Musing on Another Eagles’ ‘Golden’ Bronze

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Super Eagles and players celebrating winning Nigeria's eighth bronze medals at the 2019 AFCON in Egypt… penultimate Wednesday

Duro Ikhazuagbe

Curtain fell on the 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt last Friday with Baghdad Bounedjah’s fastest goal of the tournament handing Algeria their second title 29 years after they won the first one as hosts in 1990.

Bounedjah’s right-footed strike from outside the box looped up off Senegal’s Salif Sane as he attempted to block, sending the ball high,

flying over goalkeeper Alfred Gomes and into the Teranga Lions’ net for the only goal of the epic final just two minutes of play inside the Cairo International Stadium. All attempts by the Senegalese to fight back and cancel that lead failed to produce any meaningful result till the final whistle by Cameroonian centre referee Alioum Sidi Neant.

And so, just as it happened to Senegal in the 2002 final, the Teranga Lions who were one of the favourites to lift EGYPT 2019 failed yet again to record their first AFCON win.

Do I feel any pity or anger that the Super Eagles, despite all the good preparations and motivation from Nigerian football authorities failed to get to the final stage? Far from it! For me, picking the third place medals on Wednesday night was even a bonus. For a team that failed to qualify for the last two editions in 2015 and 2017 and have never really played convincing football since Franco-German Gernot Rohr took charge over two years ago, finishing in the third position can be considered an achievement of a sort. Don’t get me wrong: Nigeria does not belong in bronze category in African football! We sure deserve more than that.

Having won the tournament three times in the past and finished as runners up four times, winning Nigeria’s EIGHTH bronze medal in Egypt 2019 was certainly no big deal! However, credit must be given to the young lads who made that feat possible.

Just like Late Stephen Keshi did when he took a bunch of near greenhorns to win the tournament in South Africa in 2013, most Nigerian ball fans believed such a miracle was capable of happening with the squad led by John Obi Mikel/ Ahmed Musa. After all, Nigeria had a ‘soft’ group stage pairing with Madagascar, Burundi and Guinea. We were supposed to stroll into the knock out phase effortlessly. Did that happen? Of course not, After an easy opener against Burundi, a resurgent Madagascar taught Rohr and his Eagles some bitter football lessons with that 2-0 defeat. The German gaffer thought the Indian Ocean Island nation was going to be easy to beat with a second string Eagles but it turned out a poor judgment. Even if Madagascar did not get to the semis, Coach Nicolas Dupuis turned around the Berea into one of the revelations of the tournament, taking them as far as the quarter final stage in their very first outing at the continental football showpiece.

Nigeria’s victory over defending champions Cameroon and South Africa further reinforced the hope that Rohr’s Eagles were on the way to emulating the Class of 2013 but failed to fly when it mattered most after. Algeria exposed Rohr’s deficiencies. Instead of an improved team, Eagles exhibited the usual individual play and misplaced passes and shots in attack. The defence and midfield weren’t any better as confusion and collision of players reigned supreme. The criteria adopted by Rohr in selecting his goal keeper remains a bizarre one, never ever witnessed in the history of Nigeria’s senior national team. Daniel Akpeyi replaced both Francis Uzoho and Ikechukwu Ezenwa. They proved poor cover for Carl Ikeme who stepped in when Vincent Enyeama retired. Leukemia ended Ikeme’s career.

While Rohr’s Eagles remain an example of a team that has retrogressed from Nigeria’s known game, his opposite number in Algeria, Djamel Belmadi turned the Desert Foxes to the most feared squad in Egypt 2019.

Belmadi like Rohr, inherited a talented but troubled Algeria squad and rebuilt it into a championship team. Having taken over a side that failed to advance from the 2017 group stage and endured a woeful World Cup qualifying bid (were in the same group with Nigeria), the 43-year-old succeeded where a series of predecessors could not, by turning a drifting side into the sleekest unit that lifted Algeria’s second title in Egypt last Friday.

Like Baghdad Bounedjah, the twin partner of Riyad Mahrez said shortly after lifting the AFCON title, Belmadi made them play with their heart and a rhythm scripted by this former Algerian player. “We play for Algeria, we don’t play for money. We don’t play for fame. When I enter the stadium, I only play for Algeria, I have nothing else I play for.” This could not be said of Rohr whose wards, like their predecessors put aside the reason for their being in Egypt and opted to squabble over unpaid allowances and match bonuses.

