Much Ado About Foreign Coach for Super Eagles

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Obi Ogbu

I sit in my study this morning reflecting, not for the first time this week, why my dear country, Nigeria is one that is never able to get the simplest things right.

Today, I am not thinking about the state of the economy, or the price of oil in the international market, or advancement in technology in other spheres, or the pathetic state of infrastructure back home, or poor funding for education, health and agriculture, or the treacherous state of the roads, or even the unacceptable truism that 16 years into a new Millennium, rail transportation is not available in Nigeria (the world’s fifth biggest producer of oil)!

I have elected to avert my mind to the debate over whether the national football team should have an indigenous coach or an expatriate coach.

Indeed, the government of the day preaches self –sustenance, looking inwards and making do mostly with Nigeria –made. Great policy. But what happens to those areas where we cannot find Nigerians who are highly qualified and able and capable of doing a great job?

If we can do it all alone, why is President Muhammadu Buhari traveling all over the world seeking help from those nations? The latest I heard, we are asking for a huge loan from China to finance rail infrastructure.

Having followed the game passionately for decades, I dare say that football is one area in which we cannot find highly qualified Nigerians capable of doing a good job of coaching the Super Eagles to world standards. Simple analysis would show us that we have gravitated around all the likely candidates and none has shown that he can lead us to elite footballing status. There’s being no foundation, moral or mental rigour required. Period.

The only ever likely candidates, at all times, are Stephen Keshi, Samson Siasia, Austin Eguavoen, Sunday Oliseh… Any other name? I dunno. Keshi did well winning the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in 2013 and taking the team to the Round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup, and surely is the best of the pack that we have. But he had problems relating with his employers, whether they were the Aminu Maigari team that brought him on board or the Amaju Pinnick board that desired to retain him.

Keshi did a wonderful job qualifying the team for the World Cup, but how come he failed to pick Nigeria’s best players for that World Cup? We had a number of injured average players, journeymen and schoolboy players in Brazil.

Siasia replaced a very poor Oliseh, whose technical ability was not in question but was never able to manage relationships with either employers or players or assistants – key managerial quality. Siasia wanted so much to rewrite his story, having failed to qualify the Super Eagles for the 2012 Africa Cup. In truth, the damage was partly done before he was called upon, but he could have rescued things by picking players who could have won matches for him in Kaduna and Alexandria. Instead, he left creative actors like Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho on the bench and threw his lot with the likes of Aminu Umar.

Can we bring back Eguavoen at this time? Certainly no, which brings me to the question of why even people who are supposed to know better are opposing the idea of a foreign coach for the Super Eagles.

A week ago, on the internet I came across an article by a former captain of the Green Eagles (also a former NFA Board Member), Segun Odegbami. I shuddered going through the piece because it underscored the petty and envious attitude prevalent in Nigeria society and football administration.

Even Odegbami is campaigning against foreign coach! That was the comment of a friend of mine. Sometime in the late 1990s, the same Odegbami was a key member of The Three Wise Men who were sent to Europe to interview and select a foreign coach for Nigeria. His illogical reasoning tainted by prejudices aren’t even valid in a global sport.

Which brings me to the charge by the Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung, that the NFF must convince him about their ability to pay before he would approve the employment of a foreign coach!

It sounded most ridiculous. A few colleagues have reasoned that the NFF board was now at a weak negotiating point because the Super Eagles failed to qualify for the Africa Cup on successive occasions. Even more ridiculous, if you consider the fact that Mr Dalung haven condoned Giwa’s divisive shenanigans if not surreptitiously encouraged it. Board could chose to resign following the poor outing of a team, however, if it does not, it continues to discharge its duties and function appropriately without any inferiority complex.

I would lay some of the blame at the doorstep of the NFF board over this fiasco. The employment of Sunday Oliseh was a wrong move. They should have known that a leopard does not change its skin. They might have had good intention but they gave him too much latitude and he did collateral damage before they realised he was no good. But again hindsight is 20:20 as NFF Board members aren’t elected on clairvoyance resumes.

Perhaps, we would still have been able to call on Vincent Enyeama for the Super Eagles. Last week, he was mentioned as sixth best goalkeeper in Europe, which is some great achievement. I would prefer that the NFF work assiduously to bring Enyeama back to the team, because goalkeepers get better with age. Gianluigi Buffon, and before him Lev Yashin, Sepp Maier, Dino Zoff, Peter Shilton, David Seaman and Rinat Dassaev proved that.

Back to the issue at hand. The minister’s position is not only untenable, it is condemnable. Is Dalung not aware that his Sports Ministry pays a couple of expatriate High Performance Directors (Angelo Taylor and Eric Campbell, if my memory serves me right) in athletics? Is he unaware that basketball, which is, realistically, lower in ranking to football in Nigeria, has an expatriate coach in the person of American William Voigt? Is Dalung unaware that the Rugby Federation in Nigeria has a foreigner as coach?
Political appointment as minister of sports should really be also based on a modicum of acceptable technical and moral competence.

