Where is Nigeria getting it wrong?

It has been 10 years since Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON) triumph in South Africa. The following year witnessed another stellar performance from the Eagles in Brazil – accomplishing another finish in the round of 16. Two years later, a Mikel-led Flying Eagles (U-20) won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. The women’s team also had span of a successful period at around the same time, as they won three successful WAFCON titles in 2014, 2016, and 2018.

In summary, the last time any Nigerian senior team won any trophies was in 2018. Keeping the focus on the fall of the Super Eagles, there is an urgent need to reflect on mishaps which has caused a trophy doubt for one of Africa’s great footballing nations.

Recent showings

Since winning AFCON in 2013, Nigeria has missed the editions staged in Equatorial Guinea (2015) and Gabon (2017), followed by a 3rd-place finish in Egypt (2019). The tournament in Egypt remains to this date the country’s best showing in a knock-out competition since prevailing 10 years ago. And after Egypt ’19, the team has often given  doubts regarding their contending nature.

In the recent times under the tutelage of of Gernot Rohr, the team lacked quality, zest, and the will to win. Moreover, it failed to entertain supporters cheering in the stands. Momentarily, fans would pause to analyze how each match had played out in evaluation of progress made related to expected progress.

Sometimes, at the indication of full time by referees, supporters grumble out of the stadum in disappointment. However, on other occasions, they enjoyed expressing their grievances by irrupting the pitch and impairing anything in sight.

Famously, after the inability of Nigeria to grind a win out of the contest against Ghana – in a bid to qualify for the world cup in Qatar ’22 – the supporters of the national team invaded MKO Abiola Stadium at the end of the match, causing damage to the venue. Nigeria had just lost to Ghana on away goals rule and for only their second time since their debut in 1994, they were set to miss out on the world’s biggest football showpiece.

Of all upsets suffered by the Eagles, their recent inability to earn a victory over lowly ranked sides Lesotho and and Zimbabwe have contributed to supporters’ latest grievances. There was no reflection of superiority on either legs, they lacked the killer mentality and squandered chances like an amateur team.

With many sectors receiving blames for Nigeria’s poor showing in high-level competitions, there’s a need to research the bedrock of Nigeria’s woes. The question everyone is asking themselves now is, where is it going all wrong for the three-time African Cup of Nations champion?

The players

In the last 10 years, Nigeria has produced some of the best players in Africa and every of these players have consistently enjoyed successes at club side. This includes the likes of John Mikel Obi (Chelsea), Victor Moses (Chelsea, Liverpool & Inter Milan), Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Everton) Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow & Leicester City), Vincent Enyeama (LOSC Lille), Elderson Echejile (AS Monaco), Efe Ambrose (Celtic), Kelechi Iheanacho (Manchester City & Leicester City), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), Leon Balogun (Rangers), Victor Osimhen (SSC Napoli & LOSC Lille), Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal), Paul Onuachu (KRC Genk), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) and Odion Ighalo (Watford & Manchester United), among others.

The knowledge of African football had always been the cornerstone for pundits criticizing players who switched national allegiance to play for their country of descent. Often times, newer players like Calvin Bassey, Tyronne Ebuehi, Joseph Aribo and goalkeeper Maduka Okoye have had their qualities questioned by supporters. Native players like Francis Uzoho have also come under fire after putting up questionable performances in recent matches.

Many believe their playing style is incapable of contending in the competitive African environment. But the question is, can it contend with Europe and South America? Why has an African team not won the World Cup with the African style? Egypt has never been a physical team, yet they have the most AFCON titles. Do foreign players have to be enforced with the African system?

The nature of the game does not dictate adopted systems, which means pundits who attach erratic performances to the performances of non-native players are not eligible to do so. The final result of a match is down to how it is perceived by the players and how well they want a positive result.  

The managers

Since Stephen Keshi was relieved of his national team duties in 2015 – following his inability to lead Nigeria to the AFCON they were expected to defend – Nigeria has had seven different managers (four of whom have worked on a permanent basis) who have imposed their styles on the players. Some players have survived all four, some were booted out on the way.

The immediate long-term successor of Keshi was his fellow national teammate, Sunday Oliseh. Although, Shuaibu Amodu took over the helm as caretaker coach after Keshi’s exit, Oliseh was officially offered managerial responsibilities. He was a very demanding gaffer and often approached games from a pragmatic orientation.

However, his stint only lasted one year as he was not on good books with many veteran players, including Africa’s greatest goal keeper Vincent Enyeama. The disagreements in philosophies between the pair, led to the premature exit of Enyeama from the national team.

Still considering the long-term options, Nigeria employed Gernot Rohr after sacking Oliseh in 2016. The Franco-German upon his appointment, looked like one of Nigeria’s ineradicable managers. Taking charge for five years and qualifying for the world cup and AFCON in 2018 and 2019 retrospectively. His playing style initially contained a lot of flair. Oftentimes, he adopted Caucasian approach to games and though it was fruitful, it excluded local players.

