Odegbami, Chukwu, Others Speak on the State of Football in Nigeria

By Kunle Adewale
Following the failure of the Super Eagles to qualify for yet another Africa Cup of Nations, THISDAY sought the views of  some past gladiators of the game on what has gone wrong and how to reverse the free-fall of football in Nigeria. Excerpts
The history of Nigerian football would only have been half told without mentioning – Segun Odegbami. He was part of the IICC Shooting Stars team that won the Cup Winners Cup in 1976, which was the first continental trophy to be won by any Nigerian club side. And since breaking into the Green Eagles (as the Nigerian national team was then known) in 1975 he
commandeered the Number Seven jersey for a number of years and went on to captain the team until his retirement from the national team in1981after Nigeria’s botched attempt to grab the ticket to the 1982 World in Spain. Odegbami was also part of the Eagles that won the first Africa Cup of Nations for Nigeria in 1980. Even after his retirement the marriage between ‘Big Sheg’ and football is still intact.
“Winning the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time for Nigeria was one great moment I cannot forget in my football career. It was a day over 60,000 fans at the National Stadium, Surulere and millions of fans watching on television lifted us up and made us believe we can win the trophy and we did not disappoint. We still refer to it and still celebrate it up till now. We had the opportunity to shake the hands of the President of the nation (Alhaji Shehu Shagari) and he did so much for us, very much that some of us will forever thank him and I believe so many Nigerians still live with that fond memory of March 22, 1980,” the Polytechnic of Ibadan engineering graduate recalled.
From then it took Nigeria another 14 years to taste another Nations Cup glory, when the Eagles won the biennial competition in Tunisia, beating the Zambians in the final. After the Tunisia feat, winning the bronze had been the country’s best. But now it has descended to a level where Nigeria soccer fans go to Churches and Mosques to pray for the national team for a Nations Cup ticket, until the Eagles surprised victory in 2013 in South Africa.
Odegbami however blame the abandonment of wing play, which he said was Nigeria’s natural style of play as one of the reasons for the dwindling fortunes of the country’s football. “The neglect of wing play has affected our football very much because we have not put the natural gift of Nigeria to great use in our football. Nigerians are very strong, fast and skillful and if you add all these combinations together you need the wings to be able to exploit them on the field of play and that is why our football best suits for wingers and we were so successful while we were adopting the wings style of play and we won several trophies.
“But the moment we started concentrating on other styles outside the wings, we started looking ordinary and we never succeeded. So we need to go back to our wing play and concentrate on players that have speed, strength and can go through one or two defenders and are in front of goal. That was what made me a bit special. People thought I was great but it was because I had only one or two defenders to beat and I am in front of goal the mouth,” Odegbami observed.
The former national team captain indeed is of the opinion that for Nigerian national teams to be back to the standard Nigerian football was known and to be able to match with great footballing nations, the country needs to produce more and better players, saying that Nigerian players these day are really ordinary, which shows that the foundation of our football is not really solid.
“We need to start producing very good players that can start to represent the very best of Nigerian football. Right now our footballers are really ordinary and we need to do something. And one of the biggest problems that is also confronting Nigerian football are the artificial pitches everywhere now. They are only good for viewership and television but they are not good enough for football and football development. With artificial pitches you cannot play attractive football and you pick injuries very easily. If we don’t go back to the days when we have good lush green pitches, which allows for good football and go back to secondary school football, which allows administrators of football to pick from the very best, I’m afraid Nigeria will continue to struggle against small football nations. Look at the best football nations in the world you don’t find artificial pitches all over like you see here in Nigeria,” the ex international further observed.
According to the former Shooting Stars winger, the foundation of Nigerian football was rock solid when he was an active participant in football in the country from the early 70’s up till the turn of the ’80s.
“After the Moscow Olympics in 1980, then arise some avoidable and unnecessary developments which started to rock that solid foundation and it all started with the unceremonious removal of Mr. Isaac Akioye as the director of sports at the National Sports Commission (NSC). He was the one with the training skills in sports that established the solid foundation and around him he trained and hired people who were to sustain the development, So, when he was removed in 1981 it created a crisis situation and those who took over from him, though tried to sustain what was on ground but the turnover of personnel in the administration of sports especially football in Nigeria became accelerated and it became more watery and by the time we got to the early 1990 it was so watered down, though the effect of that solid foundation was still strong to sustain sports development but by the 90’s it became less in terms of human capacity.
“Though, we were still winning laurels but the fact remains that the administrators that came in thereafter did not have the original vision of the initial founders. And by the time we got to the late 1990 the new administrators that succeeded came in with their own shallow vision and so the quality of the game started to drop, so much so that we no longer could recognize the original foundation. There is no longer any connection between the original foundation and where we are now. We are just drifting; there is no clear vision and direction again. All the things that were initially built are now lost,” Odegbami lamented.
