The Decline of Nigerian Football

By Duro Ikhazuagbe and Olawale Ajimotokan
Last Tuesday marked another black day in the nation’s football history. Nigeria failed to qualify for another Africa Cup of Nations. It is the first time back-to-back and the third in five years. We missed the 2012 edition jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Super Eagles (as defending champions) were not in Equatorial Guinea in 2015 and are not going to be among Africa’s best when they file out for action in 2017 in Gabon.
To discerning followers of the Beautiful Game in the country, signs of failure have been flashing ever since the qualifiers started late last year. The Pharaohs of Egypt only nailed the coffin with the one-all draw in Kaduna and the lone goal victory in Alexandria. How did we get to this sorry state in our football history when just three years ago Nigeria was Africa’s champions?
The decline in Nigeria’s football did not start with the failure to qualify for the three AFCONs missed in the last five years. It is the climax of a steady systemic failure that started after the Golden Generation of the Clemens Westerhof years left the stage and nothing concrete was put in place to recreate that era. Nigeria made her appearance at the global stage with the debut at USA ’94. The generation of Super Eagles came from years of experimentation that started way back in 1990 when Dutchman, Westerhof was in-charge. Westerhof experimented with no less than 80 players to be able to fashion out the team that got to the Number 5 spot in FIFA ranking just before the Mundial in USA. That team played the kind of robust football that till date has not been matched by any successive Eagles. It was just inexperience that stopped Nigeria from moving beyond the challenge posed by Italy. It was also that same generation that dominated the squad that won the Atlanta Olympic football gold for Africa for the first time.
Of course, after Atlanta, Nigeria failed to build on the success of the Olympic gold. Journey-man Bonfrere Jo who took charge after his countryman Westerhof left the saddle also dumped the team. Thereafter, Nigeria began this era of hire-and-fire of coaches in succession. Frenchman Phillipe Troussier took charge and qualified Nigeria for France ’98. He got dumped while a Serb, Bora Milutinovic who had passed his prime as at the time he was hired by Nigeria took Eagles to the World Cup. Did Nigeria match the quality of USA ’94 in France? Indiscipline on the part of the players played a large role in the failure in France. Secondly, Bora had no effective control of the team like Westerhof did. This led to total breakdown of decorum. Nigeria left France a fragmented team, thus setting the stage for the free fall that has enveloped the game in the country today.  Bonfrere however returned to take charge of the team to bring back sanity ahead of the AFCON 2000 which Nigeria hosted and ended up with the silver after the Indomitable Lions beat Eagles to the trophy at the mainbowl of the National Stadium in Surulere Lagos.
That same year, Nigeria that won gold in Atlanta Olympic football event failed to qualify from the group stage of Sydney Games, Chile inspired by Ivan Zamorano crushed Nigeria’s dream of an encore.
Shaibu Amodu and Stephen Keshi who took Eagles to the next edition of AFCON in Mali have bitter story to tell about the team. A Sunday Oliseh led Eagles engaged then NFA and National Sports Commission chiefs in a bitter feud over bonuses and other issues that bother on indiscipline, The result was Eagles departing Mali with a bronze. Chief Adegboye Onigbinde then stepped in for his second ‘missionary journey’ with the team after first handling the Eagles in 1984. Vincent Enyeama was capped against England but Eagles’ strange playing formation caused Nigeria to exit Korea/Japan 2002 at the group stage.
Eagles performance at AFCON 2004 was no better than what happened at the previous edition in Mali. It was the same bronze story.
Against all expectations, Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup hosted by Germany. It was the most unthinkable thing that Eagles could lose the ticket to Angola right in front of their fans that sunny afternoon in Kano. While the humid condition of the former pyramid city was partly blamed for the defeat, majority of Nigerian ball followers generally agreed that Eagles caused the embarrassment for themselves through selective attendance at away matches.
At AFCON 2008, Nigeria almost went out at the group stage until Elephants of Ivory Coast did Eagles a favour, defeating Mali. They eventually returned home after crashing out in the semi final to host Ghana whose sporting press rechristened the Nigerian senior football team ‘Super Chicken.’
