Waidi Akanni was part of the 1985 Flying Eagles team that won fame at the U-20 football tournament held in Moscow after a stunning performance that earned it a third place victory. He spoke to KUNLE ADEWALE on Nigeria’s chances at the 2013 AFCON in South Africa
As the Super Eagles finalise their preparations towards the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations which kicks off on January 19 in South Africa, there are still differing opinions on what to expect from Nigeria in its search for a third Nations Cup glory after winning it on home soil in 1980 and in Tunisia in 1994.
But for former NEPA of Lagos player, Waidi Akanni, the best Nigerian should expect from Eagles is a semi-final berth. “With few days to the tournament I’m not sure Nigeria is ready for the tournament. Looking at the team as a whole from the couple of games we have played in recent time, we don’t seem to have a definite formation.
“We seem to be gambling without any identity yet. Until I see the final list (the interview was conducted a day before Keshi released his final team list), may be then I can sway a little bit. However, I still don’t think we are really ready for the Cup of Nations,” he said.
On whether the Nigeria Football Federation was right on the choice of Stephen Keshi as Super Eagles coach, he said: “If you look at the way Keshi emerged as Super Eagles coach I think the erstwhile coach, Samson Siasia, defaulted the contract he had with the NFF by failing to qualify the team for the 2012 Nations Cup jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. That was what triggered the employment of Keshi. So, I believe the federation did the right thing by employing him.”
Akanni hailed Keshi’s resolve to retain home-based players into the team, but faulted the former Hawks of Togo coach on his failure to stick to the boys when it comes to the crunch.
“Bringing in a reasonable number of home-grown players has really given players in the Nigeria Premier League a sense of belonging and bolstered their confidence. He has done very well in that aspect. But my concern is that when we have big games he seems to back-pedal a bit. He would rather prefer foreign professions to the boys he has been building by himself.
“You should be able to stick to those you have been building and should bring the desired result. By and large, I think he started very well and he should be confident with the boys, play them often and they will give him the result he craves,” Akanni said.
While the issue of Osaze Odemwingie’s Twitter rant against Keshi and the eggheads of the NFF after his omission from the national team has generated a lot of condemnation from the public and some of Osaze’s teammates alike, Akanni is convinced that given the players in camp for the Nations Cup, the West Bromwich Albion player still has a place in the team and therefore deserves an invitation. He however, condemned the former Lille of France’s comment on Twitter.
“One has to look at the matter from different perspectives; while Keshi has the right to select whoever he wants in his team, I also believe that our best legs should be called upon to execute a big tournament like the Nations Cup. If you look at the calibre of players that are playing now for Nigeria, there is no exaggeration in saying Osaze definitely has a role to play in the team. He is a very committed player and from his body language he is very much ready as ever to play for Nigeria. Even though he may have made some mistakes in the past, but this time around he is very ready to give his best for the country in this coming Nations Cup.”
He said it was an error for Keshi to have omitted Odemwingie’s name for the Nations Cup.
“It was a big error on the part of Keshi. Notwithstanding the issues Osaze might have had with him in the past, he should have found a way to forgive and accommodate him. I’m just hoping that now that Osaze had openly apologised, Keshi would consider him for future competitions.”
Like most Nigerian footballers of his generation, Akanni’s first contact with football was on the street. He pursued that passion and soon went on to the patched field of his secondary school. But that love for football did not dim his interest in academics. As a result, his parents did not frown on the zeal he had for football.
It was from his secondary school days that his skill caught the attention of various youth clubs like Greater Tomorrow, Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON), which was one of the most organized youth teams in Nigeria and a platform that gave him an opportunity to play in the Dallas Cup in the United States and some other youth competitions across the world after which he later got an invitation to play for the Flying Eagles.
“I started playing football on the streets of Lagos especially in Surulere, where I was born. In those days all I did was play football and run to the National Stadium - which was newly built then - to play football. People started noticing my potential since my primary school days and by the time I gained entry into Ahmadiyya College, Agege, it was then my full potential as a footballer really blossomed. From there, I went on to play for various youth teams within Lagos.
“When I left secondary school I joined a Lagos State Football Association (LAFA) Division 4 side, Agip, and I was also playing for Yaba College of Technology after which I was invited to the Lagos United team. There was always one youth team or the other to play for then in Nigeria. I remember travelling with YSFON and Greater Tomorrow to Sweden, America and Denmark at a very young age.
