring, more scores, and a purposeful full time concentration. It goes without saying that no race is won until the final whistle is blown, and the costly mistakes of the past especially the Roberto Baggio leveler in the late minutes in 1994 world cup should serve as a reminder. Also, we could also remember the miracle of Damman in Saudi Arabia, when Udumeze Boys stupefied the Russians. Lack of full time concentration and seriousness remains a great problem with our national team (and clubs) and the obsession to entertain the public with over-demonstration of individual skills. Could we attribute these characteristics to an extrapolation of our extravaganza at various ceremonies? Relatedly, we need to work on the psychological basis of the propensity of players to greedily search for and personalize goal scoring in football. The Brazilians too in some instances demonstrated the foregoing tendency.

At issue is the common opinion that our team members are not sufficiently patriotic to Nigeria compared to their allegiance to their clubs. While this could be incontrovertible, we must also agree that it permeates all sectors of Nigerian life. The question was posed to me by an elderly Nigerian that why are Nigerians not patriotic? My simple answer was that we do not feel that the government cares about us, and as such we care for ourselves and this invariably diminishes our patriotism. Selfishness and lack of "we-feeling" are demonstrated across all the walks of life in Nigeria from the government to elected representatives and selected players in the national team. Until our country appreciate that her human resources is pivotal to the success on in its entire spectrum of activities, then, many a Nigerian will continue to think of self first. Although in the simplest explanation, we must agree that we were born selfish, and greediness is part of our creation and territorialism is even demonstrated at the levels of lower animals. Nevertheless, the integrated management of individual greed even with the playing team and its subordination to collective greed (aspirations) or goals of the society will engender collective success. So could our players as well as other Nigerians be more patriotic? The answer simply is fundamental re-orientation of our individual, governmental and societal culture and attitudes, and this could not be discussed in this forum.

Another central issue in Nigeria football is lack of sufficient preparation. This remains an Achilles'' heel in our football development and radical and innovative approach has to be contrived. Yes, here are some ways forward. First, we can look for ways the other major soccer player exporting nations such as South America are able to get their players together? This would afford us the possibility of adapting their approach, which has worked well for them. Secondly and near to us in Africa, the modality being used by Cameroon and Senegal to facilitate longer playing together of their national team deserve careful scrutiny and possible adaptation. In a radical but expensive approach, could we shift our practice sessions to foreign countries where our players are domiciled or spend their holidays or off-season time in similitude to the final preparation for the ongoing world cup? In another and more pragmatic and economic approach could we make their home coming during their off season more interesting? Could the period coincide with special football festival that can even draw international managers to Nigeria? A Summer Football Festival could serve as a period to showcase the export potential of Nigerian football and indeed regional participation can be encouraged. This supposed Summer Football Festival could be a grandiose project and may even attract tourists and football enthusiasts to Nigeria, but this could only be achieved after careful planning, guaranteed security, and effective participation. To actualize this suggestion, a brainstorming session among the international players, managers, financiers and business community could be made and it is likely that useful and implementable ideas can come out of such efforts.

It is considered relevant to discuss some contemporary issues that were generated from the strategy of Chief Onigbinide. Many complained that he used inexperienced players. I beg to completely disagree with this notion. Before developing my argument, please can we ask which world cup experience did Senegal has to beat France one of the most experienced team in the tournament? On the other hand, could we ask what experience was lacking in the French team that made them to beaten by Senegal, equalized with North Ireland and crashed out the tournament without scoring any goal? Which senior world cup experience did Aghawonder had to score a world-class goal? Please let us search for the deep-seated reasons, which deprived us from moving forward and stop talking about inexperienced players. My submission is that the individual experience that our players had in their respective clubs is sufficient since most of them are playing internationally alongside those in other teams. I will further submit that experience itself is never enough to win any goal in life unless when fully deployed. Permit me to reiterate that experience is not the only quality to succeed in any endeavor. In Senegal and Croatia, we could see purposefulness, determination, tenacity, and great sense of mission fully deployed with skills, which eventually generated success for their teams. If all the experienced players are used, and yet Nigerian football culture persists as we saw in the ongoing contest and frequently in other competition, to surmount great opponents will demand more than experience.

