Happy New Yak!
Posted: Feb 23, 2012
STEPHEN KESHI’s decision to recall Yakubu Aiyegbeni to the Super Eagles after nearly two years in the wilderness did not come to me as a surprise. In fact, let me say that I saw it coming and that is partly why I delayed the resumption of this column since the turn of the new year 2012.
The headline, “Happy New Yak!” was set in stone in my mind since January, an obvious adaptation of “Happy New Year,” and I was determined to use it. When Keshi released last week the list of players he was calling up for Nigeria’s preliminary round 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Rwanda next week in Kigali and Yakubu made it, I knew it was time for Soccertalk to make a return, just like The Yak!
Happy new year, dear readers. It’s nice to be back on the beat, never mind my prolonged holiday since December last year.
If we are going to get the “new” Super Eagles that we all crave for, patience is one virtue that we have to embrace in all it’s ramifications. We have to be patient with the coach, patient with the players, patient for the new team to evolve, and patient for the results to come.
Patience with the players includes forgiving the likes of Yakubu and Sani Kaita whom Keshi has recalled to the team following the unfortunate incidents at South Africa 2010 World Cup. I recall pleading on both players’ behalf back then that missing an open goal or committing a red card offence shouldn’t constitute an offence punishable by permanent exclusion from the Eagles. Yakubu may still miss more goals and Kaita may be red-carded again in the future; these things happen in football.
What is important is their overall contribution to team success.
Patience with the coach includes giving him the space to do his work as he thinks best. Each time the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) officials promise to give a coach a “free hand to work,” I wonder what they’re talking about. They make it sound like its a privilege, a favour to the coach, whereas it’s a right; a must for the coach to enjoy that “free hand” to do his job. Or, would they rather tie a coach’s hands, and still expect him to perform?
Apart from Keshi being fully within his rights to recall Yakubu, the facts on the ground also show that it’s the right thing to do. Yakubu has been scoring regularly for his English Premier League club, Blackburn Rovers. A few weeks back, he was suspended after a red card offence only for him to make a scoring return coincidentally ahead of the week Keshi was due to announce his list. How could you ignore such an in-form player?
Kaita’s recall is admittedly contentious because we haven’t seen him in action for quite a while. He will need to prove to us that he’s still his old workaholic self in midfield.
Let’s get something very clear. A new Super Eagles is not necessarily a young or old team nor home-based or foreign-based. A new team is just one that plays with a new mentality, a new commitment and a new vigour. A new Super Eagles is one that plays with pace, power and determination like the new African champions Zambia, not the sluggish, laborious and predictable style that became Nigeria’s hallmark especially during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. Where ever and whoever Keshi finds that fits the new Eagles, he’s free to call them up irrespective of what might have happened in the past.
Rather than Yakubu’s perceived “old age” for instance, (Didier Drogba is older at 33 while Zambian captain Christopher Katongo is of the same age as Yakubu at 30), I believe what will define the success of Yakubu’s return to the Eagles is the strength of our midfield. Whoever coined the slogan “Feed the Yak and he would score” is right on the button. Yakubu is not a Lionel Messi nor a Christiano Ronaldo who single-handedly create chances for themselves and score. Yakubu is more like a Javier Hernandez who feeds off others to finish ruthlessly. If Keshi finds someone to Feed The Yak regularly, he would score regularly for Nigeria just as he does for Blackburn.
I have only used Yakubu to illustrate a key point in this article that, as we go about rebuilding the Super Eagles, we shouldn’t throw away our old pair of shoes before the new set is tried and tested. If we weren’t playing an important Nations Cup qualifier so soon, we could have continued our experimentation with the home lads until they gained enough experience and confidence to stand on their own, no matter how long it took. But I would think we are desperate to qualify for AFCON 2013 after missing out on 2012, so all our best hands (and legs) must be on deck.
In words and in deeds, Keshi has clearly demonstrated his commitment to giving the home-based players a real chance in the national team since he took over. But even he realizes that he needs the experience and exposure of some of the foreign-based players to have a stronger team. He has invited only 11 of them for the game against Rwanda in Kigali which means that some home lads will definitely make the final selection. Compared with what used to happen in recent past when the entire squad was imported from abroad, Keshi has started courageously indeed. We must support him and be patient for the results to show.
Keshi: So Far, So Good
STEPHEN Keshi has managed not to concede defeat in his four international matches since he assumed work as Super Eagles supremo. But what has impressed me even more than his “results” is his overall management of the team. So far, the Big Boss has shown that he has truly matured since his exuberant days as assistant coach to Jo Bonfrere.
