John Obi Mikel with the UEFA Champions League trophy
Against the backdrop of the clamour for the return of John Obi Mikel and others, Super Eagles manager, Stephen Keshi remains focused as he strives to get the right blend of players for the national team, writes Demola Ojo…
It’s still early days, eight weeks to be precise, before Nigeria’s final hurdle in qualifying for the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa.
The Super Eagles have been paired with the Lone Star of Liberia in a two-legged tie to be played on September 9 in Monrovia and October 12 back in Nigeria. But the build-up has begun; it is centred primarily on the Eagles manager, Stephen Keshi and Nigeria’s high profile player, Mikel Obi.
During the preceding week, the media has been awash with calls from concerned members of the Nigeria Football Federation – including former star, Austin Okocha, who is a member of the NFF’s technical committee - to “recall” Mikel to the National team before Keshi replied by clarifying his position on the matter.
About 10 days ago, a member of the NFF technical committee, Austel Emelelu said; “Despite the results we recorded against Malawi, Rwanda and Namibia last month, we will still need the experience of players like Mikel, Osaze, Emenike, Nosa Igiebor and Fengor Ogude in our next match.”
Emelelu’s position is shared by former international Jonathan Akpoborie who said; “It won’t be an easy game against Liberia, but Nigeria can win if the right team is chosen.
“The Eagles coach should involve more foreign-based players in the game because it is a winner-takes-all situation. And Liberia has beaten Nigeria before and there are no minnows again as far as football is concerned. Keshi knows what I am saying and he knows that we have to be at the next Nations Cup.”
These remarks were obviously reactions to the fact that Keshi had omitted household names deemed to be regulars from his previous squad.
Other players that missed out include Emmanuel Emenike, Obinna Nsofor, Taye Taiwo, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Obafemi Martins and Joel Obi.
Instead, Keshi worked with players predominantly drawn from the Nigeria Premier League with a sprinkling of foreign-based pros here and there. Maybe the tight nature of the games prosecuted has fluttered hearts because mid last week, the issue reached a crescendo as the mercurial Okocha weighed in.
Speaking at the unveiling of the Nigeria Pitch Awards in Lagos last Tuesday, Okocha insisted that Mikel and other established top Super Eagles players were needed to reinforce the team.
“The team has been doing well in the absence of some key players, but we are all looking at the ways by which Eagles can improve in every game they play, and bringing in someone like Mikel will definitely be a big advantage for Nigeria.
“The truth is that, no matter what anyone is thinking about him (Mikel), he is playing regularly in a very big team like Chelsea and therefore he should be an important player for us at the national team level.”
However, a caveat many newshounds failed to focus on was Okocha’s assertion that the infusion of more home-based players into the Eagles was a step in the right direction.
“I followed their recent games, especially the last two games and I think the inclusion of more home-based players was in order in the re-building process because no matter how one might look at it, we all played here at home before moving abroad as professionals.”
And therein lies the crux. As Keshi duly confirmed, Mikel and the other “superstars” are still in his plans. Hear Keshi:
“We may have played some games without Mikel, but he has always been part of the team and I must tell Nigerians that I have been in touch with the player. On the day of the Nations Cup draw in South Africa, we spoke for over 40 minutes on various aspects of football and I was impressed with his patriotism for Nigeria and the success of the national team.
“We must be careful not to bring division and hero worship into the national team. We have a lot of players who were not part of the last games like Obafemi Martins, Obinna Nsofor, Ogbuke Obasi, Emmanuel Emenike and more.
“These players are as important and very good to our ambition of building a strong national team for Nigeria and I have been in touch with all of them, so we must avoid division in the national and respect the decision of the coach,” Keshi explained.
On The Right Track
While balance is the keyword, it is extremely important to develop the core of the Super Eagles around hungry, talented players and make sure there is healthy competition for places. Reading Keshi’s mind, it is inevitable that Nigeria’s foreign-based professionals would form the bulk of the national team at the 2013 Nations Cup, if Nigeria qualifies.
However, it is important that a group of players don’t feel a sense of entitlement. There is a good precedent to follow.
As captain under former technical adviser, Clemens Westerhof, Keshi must have seen this same blueprint firsthand.
Westerhof went through a host of home-based players, right from the time he assumed the mantle in 1990. From Friday Elaho, Edema Fuludu, Isaac Semitoje to Friday Ekpo, many players who formed the core of the
National team in the early ‘90’s didn’t make it to the ’94 World Cup.
Westerhof also stuck to his guns in playing and developing Finidi George ahead of Tijani Babangida who initially had a higher profile.
The same experiment (albeit to a lesser degree) was evident in Alloy Agu being trusted ahead of the highly rated Wilfred Agbonavbare, who was a keeper with Rayo Vallencano in Spain, a rarity for African goalkeepers then.
Of course, you can’t always get it right with these “experiments” but a few gems in the rough are being unearthed already. Ifeanyi Uzoenyi, Gabriel Rueben and Obiora Nwankwo are some of those that can make the step-up. And if their contribution for now would be to put their more illustrious colleagues on their toes and transfer their club form to the national team, then that would be a welcome development.