The Darkness At Dawn!
Posted: Oct 21, 2012
Last weekend was one of celebration all over Nigeria.
I have not seen that kind of spontaneous feel-good reaction on the outcome of any football match in a long time. It was a mixture of relief and joy rolled into one.
It is understandable. Nigeria had not won a football match with such a wide margin of goals (6-1) since the defeat of Ethiopia in 1993 at the main bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.
But that was a different team and a different era.
I recall that that was Sunday Oliseh's first match for Nigeria. I recall that was one of Jay Jay Okocha's best matches for Nigeria shortly after making his debut in the national team. I also recall that some of the greatest names in the history of Nigerian football were just emerging on the football scene around the time of that match. It was the beginning of Clemens Westerhof's best period as manager of the Nigerian national team. That team had Rashidi Yekini, Victor Ikpeba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Finidi George, Ben Iroha, Mutiu Adepoju, Peter Rufai, and so on. That match was the beginning of the assembly of Nigeria's most successful team ever.
Such was the impact of that match on the psyche of the national team players and the country as a whole that, beyond it, and within the space of the next one year, the country set new records in accomplishments that have remained unmatched in her history.
By the end of that year in 1993 Nigeria had won the FIFA Under-17 championship in Japan, qualified for the African Cup of Nations and, for the first time in its history, qualified for the World Cup!
When 1993 gave way to 1994 the world became witness to the next 4 years of world-class football by a Nigerian squad that flew on two wings and mesmerised the world. The Green Eagles, as the national team was then known, won the 1994 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia, produced its first African Footballer of the Year (Rashidi Yekini), went to the World Cup in the USA and played some of the most unforgettable and electrifying football by any African country before and since then. The Eagles were so good they were re-christened 'Super Eagles', ranked fourth (the highest ever by any African country) in the world and declared the most entertaining football playing nation on earth that year.
Two years later in 1996 its Olympic team, including several members of the Super Eagles, became the first African country to win the Olympic Gold medal in a series of stunning victories against some of the best football playing countries in the world including Brazil and Argentina.
For political reasons, the country did not go to the African Cup of Nations in South Africa in 1996 and had to wait two more years to appear again on the world scene. By the start of France 1998, evening had started to set once again on Nigerian football but not before the Super Eagles defeated one of the most gifted teams in the world at the time, Spain, in a stunning display of attacking football that saw them win by 3-1. The Spanish people will never forget that defeat in a hurry in their history!
Thereafter, night fell and the Super Eagles went to sleep. Its been 12 years since then and the team has been groping in the dark.
Last Saturday brought back memories of that day long ago in 1993. So, it is okay for Nigerians to celebrate. Having being starved for this long, why not?
Everything put together, Nigeria won handsomely on the night scoring many goals, more goals than they had been doing for years. Yet a close scrutiny of the match reveals that until the goals started to pour in torrents the Eagles were still raggedy and unorganised but dangerous on the breaks.So, does this mark the beginning of an authentic new era in Nigerian football reminiscent of the 1993 to 1998 era?
Even as there is a new dawn in Nigerian football the darkness of night still lingers, it's contents hidden from all. But even as day eventually breaks out into glorious sunshine it is only the unrepentantly optimistic Nigerian who believes that the Super Eagles are back too their great old ways! For all others it is a cautious but appreciative expectation of a new Eagles whose qualities will be judged when daylight eventually shines on the team in South Africa next January! Until then Nigerians can continue to savour the victory of their beloved Super Eagles last weekend!
APPRAISING THE SUPER EAGLES!
That match was for many the first signs of a truly new team playing under a new manager, Stephen Keshi.
He has introduced several changes in the style and content of the Super Eagles.
Vincent Enyeama has served Nigeria well. His best lies in the past. The LIberian sighted the Nigerian goal twice in the entire 90 minutes and one resulted in a goal. Goalkeeping has never been Nigeria's problem. So, to do better than what is on offer now requires that a new, younger goalkeeper from the several good ones in the domestic league be found and groomed quickly!
Efe, playing at right back, scored the first and most important goal and was declared ( I am told) player-of-the-match by people who must have either been watching a different match or were blinded by the euphoria of the goal he scored. Efe was the weakest link in Nigeria's defence.
On the left side, Echejile marked his return to the team with a superlative display of calmness, maturity, confidence and clinical efficiency.
The only goal scored against Nigeria revealed the side's soft underbelly. Several times the Liberian forwards threatened to break down the heart of the Nigerian defence. Nigeria's central defenders work very hard but were relatively too inexperienced (marked by avoidable and unnecessary tackling) to deal with the slick but harmless movements of a timid and uncreative frontline of the Lone Stars who looked dangerous all night but were really, completely toothless.
In the midfield Mikel marked his return with a great performance. His best position is that of a 'holding' midfielder, not an attacking one which everyone, including himself, thinks he should be. He does not possess the quickness, the close ball control, the dribbling skills and the shooting power needed to play more forward. In his anxiety to please Nigerians and redeem a badly dented image he drifted too far forward in that match without being necessarily effective. In spite of that he worked hard, was the calming influence in the team and contributed to two goals.
Mikel was supported by two midfield rookies. So the unit did not play with the understanding of players used to one another. They fought hard but were not comfortable and confident enough on the ball to wrest control of the midfield from the Liberians.For most of the first half, the Nigerian team reminded many of the old-fashioned kick-and-follow style of play that characterised Nigerian football up till the early 1970s.
Up front the Eagles were quick and lethal. A return to the 4-3-3 system and to the use of the wings made sure that throughout 90 minutes, even when the team was not playing well, there was always danger lurking upfront.Speed and power became the team's weapons of destruction. Igiebor, Moses and Musa ran at the Liberian defence so many times down both flanks that goals were always in the making.
What was needed, but was missing initially, was good finishing. Presently, only Kalu Uche possesses the confidence and ability in front of goal that can transform the Eagles once again into a goalscoring machine. He showed it when he came in as a substitute some 20 minutes, or so, to the end of the match. The goals started to rain. Uche is undoubtedly Nigeria's most valuable and consistent player at the moment and the success into the immediate future will depend a lot on how well he fares.
THE UGLY PART OF THE MATCH
I must not end this, however, without making a remark on a small but ugly incident in that match.
Victor Moses, the man from Chelsea FC in England, scored two goals on the night. He had a good game.
But once during the match, with Nigeria four goals up, he got the ball, stopped advancing in any direction and started joggling the ball in one of the most bizarre acts I have ever seen. It was an unbelievable scene. The last time I heard of anything such as that was when late Haruna Ilerika, in his secondary school days, at the King George V Stadium in Lagos, dribbled an opponent, left him sprawling on the ground, and then sat on the ball! That was some 42 years ago at least!
Such conduct may have been excusable. But not in the year 2012, coming from a footballer playing in the most professional league in the world, where such an act would be considered totally irresponsible. What was that for? Humiliating or disrespecting the opponent? To do that in any match is disgraceful, condescending, arrogant and foolish. Football should not and does not harbour such conduct. Players must have nothing else but respect for one another and for the beautiful game.
Why Stephen Keshi did not publicly rebuke and possibly punish him by immediately substituting him, I do not know. It is an unwritten but honoured code amongst professional sportsmen that mockery is a forbidden act in sports. Moses's action amounted to that. He should be made to tender an unreserved apology to the Liberians, to his colleagues, and to Nigerians. Otherwise, one day that shameful act would come round to haunt him, mark my words!
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