We all thought – albeit sentimentally, that the Super Eagles could go past the group stage but they dashed our expectations. Not because the players were not good enough or lacked adequate technical direction but because Nigerian football did not cover the basics.
We built on the wrong foundations and if this mentality does not change, we can expect the same result in four years’ time in Qatar – that is if we even qualify. The Nigeria Football Federation needs to get its act together and prepare. Success does not come accidentally!
Prepare players for the big time
That can only happen if the NFF and the Ministry of Sports overhaul the local game. From coaching in the league to refereeing to player education, a lot needs to change. Russia 2018 finalists – Croatia and France, are the two extremes of how the game must be developed. Ligue 1 is not the strongest league in the world but Kylian Mbappe and N’Golo Kante were discovered locally and are flourishing internationally now. Mbappe left Monaco for PSG, when he could have gone to Real Madrid and Kante moved to Leicester City on the way to Chelsea.
The upward trajectory in the careers of the players is clear and the big-game experience gained at their current clubs were transferred to the national team. For the Eagles, look at Kenneth Omeruo’s career since he signed for Chelsea in 2012 and you can understand the logic of this argument. Whether age discrepancies has caused this retrogressive habit is another matter.
You can’t divorce the national team from the league’s quality
While many wanted Junior Lokosa to be a part of the Super Eagles to Russia 2018, the question to ask would have been – was he as good as any member of the squad that was taken? The answer would be yes or no – and largely subjective. Though that shouldn’t be the real argument but why out of 23 players, the local league only had one representative?
If more will be done on the local players in terms of coaching and education then Rohr would have deemed at least five to be good enough to be in Russia. For Qatar 2022, that should be the plan which would be the assurance the local game is progressing.
Players need to play in the best leagues and at the biggest teams
Looking at the starting 11 of both France and Croatia on Sunday – there is a convergence of players having played with big teams and handled big expectations. There is a big difference between playing for Manchester United and Huddersfield – the expectations are miles apart, and the ability to deliver on those big expectations gets a player ready for big matches at the World Cup stage.
In the Nigerian team that crashed out in the group stage, many were playing on the big stage for the first times in their careers. This is not bashing players playing in Belgium, Turkey or wherever but in those leagues, they must be at the biggest and best teams, not floundering in mid-table teams, scrapping for scraps.
Reconciling the point of playing with big teams and making the local league strong, we had former Super Eagles stars like Taye Taiwo and Finidi George, who left the local league and went straight into big teams like Olympique Marseille and Ajax respectively. Nowadays, the likes of Stephen Odey, Ezekiel Bassey who joined Barcelona B from Enyimba and Anthony Okpotu arrive at less-stellar teams in Europe and are unable to cope.
The core of the Qatar 2022 squad should be known now
Six of the players that started for France against Croatia in the final started for Les Bleus in the final against Portugal in the Euro Championships in 2016 and to paraphrase the experience, Paul Pogba said, “In 2016, we made the mistake of being overconfident.
After beating Germany in the semi-finals, we felt we were destined to win. I can promise you we won’t make the same mistake again.” That is what experience will do for a team. Who is going to replace Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun, Elderson Echiejile, Odion Ighalo and to a lesser extent, Victor Moses? Those questions should be what the Technical Committee of the NFF should be considering immediately so no void would be created as these players are phased out of the Eagles.
Persistent change will not help
France have had Didier Deschamps as their national coach since 2012. After his appointment, France made it to the quarter final of the 2014 World Cup then the final of the 2016 European Championships before finally landing the big one – the 2018 World Cup. Joachim Loew of Germany plied a similar track.
Appointed in 2006, he qualified his country for the 2008 Euro Championships, which Germany lost 1-0 to Spain. Germany came third at the 2010 World Cup, got to the 2012 Euro Championships’ semifinal before finally winning the 2014 World Cup. His tenure was extended and though Germany bowed out of the 2018 World Cup in the group stage, he added the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup to his honours.
The argument in many Nigerian football fora is the ability or otherwise of the present manager, Gernot Rohr. At this juncture, I would add a caution – no manager is perfect. The best ones are those who are able to iterate, evolve and consciously remain dispassionate in selecting their teams. If Rohr meets these three credentials, then he should be allowed to continue. It should not depend on whether Amaju Pinnick goes or Chris Giwa comes.