Keshi has ruled that ear-rings are not allowed in his camp. He has outlawed players eloping from the national team and going abroad for so-called “trials” and told them to approach him for advice instead. After his friendly wins over Zambia in Kaduna late last year and against Liberia in Monrovia penultimate week, he downplayed the results and admonished the players, journalists and fans alike that the team still had a long way to go. After beating local teams Voice of Nigeria (3-0) and DSS of Kaduna (4-0) in practice matches, Keshi showered his opponents with words of encouragement and gave their coaches a pat on the back. While short-listing the 11 players he called from abroad for the Rwanda game, reports say Keshi also contacted the other players he left out, assuring them that it could be their turn next time. And now that he has to drop more home boys from the squad that will travel to Kigali, Keshi has been describing his pain, saying he wished he could take all the players along because they had worked so hard and showed such great talent and ability. Fantastic!
A lot of people may not take notice, but these words and actions by Keshi speak a lot for the discipline, unity and humility that he is apparently trying to build in his team. Any good manager in any field of endeavour will tell you that these are virtues you need for your team to be successful.
Keshi’s actions and words so far demonstrate his deep knowledge and clear understanding of the problems that have bedevilled the Eagles in the past, having experienced or even been part of these problem himself (!) as team captain and assistant coach for a cumulative period of more than 20 years. A yoruba proverb says that “only a thief knows best how to trail another thief.” With his previous knowledge of the inside-workings of the national team and the very matured manner he has handled affairs in his short time in charge, Keshi might yet prove to be an inspired appointment for Nigeria.
I predict that he will return the Super Eagles to glory if we are patient for him to carry through his project. I can feel it very strongly.
Lessons from AFCON 2012
NATURALLY, everybody has been talking about the lessons to be learned from Zambia’s surprise triumph at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations recently concluded in Gabon & Equitorial Guinea. The fact that the majority of the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) squad is based at “home” in Africa stands out which showed in their team cohesion on the field. Following the three successive triumphs by Egypt in 2006, 2008 and 2010, the last four African titles have now been won by teams parading largely home-based (or Africa-based) players.
Should Nigeria therefore rely only on home-based players to break our Nations Cup duck? Nothing can be more simplistic.
Egypt did it successfully because they have a strong domestic league and a team that was talented and disciplined. Zambia do not have a strong domestic league (most of their key players play in South Africa) yet they were successful because they were talented and disciplined. Note: none of their players wore ear-rings!
By contrast, Cote d’Ivoire lost the 2012 final penalty shoot-out just like they did to Egypt in 2006, NOT because they paraded a foreign-based team but simply because fate had made up its mind to favour Zambia for the loss of their football heroes that died in a 1993 plane crash off the coast of Gabon where the 2012 AFCON final was played. Or, how else can we explain a team that did not concede any goal in open play throughout the tournament (CIV) going home without the trophy? Like Segun Odegbami suggested in his analysis, the gods of football are to blame for CIV’s loss of a tournament they did enough to win.
Joint pre-tournament favourites, Ghana, meanwhile, lost to a lack of humility. Having been runners-up in 2010 and with heavyweights Egypt, Cameroun and Nigeria missing from the roster, the Black Stars felt that all they had to do was show up and pick up the trophy this time around. Striker Asamoah Gyan demonstrated their arrogance at a press conference when he boasted that he was the best thing to happen to African football since sliced bread. Pride comes before a fall.
Gyan’s missed penalty in the semi-final against Zambia led to Ghana’s elimination and he has been forced to suspend himself from the team following widespread public anger against him. Didier Drogba also missed a penalty in the final against Zambia, but Ivorians still welcomed him back home like a hero, knowing that the spirits of the 1993 Zambian dead “resurrected” to crown the present team.
So, in my opinion, the big lesson Nigeria must draw from Zambia’s victory is not necessarily to forcefully domesticate our national team, but to cultivate and field a team of players psychologically imbued with discipline, humility and determination whether they are from home or abroad.
The other (technical) characteristics common to the successful Egyptian and Zambian teams which Nigeria must imbibe are technique, organization, fitness and pace. In modern day football, these are pre-requisites for any team that wants to be champions, irrespective of where the players are coming from.
Join The Debate
Feed the Yak and he would score.” Well, I guess the same rule applies to Osaze Odemwingie, Ike Uche and the other strikers Stephen Keshi will parade against Rwanda.
So, who should do the “feeding?” How should Keshi line up his midfield to repel the Rwandans and “feed” our strikers. I have a feeling that (midfield) is what would determine Nigeria’s fate in Kigali.
Send in your recommended Eagles line-up for publication in Soccertalk next week to assist Keshi make the right selection. Please take note of my new number for your text messages: 0809-516-2244. Remember, it’s sms only, please.
Alternatively, you may post your long reaction at www.completesportsnigeria.com/soccertalk OR join a live discussion at www.naijasuperfans.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at www.twitter/Mumini_Alao. Whichever platform catches your fancy, be sure that your views will reach the Big Boss!
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