“My parents never frowned on my playing football because I was always a good student. Even when I come back home with injuries, the next day I’ll still pack my books in preparation for school. All they did was to advice me which to me was an encouragement from them,” he said.
Akanni however did not have a break with a big club side in Nigeria until 1983 when he joined NEPA of Lagos and was invited to the Flying Eagles the same year. But he could not make the team then. However, one year later, he got another invitation, forming the core of the team that won the Tesema Cup, as the Africa Youth Championship was called then, before winning bronze at the U-20 championship in Moscow in 1985 alongside players like Samson Siasia, Michael Odu, Andrew Uwe, Augustine Igbinabaro, Osaro Obabaifo and others.
On the dipped fortune of Nigerian football, he said: “Administratively, we’ve not done well as far as managing the country’s football is concerned and a number of smaller countries have caught up with us. We need to turn our attention back to the grassroots to bring back our football to where it really belongs. A lot of ex-footballers need to be engaged to comb the grassroots and discover hidden talents. They should be backed financially and morally for a good search and groom to take place. This is something we have not been doing in the last 10 to 15 years, and that is why our football has really nosedived.
“Germany, England and Mexico once had a downward spiral, but they game back stronger by investing in grassroots football. All that is needed to do is to employ about 100 intelligent ex-footballers and give them a job to do and in a few years we will get the needed result because we are naturally talented. Is it not a shame that no Nigerian player was nominated for the Glo-CAF award recently and even the FIFA award? We need to step up administratively and deploy coaches to the grassroots. Administratively and financially, we have to hold the federation responsible. What are they doing with the funds and grants they are getting? It has to be invested in the grassroots. Take a look at all the countries that had once fallen by the wayside but bounced back, they all invested in grassroots.”
The former Lagos State Football Association boss also attributed the decline of our football to the deviation from wing play to midfield formation. In those days our football had an identity. Nigeria was popular for its wing play, but we abandoned it for midfield play and our football went down. We must therefore train our coaches very well to be confident enough to pick young players for the national team. Back in those days, the likes of Stephen Keshi, Henry Nwosu started donning the colours of the national team at between 18 and 19 years. I was 20 years old when I first starred for the senior national team. But nowadays can you find a 20-year-old player in the Super Eagles? No, you cannot.
“When you introduce young players into the team, the older ones see it as a challenge and it brings competitiveness and improvement into the team. In those days players from colleges and universities played for the national team, without necessarily playing in the top division league because there was proper planning and identity for our football. Now we are rated 11th in Africa, which is a shame and we have to do something fast,” he said.
Although hopeful the Nigerian team would excel at the Nations Cup, Akanni is not optimistic.
“In football there is always the element of luck. While a lot of people have been talking about Zambia to prove a tough opposition to Nigeria, I think the major threat will come from Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and host nation, South Africa. However I think we should take each game as they come. By our preparation, if we get past the semi-final we should count ourselves lucky.”
He is also reluctant to shower praises on Keshi and his men for putting up a good fight against a Catalonian side that paraded seven Barcelona stars.
“Looking at the game from the technical point of view, there is still a lot of work to be done on the defence, coordinating the midfielders and we don’t play from the wings. So how do we expect to score? We should not look at that game and think we are up there; I will only score Nigeria a C. For us to do well at the Nations Cup we have to be coordinated and have an identity,” he said.
He is however tipping either Cote d’Ivoire or South Africa for the trophy.
“I think Cote d’Ivoire look good for the trophy. Otherwise, the generation of Didier Drogba would have played the last 10 years without winning trophy for their country. This will really motivate them. And South Africa as host will be a threat just like they were in 1996 when they hosted and won. I think the trophy will be between Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa,” he said.
Akanni’s greatest moment playing for Nigeria was in 1985 in Moscow during the last group match against Australia where the Flying Eagles needed a win to qualify from the group.
“We were down by two goals and we came back to win the game by 3-2. I think that was my most memorable moment for Nigeria. Beating Russia to the third place at the championship was also something to treasure,” he said.
Despite winning the gold medal in the football event of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Akanni maintains that Nigeria’s best moment in football was playing in the second round of the 1994 World Cup in the United States and being voted the second most entertaining team after Brazil.