Anybody who still thinks Nigeria senior team football is not in a crisis lives in Cuckoo Land. The recent elimination of the Super Eagles from the race to next year’s Africa Cup of Nations finals, coming just after our team were bundled out in the first round of the CHAN, drives this point home. Not only are we going to miss out on the continental showpiece for a second straight time, we will now not have been in three of the last four finals. Contrast that with the record before 2012 when the Super Eagles made it to 11 straight finals. In a country where everyone thinks more about themselves that the greater good, there has unsurprisingly been a defence for this almost tragic fall in the fortunes of our most celebrated football brand, but we delude ourselves because the rot in the system is finally taking its toll.
This, sadly, has monumental economic implications that affect all our national teams as well as our domestic league and club brands. Everyone loves a winner, but losers have no friends. And we have become serial losers unless you deceive yourself that anyone really cares about our scandal-tainted domination at the U-17 level. Not going to Gabon means sponsorship revenues will drop drastically for our national teams – I imagine Nike are not smiling about this – the media will be affected as readership, listenership, and viewership drop, football agents would see the values of their players slide, TV ratings will nose-dive and all around sport related businesses will suffer. The danger though is that it will get much worse unless we change our modus operandi.
Not qualifying for the AFCON means the Super Eagles will not be involved in any major competition in the next two years… and that could stretch to the next three years if we fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It also means that we could soon be ranked close to the 100th position in the world. No serious advertiser wants to back such poor brands, and even if they do it would be for the kind of peanuts Nike currently pays for kitting our national teams. Furthermore this latest setback means the Nigeria Football Federation cannot realistically expect to negotiate an upward review of the sponsorship terms. More woes are to be expected as revenues from friendly internationals should dip because we are no longer a hot commodity, and because the Super Eagles is the leading brand we have, the dark clouds should also hang over the other national teams male or female.
Media patronage will drop drastically as football fans look elsewhere. There will still be some interest in the Nations Cup, but nothing close to the levels of Nigeria being involved. This mean media player in print, radio, TV, and the web will lose considerably from patronage as well as advertising and sponsorship incomes. Without Nigeria, viewing centres, airlines, merchandisers, food vendors, beverage manufacturers, marketing communications agencies and related businesses etc, will all feel the pain. Also expected to suffer will be the marketability of our rising stars on the world stage. Even the current appeal for sponsorship for the NPFL will be negatively impacted. We are talking multi-billions in total losses.
So, there is a need to sort out the issues that dog us quickly otherwise it can only get worse. I follow African football daily and can point to teams that will punish us tomorrow if we continue to act in the same we have always done and yet expect different outcomes. Countries like Ghana, Egypt and Algeria top my list of the continent’s most fearsome sides going forward, while others like Senegal, Morocco, Congo DR, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Tunisia follow closely. These days it will take a bold man to declare publicly that we are still giants of the African game when we struggle against the likes of Chad, Swaziland and Tanzania, so we need to take a bloodless view of things.
Where is the blueprint?
First things first, it does not appear that is a blueprint detailing a meticulous and structured way that our talents progress from youth to professional levels. If one exists, it is not easily discernible from the prevailing patterns and trends. How does our youth system translate to a sustainably successful senior national team over time for instance? And what are the dynamics in between? How does the NFF work with the NPFL – because it is vital they do – to ensure the continuous development of our best talents?
The young boy that destroyed Nigeria in Alexandria is a 19-year-old Al Ahly star called Ramadan Sobhi and I think it is fair to say the North Africans are not as brutal at age slashing as we do in sub-Saharan Africa. Sobhi is a young winger that plays for Al Ahly and indeed the Egyptian team was dominated by players from the Egyptian Premier League. While this is not a vote for the Super Eagles being turned over to the NPFL players, it indicates, as some of us have vehemently argued, that if our domestic football is not right our national teams will struggle, even in Africa.
Youth teams and the NPFL
In the Nigerian system there are too many holes into which talents can disappear in the course of their development. Today our U-17 and U-20 national teams are made up by players from football academies, who then ship them off overseas – denying our clubs and leagues of our best young talents, after using the national team as a springboard. This is not a sustainable way to develop our talents as the vast majority of them end up failing and dropping completely out of the radar. While I can understand a football agent lusting for profit by selling his players to even to some funny leagues overseas, I cannot understand the NFF willingly providing them with the national teams to achieve their selfish business objectives. It is important then that our NPFL teams are forced to have youth teams from which our national youth teams are built. By this I mean only players from our clubs should play in our U-17 and U-20 teams. I advocate this as the ideal, but not believing anyone would listen because of the dark ways the system works. However it must be understood that as long as our selfish desires stand in the way of national interest, we will continue to fail.
When Clemens Westerhof built the all-conquering team of the 1990s, most of the players were initially sourced from our then vibrant league. I stand to be corrected, but there is no top footballing nation in the world that relies solely on league in other countries to build their players. I concede though that the NPFL as currently constituted does not have our best players and steps must be taken to make our clubs competitive as a result, but a successful league would synchronize the efforts of the NFF and the NPFL in such a way that it becomes a win-win for everyone.
Who coaches the Eagles next?
It is important to solve the coaching problem and I think the NFF must man up and employ a world class coach for the Super Eagles. That we must encourage and support our local coaches does not mean the fortunes of 170m people are reduced to an “omo ni le” issue. The fact is that in the last 16 years, Nigerian coaches have been in charge of the Eagles for 14-and-a-half years. Their record in the period has been poor, let’s face it, and it is getting worse. I am a proud promoter of the Nigerian cause but I am not an omo ni le. As long as it brings success and happiness to Nigeria, and not the opposite, then I am all for it.
Dutchman Guus Hiddink becomes free in the summer. He is no longer a coach that can cope with the rigours of coaching in top club football, but he may find a less stressful project like Nigeria an intriguing challenge. We do not lack quality, we just need the right coaching, especially now that we have a host of amazing talents coming through. It could make the difference between a golden generation and the generation of wasted talents. There are many top coaches in Africa today, no big deal. Unless you think the joke is on the likes of Ghana, Morocco, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire etc, who are guided by foreign coaches and will be at the AFCON next year while we watch on TV, then let us do the needful. A coach in the league of Hiddink would bring vast World Cup experience, global interest and enlightened order to our team. It would also be infinitely easier to get a big Nigerian business to pick up the tab.
Time alone does not a good team build, or a good coach make. The smartest people in the world live in some countries that have foreign coaches. I scratch my head when people ask “You mean in 170m people you cannot find one man the lead the Eagles?” Perhaps they should ask the Americans who have 318m people or China who have 1.3b people. Both have foreign coaches, yet both are the two most powerful countries on the planet. Indeed when you think about it, the strong are the first to ask for help, while the weak are the last as they are afraid that asking for help reveals their weakness.