Amodu again returned to lead Nigeria to AFCON 2010 in Angola. It was the same story of being beaten by Ghana in the semi final. Although Amodu qualified Nigeria for the World Cup Africa was hosting for the first time in South Africa, he was dumped by the federation to exhume one Swede, Lars Lagerback to lead Nigeria to South Africa 2010 on a 300,000 dollars fee for a less than three months job. Despite holding a Lionel Messi inspired Argentine side coached by legendary Diego Maradona to a decent game, Eagles threw away the chance to advance to a moment of madness in the second group game when Sani kaita kicked a Greek player to earn an instant dismissal. Yakubu  Aiyegbeni’s miss against South Korea in the last group match remains one of the worst performances by any player in the history of the Mundial.
In 2012, Nigeria for the first time since 1986, failed to qualify for the AFCON jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Guinea’s 2-2 draw with Eagles at the Abuja Stadium ended Samson Siasia’s reign as chief coach. Another ex international, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi stepped in with the mission to revive the fading glory of the Super Eagles. Keshi did well reinforcing the team with players from the domestic league. The experimentation paid off with the likes of Azubike Egwueke, Godfrey Oboabona, Ejike  Ogwuenyi, Sunday Mbah and a host of others commanding regular shirts ahead of their foreign-based counterparts. That team restored Nigeria’s pride, winning the AFCON 19 years after the feat in Tunisia.  It was also the second time anyone was winning as a former player and coach. But Keshi who was having a cat and mouse relationship with the NFF took his pound of flesh on the then Aminu Maigari led NFF board. Hours after Nigeria was crowned African champions, Keshi dumped the job in an interview with a South African radio station.
It took the intervention of then Sports Minister, Malam Bolaji Abdullahi to make the man fondly called The Big Boss to rescind his decision about quitting. NFF did not forgive Keshi for having the audacity to shame them in that manner. By the time Keshi took Eagles to the World Cup in Brazil, the animosity between him and the federation leadership had gone beyond redemption. But fortunately for Keshi, the Illah-born gaffer had backing in a top government official in the Good luck Jonathan administration. He was untouchable. But after Eagles crashed out to France in the second round of Brazil 2014, NFF officials who were waiting for Keshi’s contract to expire had the opportunity to take their pound of flesh. Keshi’s contract was not renewed. However, he was forced on the team on an interim basis with the National Sports Commission picking his bills.
Then succession disputes set in at the Glass House. Aminu Maigari was denied a second term. Former Sports Minister Tammy Danagogo was alleged to have prompted Jos club owner, Chris Giwa to run for the office. Delta FA boss, Amaju Pinnick who was one of the strong backers of Maigari also joined the race. Influential marketing consultant, Shehu Dikko, Lobi FC Chairman, Dominic Iorfa, Kano Pillars Chairman, Abba Yola and a host of others also joined the race to succeed Maigari. Pinnick however outsmarted all the others by winning the Congress of September 30 in Warri. Before then, the Giwa group had gone against FIFA directive by conducting what can at best be described as a mock election in Abuja on August 26 where the Jos football financier emerged as president. The crisis that followed the power struggle between Giwa and Pinnick largely contributed to why Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2015 edition of the African football showpiece in Equatorial Guinea. It was this poor preparation that also snowballed into the qualifiers for the 2017 edition to be hosted in Gabon next year. You can imagine three coaches- Keshi, Oliseh and Siasia handled the team that has just failed to reach Gabon 2017.
Despite all that has been painted above, it will be unfair not to mention the gains recorded in age grade competitions. Nigeria is the reigning world champion in FIFA U17 World Cup. The 2015 class of Victor Osimhen retained the 2013 trophy Nigeria won in UAE at the 2015 edition in Chile with Emmanuel Amuneke in charge. Siasia also led his wards to win the inaugural CAF U-23 African Championship in Senegal late last year as well as qualify Nigeria for the male football event of Rio2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Almost all other Nigerian teams have either qualified or on the verge of berthing in continental and global football competitions. The question then is: why is it difficult to translate the successes at the youth level to the senior category? Why are these youths not integral part of the domestic league instead of rushing out of the country for greener pastures in Europe or north Africa?
