One of the problems we face as a people in Nigeria is that we live in the moment. Hardly do we truly consider how our actions today affect our future. This has been the case with Nigerian football down the years, save, perhaps, for the Clemens Westerhof era. When the Dutchman was appointed in 1989 he said, “Judge me in 1994”. Over four and a half years he built a team that ultimately won the Nations Cup and the Olympic gold, and topped their groups in successive World Cup finals. But for the CAF ban of 1996 and 1998, that team may have won two more Nations Cup crowns. I probably would not rate Westerhof as a great tactician, but he had a great attribute sorely missing in most of us Nigerians – he was a fantastic builder! He did not expressly go into the 1990 and 1992 Nations Cups to win, he used them as developmental platforms for the team he was building. This runs counter to how we roll in Nigeria. We want to win every tournament, and so we select our players only to win the next tournament without considering the impact on future tournaments. This mentality has especially wrecked the Super Eagles and turned a team that was No. 5 in the world in the Westerhof years, to one that is 67th in the world today.
I am writing this piece because, from the sound bites leading to the Rio Olympics, the Nigerian team will be assembled with little thought for how this translates to building the all-conquering Super Eagles we all desire. If the Nigeria Football Federation president Amaju Pinnick does not want to end his reign with the dishonour of managing the worst Super Eagles record in the history of our sport, he may do well to figure out how to use the Rio platform to develop his team to Russia 2018 if indeed we qualify.
Our success in the 1990s was built on foresight and patience. Westerhof tried different players but settled on a core of youngsters, many of whom were discovered locally (times were different then) and then sent overseas to hone their craft. This core did not only succeed from playing together, it was a group of true talents – players who could only get better. What is the point of wasting your time on players who shine in one tournament and disappear afterwards as our coaches tend to do today? The Westerhof team played from 1990 to at least 1998 with changes coming in form of reinforcements.
That has not been the case in recent times. Samson Siasia overhauled Amodu Shuaibu’s team when he took over in 2010, and then built a team which was dismantled by Stephen Keshi in 2011. Keshi’s team was unsurprisingly revamped by Sunday Oliseh in 2015 whose team was changed considerably by Siasia on his brief return for the Egypt qualifiers. These days every coach wants his imprint on the team and usually this means singing the well-worn “rebuilding” anthem rather than adopting the theme of consolidation. To rebuild our coaches basically just settle on their favourite players who many times lack the quality to be in the team, and the next man simply sweeps them away. In fact Keshi revamped his own team several times and despite winning the Nations Cup, did not leave behind any new player of genuine quality.
This culture needs to change and Pinnick is the man with the power to make this happen. Already the Super Eagles have failed to qualify twice for the Nations Cup under his watch and that is a record for an NFF boss, albeit one he would like to forget. Until 2018 when his tenure expires, he has only a “one chance” ticket to salvage his Super Eagles record, and that is the World Cup. Not only do the Super Eagles need to qualify, they have to make the kind of statement that would inspire us to look forward to Qatar 2022. A good 2018 outing would be prime us for success in 2022. We have a generation of golden talents coming through like Kelechi Iheanacho, Isaac Success, Alex Iwobi, Wilfred Ndidi, Moses Simon, Sadiq Umar, Kelechi Nwakali, Victor Osimhen, Taiwo Awoniyi etc, for whom 2018 may be too soon, but who would be at their mature best in 2022. Then we can realistically challenge for honours.
These, for me, are the players who should go to Rio and experience what a senior global tournament is like ahead of Russia. These guys are proven and are playing in some of the best leagues in the world. The Rio team cannot just be Siasia’s team, it must be a showcase of the Super Eagles that is to come. If you stock it with players who will not make the Super Eagles subsequently, you would end up in Russia with a team short on quality experience. Pinnick’s glory does not have to come from winning the Olympic gold or 2018 World Cup, but in building the foundation for success in 2022. When France reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, their coach Didier Deschamps declared it a successful campaign – given the status of the team’s development. Not every tournament needs to be won, some must be seen as developmental platforms and I believe the Rio Games should be one such for Nigeria, especially as the Super Eagles will not be at the 2017 Nations Cup.
If we turn the philosophy behind the Rio team to one of “I won’t depend on foreign-based players” or “we have to reward the players that won the ticket” or “we have to encourage the NPFL players” then we have to be sure we have quality among those selected that will last the distance, or 2018 might be ugly for the NFF and Pinnick. Rio would be a great way to test the 2018 World Cup team as well as blood new talents that can make the Super Eagles stronger during the qualifiers. The ball, Mr. Pinnick, is in your court.