When the Group Managing Director of Complete Communications Ltd., Alhaji Mumini Alao, saw the draw for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, he said something like “We will qualify from the group. We have to believe we will. We can’t afford to miss another AFCON.”
Alhaji Alao knows his football having been around for ages and covered the Super Eagles for many years. But he was speaking more in hope than expectation in our Okota, Lagos office that Wednesday afternoon.
The Super Eagles have fallen from the heady heights of being African champions in 2013 to the nadir of failing to qualify for the tournament that followed.
With only one spot guaranteed in each qualifying group, you would have to be a wildly optimistic Nigerian to expect the Super Eagles to win the group ahead of Egypt, Tanzania and Chad.
While their group rivals are not exactly world beaters at the moment, the Eagles are also not in the kind of state to inspire confidence.
The Nigerian side did not win any of their last three matches, losing one and drawing two. Given that these games were against South Africa (twice) and Uganda, one would have expected more, much more.
Also, two of these games were at home, one of which was a friendly defeat to Uganda. Nigeria did not play well in any of these games. Poor performances plus poor results.
The truth is that the Super Eagles are in horribly poor form and the absence of a substantive coach is not helping matters.
Since that 2-2 draw at the magnificent Akwa Ibom Stadium, Uyo back in November, the Eagles have not had a full-time coach.
The world record contract negotiation between the Nigeria Football Federation and Stephen Keshi has dragged on, both parties going on as if the interest of Nigerian football is secondary to their battle of gigantic egos.
In a sane society, Keshi would have resigned honorably after failing to get the team to qualify for the 2015 AFCON. Of course he is a lifetime hero for winning the African trophy in 2013. But he received the acclaim and rewards worthy of his success and he reveled in all the adulation.
But the qualifying campaign for the 2015 AFCON was a huge shambles (losses to Sudan away and Congo at home are inexcusable and ultimately costly) and Keshi should have been long gone.
The NFF did sack him at a point during the qualifiers in a desperate attempt to rescue the situation. But they were overruled.
The football body would have got some sympathy for the interference from the powers that be, but their rather lame cover-up of the whole mess stank to high heavens.
Any little goodwill they were getting went up in smoke when they claimed that Shaibu Amodu, who had been named as Keshi’s replacement, had turned down the offer. That would be the same Amodu that had already started talking to the press about his plans for the rest of the qualifiers.
Now they seem stuck with Keshi, but even getting him to return is being handled like some complicated space rocket mission.
With this situation, it would be foolhardy to expect the wobbly Eagles to soar through the group and qualify for Angola 2017 with ease.
Even without the NFF/Keshi mess, it is open to argument if Nigeria has players with enough quality to ensure progress.
Let us break the squad down and see how good our playing personnel really are.
Obviously, Nigeria is well stacked in the goalkeeping department with Vincent Enyeama, Austin Ejide and a raft of shot-stoppers in the Nigeria Professional Football League (Glo Premier League). So, no problem there.
The leaders of the Eagles defence at the moment are Efe Ambrose, Elderson Echiejile, Godfrey Oboabona, Kenneth Omeruo and Azubuike Egwuekwe. Apart from perhaps Warri Wolves’ Egwuekwe, none of these players gets regular action at club level; they haven’t played well for the Eagles in a long while.
Oboabona and Omeruo were poor against Uganda and South Africa in recent friendlies; and both of them, along with Monaco’s Echiejile, are not getting games. Oboabona is struggling at a low-level Turkish club; Omeruo can’t dislodge over-the-hill, 35-year-old Jonathan Woodgate at second division Middlesbrough.
Among the new crop of defenders, Leon Balogun plays for a lower league club in Germany and the ones based at home have not been too convincing.
The midfield is not much better. The key men are not regulars at club level and have not been too impressive for the Super Eagles.
The last time Mikel Obi was any good was at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil. The Chelsea midfielder was more of a liability than an asset at the last World Cup and the qualifiers for AFCON 2015. He also hardly gets games at Chelsea when fit, as he plays back-up to Nemanja Matic or only gets thrown on when a game needs to be sewn up with the Blues leading.
The other senior midfielder in the squad, Ogenyi Onazi, spends much more time out of the Lazio team than in, and has been shocking in most of his recent international games.
The new breed of Reading’s Hope Akpan and the Switzerland-based Steven Ukoh do not fill fans with much hope and not many midfield gems have been unearthed in the Glo Premier League.
The attack is also not very encouraging. Emmanuel Emenike has failed to hit any kind of form since the AFCON two years ago and some of the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup. He is also struggling at Fenerbahce where the club’s fans have turned on him.
Brown Ideye has hit a rough patch after a good run of form for West Brom, and he hasn’t played for the Super Eagles in ages.
Ikechukwu Uche is not exactly setting La Liga on fire at Villarreal, where he has been struggling with injuries.
However, the attack has some bright lights in Ahmed Musa (even though he is not the most consistent player around), Raja Casablanca’s Osaguona Ighodalo and Esperance new boy Emem Eduok.
The truth is that the Eagles are in a really tough group, maybe the toughest of the 13, and the playing and coach staff do not inspire much confidence.
But qualification is still possible – even probable – if they set out clear targets and go diligently after these targets.
First, sort out the coaching issue and get the boss working at least a month before the first match in June.
Once this is done, the next thing is to go aggressively after realizable targets.
It is quite simple really. While only one spot is guaranteed for the group, the runners-up can also qualify if they are one of the two best second-placed teams.
In view of these, the Eagles do not even need to finish above fellow fallen giants Egypt.
The key thing is for the Eagles to assert their superiority over minnows Tanzania and Chad. Home and away wins over these two would bring in 12 points; anything from the two Egypt games would be a nice bonus.
So, with say 13 points (or 15 if the Eagles beat Egypt in Nigeria) qualification would be virtually assured. If Nigeria can’t top the group, chances are they would secure qualification as one of the best two runners-up.
To achieve this, we must avoid the usual destructive tendency to underrate the smaller teams. The Eagles would have easily qualified for the last AFCON if they had beaten Congo in Calabar and Sudan away. The two draws with South Africa would not have been ultimately damaging.
Hopefully, they would have learnt their lessons, and excuses of hostile crowds, poor pitches and such nonsense would not be necessary.
Just beat Tanzania and Chad home and away and get us to Gabon.
MOAN OF THE WEEK
It’s disheartening that Nigerian players never seem to learn.
The latest in the series of harebrained moves is that of Flying Eagles captain Musa Muhammed deserting the U23s camp days to a key match in Lusaka, apparently to go on trials abroad.
You just wonder who gives these kids advice. Couldn’t they have told Muhammed that if the obscure club he was rushing off to try out for really wanted him they could wait one or two more weeks?
It’s not as if the transfer window is about to close or there is some sort of deadline he had to meet.
Our young players should start learning that patience pays, and if you’re talented enough, you will get lucrative deals abroad with proper clubs.
I would not be surprised if Muhammed ended up in Serbia or Azerbaijan with a controversial contract requiring the NFF’s intervention.