His rejection of players in Nigerian leagues became a huge turn-off for local teams. Under Rohr, Nigeria’s scouting agency dropped the focus on developing talents at home and focused on foreign players with more than just an elementary knowledge of Eurocentric football.

Realizing his demarcation of primary Nigerian football harmony, he was pressurized by the NFF to include home-bred footballers and assume the traditional African game modes. Definitely, heightened pressure contributed to his flaws as his team became boring to watch. He was axws just before the AFCON in 2021 – one which he helped Nigeria qualify for – and until today, Rohr considers this move by the NFF as “a mistake.”

He was succeeded by Augustine Eguavoen on a care-taker basis but for the excellent displays of Super Eagles in the AFCON, retaining his services as head coach. Eguavoen was a conservative but rather too loquacious manager. His performances with the team was amazing in AFCON.

Nigeria was eliminated by the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia in the round of 16 ,but not before reinstating their claim as the team with the highest expected goals (xG) in the competition. An early exit still saw them remain third best team in terms of goals scored.

Losing in the World Cup playoff to eternal rivals Ghana was the last straw that broke the camel’s back for Eguavoen’s tenure. His loose nature of revealing tactical details in press conferences contributed to early axing. Sadly, he took a next-gen manager down with him in Emmanuel Amuneke. He is currently the technical adviser of the national team.

José Peseiro was announced as head coach even before Eguavoen stepped down. It was planned that he would take charge after Nigeria’s campaign at the World Cup: of course, Nigeria failed to qualify. Peseiro has worked with big managers, including current Roma boss, José Mourinho. Allegedly, Peseiro’s countryman was consulted by the NFF before his appointment. Peseiro has overseen friendly matches and every AFCON ’23 and World Cup ’26 Qualifying match so far since his arrival.

He was trashed by Portugal 4–0 after playing out a goalless stalemate with Algeria in his debut match. His biggest accomplishment so far remains his record-breaking 10-0 victory against São Tomé and Principe. Peseiro is an animatic manager, loud, dictating and obsessed with the use of one-two player movements.

He is still at the helms of affairs but intensely scrutinized by the nation’s sport veterans. Constant poor showings similar to that against Guinea Bissau, Lesotho and Zimbabwe might result to his early axing as fans have begin to demand for the head of the Portuguese tactician.  

The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF)

The Nigerian Football Federation is the biggest contributors to the nation’s inability to compete internationally. Previous and current players – local and foreign – have often stressed disapproval in the poor administration of the country’s football by its FA. Poor infrastructures and unfavourable pitch conditions, coupled with unpaid salaries, are some of the incessant complaints tendered by players to the media.

It became obvious when after matches, they would often comment on the deficient turf utilized for key matches at home in comparison to the training grounds at club level. It was important for them as players to be in the best conditions in order to have better displays.

As a result of the NFF’s knowledge on the kind of expected players, they are faulty for abandoning this constant complain. The players at this point seem to have gotten tired of complaining – recollecting how Alex Iwobi bypassed a question surrounding impoverished pitch conditions affecting their recent defeat to Guinea Bissau simply by saying; “No comments.”

The NFF has never really talked about implanting standard turfs and never have they tried to think in the long-run. Every contributed solution is always to get someone out and bring in another quick fix manager.

The grade, qualifications and managerial certifications do not matter to them. As long as the fans have someone that can be held accountable for any errors, they are cool with it. FIFA approved the use of perennial ryegrass at Qatar, knowing that the Middle Eastern nation lacked the capacity to use naturally grown grass.

Many standard pitches today make use of Desso Grassmaster sports field playing surface. It is the most common and perhaps the most popular hybrid turf setting available today. It used at stadiums like Wembley, Old Trafford, Anfield, the Emirates and Stamford Bridge. The centimeters of naturally grown pitches in Nigeria are relatively sub-standard but there is been no observations of these by the NFF.

As if playing top-level footballers on impoverished fields is not enough, they even fail to pay some players for their services. Many blame the players for not being nationalistic enough or lacking the desire to turn-up in big moments, but fail to look beyond what has resulted to these reactions.

At least there havd never been reports of match boycotting conspiracies. Devoid of how the fans have denounced some of their nationalistic importance, they still turn up to team matches, with rare exceptions.

So why not think about it? Transfermarkt recently updated the list of valuable national teams and Nigeria edged out every other national team in Africa, claiming first place with a value of €337M.

In theory, it looks a team with the best depth, having multiple options in different positions. It is far from having a common team chemistry present in teams like Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Morocco, some of the best teams on the continent.

Sadly, the nation Nigeria seems like a shrinking giant which does not seem scary to other teams anymore with all they have left been the name coupled with historical accomplishments.

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