A deep look into the club football in the country reveals that poor funding has been responsible for why these clubs are finding it difficult to match others in north Africa and elsewhere.
Of the 20 clubs in the topflight, only IfeanyiUbah FC, MFM FC and Ikorodu United are privately owned. The rest are funded by state governments. Even before the down turn in the country’s economy, most states have never really considered these clubs as big businesses that should be managed as such. Instead, they are giving to politically-correct persons to run. In addition to that, the administration of the league has often been a problem until the coming of the League Management Company (LMC). The league body has been able to restore sanity with the fans returning to the stands again to cheer their favorite team. It is no longer that the home team must win at all cost. Last season was replete with records of several away victories.
In addition to the above reasons for the free-fall of the Super Eagles, others attribute it partly to the failure of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to streamline football academies and check the activities of football agents.
Football academies litter the nation’s landscape and set up with the sole objective to help in the grooming and nurturing of young players. But sadly some of these academies are anything but a football school and are in urgent need of regulation and licensing.
Usually, the people behind the football schools set them up with sole objective to develop players to be sold to clubs in Europe and Asia for commercial benefits once they come of age.
The conventional practice is that a football academy is an integral part of the football club set up to develop its youth talent. It is a training school where students learn how to play football.
In the UK every football club in the Premier League and Championship has a football academy, and many more lower league clubs also have them, but not all.
For those living near a non-league club, they will discover that they are unlikely to have a football academy, but will find development schemes or community run projects, that young footballers can enrol onto. These schemes are great first stops in the footballing ladder and can be easily be booked onto before joining a bigger academy.
Football clubs that run academies use one of two different names. They are either called a Football Academy, or a Football Centre  of Excellence, but essentially they are the same thing. It is a place where the club can develop young talent.
Though football academies are coming up in every parts of the country, they appear to be more of trial and error approach with international best practices being ignored.
To an extent, Nigeria has benefited from the academy culture as some products from football schools have made grades, joined the professional ranks in Europe, ultimately finding their path into the national team.
Players like John Mikel Obi, Osaze Odemwingie, Kelechi Iheanacho and of late Kelechi Nwakali passed through the academy process.
But most often these academies are poorly funded, ill equipped and don’t boast of the right facilities, personnel and curriculum that will develop the players.
With regard to Nigeria, the biggest pitfall is that there is no deliberate attempt to impact on the players a collective and nationally defined philosophy which becomes part of them when they reach the later stages of their career.
The Federal Capital Territory, Abuja offers a peer into the structural defect with the way football academies in Nigeria are composed.
It is an all comers’ affairs, prompting a source at the NFF to make a startling revelation that the federation could not determine the number of the football schools that are in Abuja arising from the problem of regulation.
The official revealed that the only academy in the nation’s capital that is registered and up to standard is Fosla Academy. The Kashi-based academy which incorporates secondary school studies into its curriculum is run by former NFF President Sani Lulu Abdullahi.
The school’s programmes are tailored in accordance with the curriculum of the Nigeria Education Policies. The Proprietor in consultation with the school’s Management Board, opined that their vision, mission, and goals could be best actualised if permanent structures were put in place for the commencement of a full-fledged secondary school. It is against this backdrop that Fosla Academy was set up to commence full academic session in September, 2011 with J.S.S.1 students.
NFF plans to strategically address the issue of regulation nationwide by referring the academies to the state FAs, which will screen and pre-qualify those that meet requirement before they are licensed and allowed to operate.
 Although the Amaju Pinnick led-board of the  NFF has made strides by getting a financial institution to support its Under-13 and Under-15 programmers, these developmental programmers are yet to hit the right cord for them to form the pool from which future Eagles are going to emerge from. It remains a dream that successive administration at the Glass House may not continue. This brings up the issue of lack of continuity of programmed at the federation. NFF had in the past experimented with weekend academy programme for kids. That programme with quality funding from FIFA died a natural death when Dr Tijani Yusuf stepped out of office as Secretary General.