Another of Odegbami’s teammate in the national team, Adokiye Amiesimaka would however not want to comment after THISDAY asked for his opinion  on the dwindling fortunes of Nigerian football. “I have nothing to say. I have nothing new to say that I have not said already and I don’t want to waste my time and waste anybody’s time. I used to run a column in Sunday Punch but I’ve stopped in the last three weeks because of that. There is nothing new to talk about its like repeating the same thing over and over again. They are not ready to heed so why bother?  It’s not as if they don’t know what to do but we are just not ready to do the right thing. I’ve been writing and saying these things for the past 10 years, and I don’t want to continue repeating myself again,” an obviously furious Amiesimaka said with finality.
In his own submission, another former captain and coach of the national team, Christian Chukwu, blamed successive football administration for lack of planning and development of the game.
“Each time the tenure of an administration ends there are always controversies as to who becomes the next president and members of the board, which in most cases end in long court cases and at the end of the day there is little or no time to take off. So we don’t come in with any tangible programme rather we just enter for competitions without proper planning. I have never seen any of the administration that shoots off with any developmental programme. We don’t have a sustainable programme, all we are after is just to participate in competitions.
Chukwu is also of the opinion that until we go back to the basics-school sports, the country will continue to be confronted with the same problem.
“It was from school sports and grassroots football that some of us emerged,” he noted.
The former Super Eagles coach also faulted the idea of heavy dependent of foreign-based players, saying attention should be focused on the development of the local league, whereby the nucleus of the national team should be home-based.
“You don’t build a national team in a foreign land. You don’t build a national team with entirely foreign-based players. It cannot work, even if they are all Peles. We have lot of talented players in Nigeria to form a formidable national team. We just needed to inject three to five foreign-based players into the team.
“That is how to build a national team. I don’t see why we cannot have a 19-year-old player in our national team? It took a lot of pressure to inject Kelechi Iheanacho into our national team. It is the young players that would provide longevity and that is how to build a team. It is not all about winning all the time,” Chukwu opined.
Another ex international, Friday Ekpo, also cited age cheats as the bane of Nigerian football. “Many of the players that have represented the country in age-grade competitions in the past failed to move up to the next cadre of national team because they falsified their age. The use of over-aged players for age-grade competitions is one of the major reasons why football has not fully developed in the country. It has done a lot of harm to our football. You will expect a good player that is truly 17 years of age to move to the U-21 category and later to the senior team later in his career. But that has not been the case; when you expect to see them at the senior level, they fade away because they had falsified their ages at one point in time,’’ he noted.
Ekpo therefore advised that seminars should be organised for upcoming players on the dangers inherent in age falsification, adding that football administrators should desist from putting pressure on coaches to win competitions at all cost, as such coach would be left with little choice than to include over-aged players in their teams.
“Most of the coaches include over-aged players in their team so as to save their job which is doing a lot of damage to our football,” he said.
The President General of the Nigeria  Football Supporters Club, Rafiu Ladipo, on his part attributed  the dwindling fortunes of Nigeria’s football, to the country’s refusal to defend the Africa Cup of Nations it won in 1994 in Tunisia.
“It all started in 1996 when we failed to take part in the ’96 edition of the Nations Cup in South Africa that was when the fortunes of our football started going down. As a footballer you have to be up and doing and be playing all the time and that two years break affected Nigerian football. After the 1994 edition of the Nations Cup what have been our achievement?
At the 1998 World Cup in France we were humiliated in the second round, at the 2002 edition hosted by Japan and Korea we did not qualify from the group stages and in 2006 Nigeria did not even qualify while we did not win a single game at the South Africa’s edition in 2010 and something must have been responsible for these poor results. And the reason is that we failed to take part in the 1996 Nations Cup. That was when our fortunes started going down,” he said.
Ladipo is however of the opinion that hope is not completely lost if the country is ready to go back to the basics, which is reviving schools’ sports.
“We forgot that before we got the likes of Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Austin Okocha and the rest of them that took the 1994 Mundial by storm, there were certain things we did. They were mostly products of schools’ sports. They emerged from their various schools and went on to play for different clubs in Nigeria before traveling abroad in furtherance of their footballing career.
“Also, then there used to be different level of football competitions amongst the states couple with the fact that the youths were always engaged in one competition or the other. But where are these competitions today? We have the states academicals competition, in the western part of the country there was the Termogin Cup. Where are those competitions again? We relied so much on the Keshi, Amokachi, Kanu Nwankwo, Okocha for several years forgetting that age will catch up on them. The National Stadium that used to be our pride has become a shadow of itself and has become a ‘no go area’ for footballers. Under that circumstance how do we develop football? Have we forgotten that in Europe and other leading countries of the world there are unlimited facilities where athletes can make use of to develop their skills?” queried the Nigerian cheer party leader.