How Nigeria can get back the football squad she had in 1994 through 1996 is part of my worries about the Super Eagles. From the onset, I must confess that I have nearly lost interest in the Nigerian football team. I have not been able to figure out what could be responsible for the decline of the Super Eagles. If not for patriotism and the inborn love for the “Pele’s toy”, I would have stopped watching football matches. To get relief, I sometimes prefer to watch matches of foreign clubs than our local tournaments. Yet, though not a fan of any, I belong to every serious club but never a diehard for any. That was me when Nigerian clubs and tournaments were interesting. Can our past football history return?
Sometimes, I feel that the politics surrounding the choice of players is responsible; politics in different ways. Either because in the course of choosing the players, the harmful idea of federal character is placed on board or the consideration of godfathersim/who-knows-who comes to play. Or corruption is responsible in the sense, as alleged, that players have to pay immediately to be selected or sign pacts to forfeit parts of their match allowances. It is bad and whatever is responsible for this, I think the federal government has the responsibility to sanitize the system in the glass house.
I have never wept for Nigerian football like that of France ‘98 when Nigeria lost woefully on June 8 to Denmark by 4-1 in the round 16. This followed the loss to Paraguay 3-1 on June 24 at the stage matches. Nigeria had earlier defeated Spain 3-2 on June 13, defeated Bulgaria 1-0 on June 19. Hopes were very high for Nigeria to defeat Denmark. I prayed for the Eagles after the first and second goals hit Peter Rufai’s net in the third and 13th minutes. I still prayed that Nigeria could make it in the second half as usual until hopes were dashed by the third and fourth goals in the 60th and 76th minutes by Ebbe Sand and Thomas Helveg respectively. I took to memory every bit of the happenings in ‘98 Super Eagles’ outing. And since that year, Nigeria has been unable to build a strong team. Any hope for Nigeria in Russia 2018 with Croatia on June 16, Iceland on June 22 and Argentina on June 26 at the group D stage?
It cannot be that Nigeria has no qualified players. Nigerian players are doing very well in many renowned teams across the world. If this is unarguable, why is it difficult to assemble these Nigerian stars to form a formidable Nigerian football team as other countries with history in the game have maintained? What will it take Nigeria to study the way the South Americas have sustained their supremacy over the round leather game? I know that reading or even learning culture in Nigeria is low, but football is a game that is more practical than theoretical. There are all assurances that Nigeria can build a strong football team that can last long, if all the factors enumerated above are arrested or eliminated.
I dearly yearn for the Nigerian Super Eagles of 1994. I feel for those days of Rashid Yekini, Steven Keshi, Jay Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Amunike, Daniel Amokashi, Sampson Siasia, Victor Ikpeba, George Finidi, Tijani Babangida, Augustine Eguavon, name them. Those were the days Nigerian matches thrilled the world and many non-football lovers would spare the time to watch Nigerian matches. Those were the days I would not eat, even when hungry, until I watched the last action in any Nigerian match. Those were the days I used to conduct a personal prayer for the Eagles before any of their matches.
Those were the days that if the Eagles lost a match, one would be convinced that they actually did play the game. And those were the days Nigerian footballers were selected/appointed to represent Nigeria on merit and they were cared for. There was less or no wicked conspiracy against them. There was no compromise over their entitlements. Unity and patriotism were their watchwords.
And in 1996, the team, strengthened with some powerful football “magicians” like Kanu Nwankwo, conquered the world at Atlanta. Many of these Nigerian super stars are still alive. Some of them, though retired and not tired, have been contributing positively to the development of the younger footballers. The question is: With such vast experienced game masters, why are the new breeds not performing or replacing them? A reported problem is that some of these retired big players have influenced the team formation negatively because they insist that their blood brothers or relatives make the Super Eagles squad, thus causing confusion during the selection processes. And I ask: Must everybody in a family be footballers? This means that some of the players are imposed on the coach or technical adviser.
As a lover of the game and a player too, who knows what would have been of me when as a student in Egypt, I had some opportunities to play in the top Egyptian teams in the early 1990s when Nigerian football stars like Emmanuel Amunike and John Utaka, amongst others, kept the Nigerian flag high in the Egyptian soccer leagues. As a member of the Foreign Students’ team which had friendly matches with the Egyptian football clubs, a few of us were often invited for trainings by the clubs. But it was a herculean task or an impossibility to combine studies with professional football in the land of the Pharaohs. I can still remember a colleague, Abubakar Haidara from Mali and Ibrahim Mujambera from Malawi who accepted to play for clubs. Haidara played for the junior team of Al-Ahly club and later played for his country. The Mandela Cup that used to be hosted by the Egyptian authorities for African students in Egypt seemed to be a property for Nigerians because the Super Eagles in Egypt then were often the champions.
Though captured in my book “My prayers, hopes for Nigeria”, I discovered something strange while in Egypt, about how Africans take Nigeria and Nigerians. Whenever there is a football match between Nigeria and any other African country, all the students from other African countries would boldly not support Nigeria. Even as they could not effect any change in the course of the match, they colluded against Nigeria. Instances were whenever there were competitions between Nigeria and any other country within the students’ sport activities.
The Mandela Cup was a handy example. No one doubted what Nigeria stood for in football then. So, African students would gang up against Nigerians, despite the fact that Nigerian team must have its way. Really, I was disturbed by this attitude. It caused skirmishes between my friends and me. But gradually I became used to it and Nigeria still remained a giant in whatever contest we undertook on behalf of the country over there.