By Nurudeen Obalola:
Nigeria went to two World Cups this month and performed poorly in both in spite of going with squads filled with talented players.
The Flying Eagles had arguably the most formidable forward line at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, yet they crashed in only the round of 16, failing to score against their conquerors Germany.
On their part, the Super Falcons players are probably as good technically as any other squad of players at the Women’s World Cup, yet the Nigerian ladies are on their way home after finishing bottom of their group.
So, what was the problem, since it was not a lack of quality players?
Preparation can be ruled out for the Flying Eagles since they spent weeks in Germany pre-tournament and played a number of friendlies against U-23 sides of Bundesliga clubs.
The Falcons’ preparations were not as good, as they camped in Abuja and played junior boys in friendlies, but there were no complaints before the World Cup. In fact, they were full of talk of how they would shock the world.
So that leaves us with coaching. We witnessed in New Zealand and Canada a failure to fully harness the potential of very good players and bring out the best in them.
As much as the U-20 World Cup should not be all about results, it is the coach’s duty to make his side compete at a high level and display glimpses of a bright future.
Manu Garba and his assistants failed in that regard.
Boasting a forward line of Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho, who was voted the Most Valuable Player at the FIFA U-17 World Cup two years ago and came into the U-20 World Cup in extremely good form with the City U-21s; Moses Simon, who just led his club to the Belgian league title; the in-form Taiwo Awoniyi; and Success Isaac of Granada, Garba’s side was at least expected to guarantee goals.
But after the 4-2 loss to Brazil, in which the Flying Eagles exhibited in spells some exhilarating attacking football but lacked balance, Garba binned the big names and became a bit too cautious.
Admittedly, fielding all of Iheanacho, Isaac, Awoniyi and Yahaya in the same match, and against the dangerous Brazil, was suicidal, dropping all of them bar Awoniyi for the next games was not the solution.
Ironically, it was in games against relatively weak opponents like North Korea and Hungary Garba should have taken such a gung-ho approach. But the scar from the Brazil-inflicted wound was too deep and the coach went safety first, probably against his own nature.
The Flying Eagles were not as fluid in their next two games against North Korea and Hungary after the Brazil thriller, but they won.
And this win gave Garba a false sense of superiority. Having gone a bit humble after the Brazil defeat, the coach and his players started boasting again as they prepared for Germany.
Going with the old-school mantra ‘you don’t change a winning team’, Garba went with the same sides that defeated Hungary and North Korea, instead of approaching each game based on the strength of the opponent.
The Nigeria coach and his ‘winning team’ had no answers to Germany’s furious pressing game. There was not the guile (and clever passes) of Iheanacho as an outlet, nor the skills of Musa Yahaya to get out of tight situations.
Garba stuck with Kingsley Sokari and Bernard Bulbwa, two players who had underperformed but had retained their places because they were part of a ‘winning team’.
Sokari scored one goal but had a tendency to either pass to an opponent when not under pressure or to get caught in possession while unnecessarily showboating. Bulbwa was well below his African Youth Championship level.
Sokari eventually cost the team dearly, getting caught in possession in a dangerous area and gifting Germany their only goal.
A more observant coach would have seen Sokari’s weakness and warned him against repeating it, but Garba did not and he paid for it.
Perhaps Garba fared even better that Falcons coach Edwin Okon, who appeared to spend more time praying than working on his team.
Anybody who has been watching women’s football for the past 15, 20 years would admit that Nigerian ladies have grown tremendously in terms of technical ability.
This was evident back in 1999 when the Super Falcons reached the quarter-finals of the Women’s World Cup, going toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the world and not getting disgraced.
Sixteen years on, the Nigerian team parades players with such talent, there are few better than them anywhere in the world when it comes to ball skills.
Asisat Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie, Francisca Ordega, Ngozi Okobi, Stella Nnodim and a few others have shown with their ability that what is lacking for them is a proper coach with proper tactics.
We can blame their shoddy preparation all we want, but Okon displayed traits of a coach still stuck in the 1970s.
His open show of praying and seeking God’s intervention was embarrassing and portrayed Nigeria as an unserious team too reliant on the supernatural.
Obviously, I am not against praying, but in sports God is neutral because we are all His children.
What wins you games is hardwork, planning, and a winning strategy. Okon even went as far as saying only God could dissect his tactics before the Australia game, but the Matildas had the perfect plan to stifle the Falcons’ attacking threat and hit the Nigerians on the break.
The Australia plan worked perfectly. I’m sure the Australia coach is not God; he is just a mere mortal like Mr Okon, the prayer warrior.
What the ongoing two World Cup finals have highlighted is something many of us have known for ages: Nigerian coaches need to up their game.
The country has been producing players at a top level for decades, players who are as good as any in the world. But our coaches seem to be stuck in a time capsule, refusing to rise beyond mediocrity.
Before the NFF Prozone training and all the fancy software, the average Nigerian coach must first change his mentality.
Instead of looking for excuses all the time, the Nigerian coach must first learn to take responsibility for his team’s failures and seek improvement.
I have covered a fair bit of the Nigerian league, and the default setting of a losing coach is to blame the referee. It happens 19 times out of 20. It is hardly ever the coach’s fault that his team let in a soft goal, or his attack is too blunt to score. Just blame it on the referee; it is the easy way out.
That was why I was not surprised when Okon said with a straight face to a global television audience that his team lost to the USA because the officiating was unfair.
You can’t blame him, that is the way he is wired, having worked in Nigeria for so long.
The average Nigerian coach hardly ever talks tactics pre- or post-match. They ask us to pray for them before games, and blame referees, the pitch or bad luck after.
Garba thought his team was unlucky; Okon thought his was robbed despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
When the average Nigerian coach starts accepting that maybe the guy in the other dugout has done a better job and deserves his victory, the Nigerian coach has started a journey to a winning strategy.
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