Why is Nigeria such a nation of political pretenders? Football is the nation’s biggest unifier. Nothing else brings together our peoples across various mental and physical divides than football. Yet, we treat the sport with so much levity. In other climes, national leaders understand the strategic role of football support and peace, national identity and cohesion. Mr Greg Dyke of the English FA and Prime Minister Cameron meet often to give more credence to the above notion.

What is the big deal about employing an expatriate coach with the right expertise and management ability to steer the Super Eagles to new levels of excellence? Despite their fervent nationalism, the US signed on German Jurgen Klinsmann. Not too long ago, Italian Fabio Capello was in charge of England’s Three Lions. Capello went from coaching England to coaching Russia.

Dutchman Guus Hiddink has also coached Russia. French-Pole Henryk Kasperczak spent so many years in Africa coaching Cote d’Ivoire and Tunisia. Frenchman Roger Lemerre coached Tunisia. Brazilian Carlos Perreira coached South Africa not too long ago. Frenchman Claude LeRoy has coached for decades in Africa and won the Africa Cup with Cameroun.

Egypt, which sent us packing from the 2017 AFCON race, has an Argentine, Hector Cuper, in charge. In the soccer world, there are so many individuals from other climes who are thriving whether in charge of national teams or clubs. Neither of the two teams looking likely to reach the final of the UEFA Champions League (Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid) is coached by Spaniards.

The present debate makes me to reflect, and with regret, the lack of action by the NFF Board of 2010, which had discussions with Frenchman Herve Renard at the Africa Cup in Angola, but chose to sign Swede Lars Lagerback to take the Super Eagles to the World Cup in South Africa. Since then, Renard has won the Africa Cup with Zambia (2012) and Cote d’Ivoire (2015), and has now qualified Morocco for the 2017 finals.

In Africa, I am aware that in Ghana, the government pays the salary of Coach Avram Grant. The same thing happens in Egypt, and in most African countries. Why should Nigeria be different? How would we expect a federation that is always broke (because the Government gives it pittance, in line with its very low ranking of sports) to pay for a foreign coach?

The job of Mr. Dalung includes taking important memos to the Federal Executive Council. A memo in respect of the government paying for the employment of a foreign coach for the Super Eagles would be in order, much more useful than Dalung’s pastime of exhuming ‘dead’ bodies.

Incredibly, Dalung has spent more time, energy and resources on resurrecting the long –forgotten case of Chris Giwa, who continues to delude himself that he ‘won’ an election into office as NFF president. Giwa lost everywhere, including at the Court of Arbitration for Sports, a full six months before Dalung came into office.

Dalung’s friend added comic relief to the whole sordid drama when, in one of his ‘actions in charge’, appointed a deceased referee for a Nigeria league match involving his own club!
The sports minister is daily lampooning the NFF or simulating one crisis after the other. At a recent contract signing with Spanish Premier League, Dalung inelegantly and unnecessarily made references to “squabbles among stakeholders in Nigeria football.” Some minister of the Federal Republic!

If as it claims, the government does not have enough money to give to football and still be able to take care of other critical sectors, it can enable legislation that will help the cause of sports. The tax holiday that is so much talked –about is not working because most of the big companies in Nigeria would rather not talk about sports sponsorship, after taking care of extra too many expenses along the way.

Rather, multinationals should and can contribute a percentage of their earnings to an escrow football, nay sports account, for coaching hire and training, and build the capacity of administrators to function optimally.

I only became interested in the persons holding office at the NFF a few months ago when, on a trip to Nigeria, I was invited by a friend to a charity football tournament organised by Seyi Akinwunmi of Lagos FA. At the event, I got to meet Akinwunmi and realised that he is the son of Sylvanus Akinwunmi, who logged remarkable feats as Chairman of the National Sports Commission in the early 1990s. I remember the elder Akinwunmi was in office when we qualified for our first FIFA World Cup, won the Africa Cup in 1994 and also did well at the World Cup in America.

Seyi Akinwunmi has scored respectably on the football and youth development. He is first vice president of NFF. Amaju Pinnick, NFF President brings his accomplishments with Delta State FA and grooming athletes for the national, continental and global laurels to the table. Shehu Dikko (second vice president) is also chairman of the League Company that is being praised for revival and innovations to the local football league.

This balanced triumvirate of accomplished young Nigerians have all it takes between them to stem the rot in Nigeria football. The system of indolence and nepotistic corruption as always in all sectors fights back, enlisting gullible power mongers in reactionary gerrymandering. Amaju, Seyi and Shehu can clean the Aegean stable of the football house so Nigeria can rebuild with strategic determination.

Support, that is what is lacking for the NFF board and management. If they desire a foreign coach, it is the minister’s duty to go the extra mile to convince Mr. President and the FEC. Football is a big issue with Nigerians, and the sooner the sports minister and his team realises that, the better for them and for the Nigeria game.