Many commentators including some on BBC and one attributed to Okocha said the experiment with inexperienced youths backfired and that they knew that it may be double-edged right from its adoption. In the backdrop of the foregoing paragraph, I am still convinced that though the line up could be better, but selecting younger players is not a bad thing. Yes, the players may be younger in age, but they are all competing in major leagues around the world. We may have to ask what does age and length of time in service have to do with modern day accomplishments? Perhaps we may ask ourselves at what age did Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo, etc., started playing for their senior national teams? I am strongly convinced that even if the seniors were around they probably would not have done anything different. On a positive side albeit from a lateral opinionated view, Chief Onigbinide had given a select cream of players that could form the core of our future national team. In my discussion with a Tanzanian friend, he remarked that the French national team was composed of almost 70 percent of aged players, which contrasts sharply with Nigeria team. If we could now draw on the dismal or lackluster performance of the pre-competition first rated French team, then age may not necessarily be the bane of the problem that worked against Nigeria. For the French team, it might be complacency following their No. 1 position, while the same problem partly explained the Nigerian performance, though there are other factors that characterized our low achievement. Whereas there are many reasons for failure, the characteristics of achievers are not always different and these include determination, tenacity of purpose, self-encouragement, acute concentration, inspirational dissatisfaction, innovativeness, adaptability, time-consciousness, goal setting, etc.

Next, I will like to discuss some under-appreciated and insignificant characteristics that may baulk at real progress in our football competition. This borders on Nigerian football culture and competitive psychology. In spite of the changes in age brackets, the culture of sluggish, sloppy and slumbering attack, unfounded overconfidence, sporadic and inaccurate shots, lack of concentration in the defense, haphazard preparation are all still dominant. Although it may seem insignificant, but I am sure that over celebration of goals may be an anticlimax. Also, the entertaining proclivity of our players at the expense of strong-willed intention to succeed, over-dressing or rather caricaturizing dressing manners like weaved or dyed hair does not seem very ethical to many people. Many frequently claimed they are afraid when Aghahowa somersaults because he is prone to injury in spite of the athletic and entertaining dimensions that such display adds to the game. A deep-seated psychoanalysis of over-celebration will reveal a complacency-prone team. Second, it may degenerate into envy among co-players since everybody wants score and shine. For example, it was assumed that Rashidi Yekini was denied further passes during the 1994 world cup because of the way the team perceived him to have personified Nigerian first goal at any world cup. Could this not be true? So the handlers of Nigeria national team may have to work on some of these not very important, but somewhat distracting issues.

Furthermore on the issue of dressing code, the late Flo Jo of the US brought glamour and fashion into appearance at major events, and the Roger Miller dance in 1990 world cup is still being remembered by many spectators. Since then many sport men and women have been coming with peculiar dressings and the African players have celebrated goals in various ways. In a way, this may represent freedom, but it may also indicate over-confidence or obsession with distractions, which may suffocate concentration and achievement of real goals and objectives. It may also create envy among the players, and in another social perspective it may create "Ijo Roja Mila" that was praise sung and waxed into a record by Ayinde Barrister- a popular Nigerian Fuji musician. Many European and South America players do not exhibit "artrageous" (apology to a program title in BBC) dressing code, although they are increasingly using necklaces, ear stubs, and moderately jubilate when they score goals. I believe there are some lessons to learn in the way inconclusive victory is celebrated and the seeming self-satisfaction we often display. In the current campaign, everyone including the Chief was contended with our achievements and all tended to offer the same reason that the side was youthful and inexperienced. Insofar as we are self-satisfied and readily come up with reasons or rather excuses, then we may as well forget making significant impacts beyond being among the best. No doubt, there could be reasons for the dismal performance; nevertheless, the greatest of all cog in the wheel of progress is to be complacent because it does not allow for improvement. Please let us guide against this phenomenon.

Concluding the first part of this article, the fundamental problems with Nigerian football encompass cultural and psychological aspects as well as preparatory and competitive attitudes. The government, coaching crew, players, and the society are all responsible for the less patriotic, sub-champion, individual-styled, inertial aptitude, and complacency-prone behavior of the Nigerian team. Overall, a team or an individual performance and achievement are profoundly defined by the culture of the society where they originated. While it is fundamentally right to think as a winner, conversely it is fundamentally wrong to underrate the opponents in a conquest as we did against the Swedish team and, which the battle between David and Goliath had legendary shown. (The Swedish team also beat the favorite Argentine despite the latter having superior ball possession statistics). It is also critically important that culture to succeed in our football campaign at regional and global levels be fully appraised, rejuvenated, unassuming, patriotic and goal-oriented. The fact that our junior and more so Olympic teams have clinched global trophies put us in a good stead to win the senior world cup. The second part of this article will be available shortly. May God bless Nigeria, guide our leader right and give us articulate and patriotic followership.

Dr. Onifade biography had been published in Who's Who in the World since 17th Edition, 2000 (Marquis Publishers, USA) and recognized as International Man of the Year by International Biographical Center, 2001 (UK). He presently works for the United Nations.