This brings to mind the question of how did we get to this level of our game now in the third-tier stage in the continent.

Since we lost the semi final game to Algeria, I have heard all manners of analysis on why our Eagles are no longer super. While some have blamed Rohr as the one who failed to do the right selection of players and played strange tactics not known to delivering good results, others blamed the Nigerian Football Federation for contracting him in the first place when he has nothing to offer. Some others insist that the craze for foreign coaches must stop and the indigenous gaffers be given the same treatment we heap on these Oyinbos for better results.

For me, the problem with the Super Eagles goes beyond the pigmentation of the skin of whosoever is in charge as head coach. A holistic view of the national team shows that what led our football to this down turn is a structural defect. Since the Golden Generation of 1994 left the stage, what we have been doing ever since is to try to paper the cracks in the system and attempt to recreate semblance of the past.

Students of Nigerian football history will tell you that the conditions that made Clemens Westerhof succeed with the Super Eagles can never be recreated because no two actors in power behave same way. Westerhof was able to get away with what some people termed ‘sacrilege’ because the government in power could tolerate him and his nuances. The Dutchman experimented with well over 300 players stretched over a period of six years. He got from government everything he needed to succeed.

In just a space of five years since 2014, Nigeria has had four coaches: Stephen Keshi, Samson Siasia, Sunday Oliseh and Rohr. Now, agitation is rife to drop the Franco-German for a fifth coach in five years. Westerhof spent six years starting with a team that was decimated in opening game of Algier ’90 but ended up playing in the final against same Algeria that humiliated Nigeria in that opening game and lost.

I want to state that I am not a fan of Rohr as his football culture does not appeal to me. But I have seen semblance of a great team emerging from the crop of youngsters in the present Super Eagles if allowed space. Instability has never done any team any good. Even the Algerian AFCON winning coach admitted that his team stayed together for five years for it jell into the ‘menacing’ squad that it has become. Does Rohr have the capacity to turn around this present team with so many promising players if allowed to continue? This is the question that needs to be answered by the men at the Glass House in Abuja.

The problem with Eagles goes beyond qualifying Nigeria for the last World Cup (in Russia) and winning the AFCON 2019 bronze. Eagles must be seen to be playing that robust flair Nigeria is known for in the past.

It is true that several countries who didn’t do well at the just concluded tournament have dispensed with the services of their coaches: Egypt sacked Javier Aguirre, Tanzania got rid of our own Emmanuel Amuneke, Burkina Faso sacked Paolo Duarte, Cameroon fired Clarence Seedorf, Guinea parted ways with Paul Put while Ricardo Manneti left his post in Namibia. Many more are on the waiting list to be pushed out. However, given Nigeria’s high turnover rate of coaches, is sacking Rohr the solution? Despite Keshi winning AFCON 2013 he was sacked for starting the race for the 2015 edition badly. Siasia and Oliseh who were invited on rescue mission had issues with the authorities and had to be relieved of their jobs respectively before the Franco-German stepped in.

What is happening now is a familiar sing-song. We have walked this road before and may be repeated again and again after every AFCON in future if no solution is found now once and for all.

Name them, Westerhof, Jo Bonfrere, Philipe Troussier, Bora Milutinovic, Amodu Shaibu, Christian Chukwu, Austin Eguavoen, Berti Vogts and Lars Lagerback. They were all fired from the Eagles job for one reason or the other.

Of course, it is not unexpected to hear shrill voices calling for a return to the indigenous coaches. Those muting this option point in the direction of the two coaches that played in the AFCON 2019 final as proof that the home grown coaches understand the domestic league and talents within better than a foreigner. It is their belief that most of the foreigners are ‘job-men’ with no commitment to growing local players. Belmadi and Senegal’s Aliou Cisse appear justifying these thoughts but the unfortunate Nigerian situation is that we have tried almost all our best and our appetite for anything foreign did not allow us the patience to allow them space to grow on the system like we did with Westerhof.

Until we tell our selves the home truth and admit that we currently parade mostly average players in our league and in the diaspora and allow room for growth, we will keep repeating this discourse every two years.