Regardless of the fact that two leading lights in Stephen Keshi and Amodu Shuaibu were lost to the cold hands of death, the outgoing year in Nigerian sports should be remembered as one of promise in spite of it being littered with administrative missteps.
Keshi and Amodu – both handlers of the national football team, the Super Eagles – died within days of each other in June.
Keshi, who passed away at 54, was the first Nigerian to win the African Cup of Nations both as a player and a coach. He was captain of the Super Eagles to the 1994 Cup of Nations’ which Nigeria won after beating Zambia 2-1 in Tunisia.
Keshi became coach of the Nigerian National Team in 2011 and led Nigeria to the 2013 African Cup of Nations hosted by South Africa. His charges went on to win the championship defeating Burkina Faso 1-0 in the final.
He also qualified and led Nigeria to 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil where the Super Eagles made it to the last 16 before being eliminated by France.
As Nigerians were coming to terms with the loss of Keshi, Amodu who had paid a condolence visit to the late tactician also passed away two days later. The five-time coach of the Super Eagles died aged of 58.
Amodu was until his death, the director of technical for all the national teams in Nigeria. In separate stints as national team handler spanning two decades (on five different occasions), Amodu qualified Nigeria for two FIFA World Cups in 2002 and 2010 but was sacked before the showpiece occasion both times.
Incidentally, Amodu’s name was in the frame a few months earlier when a salvage job was required in the aftermath of Sunday Oliseh resigning as national team coach. Among many issues, non-payment of salaries was a major reason Oliseh left the team in the lurch in February, a few days before a crucial AFCON qualifier against Egypt.
Another former manager Samson Siasia was appointed for the double-header, which Nigeria eventually lost, thus missing out of qualification for AFCON 2017.
Siasia who had previously qualified the Nigerian U23 football team for the Olympic Games in Rio returned to his initial brief, taking charge of the team in preparation for the Rio Games.
However, the team was in the news again for the wrong reasons, as they were ‘abandoned’ in Atlanta by the sports ministry and barely made it to Brazil for their first game.
Disputes over salaries and bonuses between sports officials and those flying Nigeria’s colours in international competitions turned out to be a recurring theme through the year.
In true Nigerian spirit though, the ‘Dream Team’ stunned Japan 5-4, after only arriving Brazil from their Atlanta base a few hours before the match. The team’s exploits drew attention from around the world including that of a Japanese philanthropist who was so impressed, he promised the team monetary reward commensurate with how far they went in the competition.
The Dream Team eventually won a bronze medal, the only medal Nigeria mustered at the 2016 Olympics. It confirmed football as the preminent sport in the country, with very little to cheer from other sports.
The Dream Team were duly rewarded by their millionaire admirer, Katsuya Takasu.
Nigeria finally got a substantive coach for the Super Eagles in the person of Gernot Rohr. A German national, the 63-year-old Rohr who has previously coached Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso, has had an impressive start, with wins over Tanzania, Zambia and Algeria.
The latter two matches were Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying matches, ensuring Nigeria have a good head start in qualifying first out of a group that also includes Cameroon.
Potential qualification for the 2018 World Cup and the emergence of Nigerian players as a force in the English Premier League especially, have helped in lifting spirits, and reducing the disappointment of missing back-to-back African Championships.
For the first time in a while, Nigerian stars feature prominently in the feats of the top teams in most watched football league in the world. Victor Moses has been a stalwart for league leaders Chelsea, Alex Iwobi a revelation for fellow London club Arsenal, while Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho has had one of the highest goals-to-games ratio across Europe this year.
Good news is that these players are young; Moses is 26, Iwobi and Iheanacho are both 20. Even better is the fact that they have all played vital roles in the improved fortunes of the national team. And he best news of all? There are more young players of Nigerian extraction in England’s top teams.
Ola Aina (20) of Chelsea, Tosin Adarabioyo (19) of Manchester City and Sheyi Ojo (19) of Liverpool are three of these young guns that could bolster the Super Eagles and make them a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Of course, these players need to be sure they’re making the right choice by committing to Nigeria. Stories of officials reneging on promises and owing coaches and players money will not help in attracting Nigeria’s best talents.
Right from Oliseh’s resignation, to the Dream Team’s participation at the Olympics, to Samson Siasia, it has been a year of broken promises by the sporting authorities.
The debacle involving Nigeria’s female national team, the Falcons, and the sports authorities over unpaid entitlements despite winning a record eight African title was the nadir.
The African champions had to embark on a sit-in (in their hotel) and a march to the National Assembly before getting government’s attention, and finally getting some – but not all – of their entitlements.
If Nigerian sports (especially football) will deliver on its promise in the incoming year, the culture of broken promises sports administrators must be banished with 2016.