Eagles Can Win The Nations Cup After AFCON 2012!
Posted: Oct 28, 2012
Last Wednesday night the whole of Africa watched with keen interest as the draws ceremony of the 2013 African Cup of Nations were conducted in Durban, South Africa.
As usual, the event was one of superb entertainment as some great African football legends were 'resurrected' from the archives and honoured to take part in the draws. It was very commendable that CAF celebrated its rich history with excellent citations about the players read out by the General -Secretary of the Confederation as they were invited to the stage. It was a good show!
Immediately after the event (and for the next several weeks I believe) the conversations in most places in Africa would be about the various teams and their chances, who is likely to win what, how the teams would probably play, and so on. That is the game before the games. I was dragged into it immediately by hoards of people who called me up and wanted to know my impressions.
That's how I spent the whole of Thursday, answering questions and responding to people that wanted to know where I stood on Nigeria's chances considering that I had too often in the past put my neck of the chopping block with predictions that offended the sensibilities of a lot of people that think that I have been reckless and sometimes arrogant with my predictions. Yet they come back asking for more of the same thing. So, I offer my humble opinion!
What are my immediate thoughts on the sixteen teams that have qualified to showcase most of Africa's best footballers and brand of football next January? Am I going to start by immediately predicting the team that will win AFCON 2013? I guess those questions have to wait for one more week. Let me start from the home front. Nigeria's Super Eagles are locked in Group C with Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Zambia. How will they fare?
To start with, Group C is definitely not the dreaded 'group of death' in the 2013 AFCON. What this means is that under 'normal' circumstances, Nigeria should be favourites to emerge as one of the two that will qualify from the group, even if achieving this initial feat would not be as easy as my summation may sound. The Super Eagles have not been quite consistent even after their impressive last outing against Liberia that appears to be giving Nigerians a bloated sense of their national team's capability at the moment.
I listened to a radio programme the other day where all the telephone callers to the programme lavishly predicted that the Super Eagles would win the African Cup of Nations come January. I could not help but wonder where this level of optimism came from. Definitely, it could not be from the team's last few performances that have not been quite convincing until Liberia came along and made the Eagles look like champions with a flattering scoreline that surely has beclouded Nigerians.
The Super Eagles are an evolving team even now. They would need to tread very cautiously and fight extremely hard to survive the scare that would undoubtedly be thrown at them by even minnows like Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. Some people say there are no minnows any more in African football? Bury the thought, there are. It is like saying that either of Burkina Faso or Ethiopia will win the championship. No way! The two teams have been the regular 'wives' of Nigeria for decades. They cannot defeat the defending champions, Zambia, that have continued to impress. But mark the word I used - 'scare'. Ethiopia and Burkina Faso will create a scare before falling in the first round.
The real rofo rofo (muddy) fight will be between Zambia and Nigeria. That may turn out to be one of the matches of the championship, depending of course on when during the group matches, it is played. The matches between both countries at this level, even before my days in the national team in the 1970s and 1980s, have always been very close, very hard-fought and very unpredictable, with Nigeria doing more of the struggling to survive. Even with the Eagles at their best in 1994, the Zambians were so good that the final match of Tunisia '94 could easily have gone either way and no one would have complained. Things have not changed between them since then. It is all about character and playing styles. I can compare the matches between the two countries with the fights between Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali, a pugilistic feast of exceptional boxing that gripped the imagination of the world. Even the greatest boxer in the history of the game had so much respect for Frazier that he described one of their fights (the Thriller in Manilla) as the closest experience to death!
So, I foresee another terrific encounter between the Chipolopolo and the Super Eagles in January. That match may indeed be Nigeria's first authentic test of how strong the new Super Eagles have become since Stephen Keshi's began his experimentation of introducing several players from the domestic league into his new-look team.
Let me attempt to read Stephen Keshi's mind as he leads the Eagles to South Africa. He wants to win. To do so, he wants to build a team of good players used to each other fighting like lions rather than a collection of famous players playing to the gallery like peacocks. He has been looking at the strategies of teams that have won in the past and learning. He is building a new national team with a simple and clear playing style defined by previous winning teams. What made the Eagles of 1980 and 1994 special? In 1980 the team was made up of all home-based players built into a well-organised and well-oiled compact midfield with flying wingers! In 1994, they were even more compact as a team built through 4 years of playing as a unit (with a short spell in Europe at the start of the mass exodus to European clubs) that did not adversely affect the unity already built into the team. It also had a great midfield and flying wingers on both flanks.
Note that the teams with the best players in Europe have not always been the winning teams in AFCON as recent results have shown, otherwise Cote D' Ivoire, Cameroun, Nigeria and Ghana should have won recent championships. But it is Egypt and Zambia that have shone the light of the authentic winning formula. Look at the content of the two teams and you will start to see what is playing in Keshi's mind. At their best, they had a predominant local content that produced winning teams not necessarily brilliant individual players.
So, the Eagles are back to playing fast and furious down both flanks. That has always been the strength of Nigerian football. They are hard to stop when they perfect it. Keshi's biggest challenge yet would be his midfield combination and his choice of captain.
The midfield is undoubtedly the most important part of every team. That's where the goals are created and prevented. That's the engine room of every team. Keshi still does not have a consistent, confident and creative midfield that can compliment the rampaging runners up front. He has less than two months to get it right. The glaring fact is that Nigeria's midfield needs Mikel Obi like tea needs sugar. His experience, holding ability and passing skills are invaluable. How to get his commitment may be Keshi's greatest challenge.
Keshi's choice of captain would also be another very important matter. Winning teams have strong captains to lead them through difficult matches that are bound to come. Yobo has only looked the part for years but never played it effectively. Vincent in goal is too remote from the main theatre of the action to impact the team well enough. Keshi requires a captain with the heart of a Lion like himself when he was in the national team, like Christian Chukwu, Christopher Katongo, Rigobert Song, Asamoah Gyan, and Muda Lawal. These are players that drove their teams to extra-ordinary heights with their industry and leadership-by-example. They played with a ruthless, singleminded-ness that propelled other team members to exceed their normal capacities and attempt to win always against all odds.
Keshi has to get such a player to lead his team if the Super Eagles are to stand any chance of going far or possibly going all the way. Could it be Mikel?
The good thing is that the Eagles do not even remotely look the part of eventual champions now, so they may be under-rated by their opponents. The bad thing is that Nigerians expect them to win now and that may put on them that extra pressure that does not translate into victory.Nigerians seem to think that these Eagles will win the African Cup of Nations. I think differently. Surely, it is not impossible, but realistically, it is unlikely.At AFCON 2013, the Eagles will play well and get far in the championship, but will only be ready to win it in 2015 or 2017!
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