Last Saturday in Uyo, something went very wrong for Nigeria’s Super Eagles, and very right for South Africa’s Bafana Bafana.
Whilst Nigerians were stunned into a state of disbelief by the pedestrian performance of their national team, South Africans were ecstatic in celebrating the heights to which their football soared in defeating the once-invincible Eagles with unbelievable ease.
The victory was not a fluke. It was real, and its significance is that, finally, the jinx of Nigeria’s superiority for 25 years of competitive football between the two countries has been broken, the calabash shattered, and the myth destroyed forever. Things would never be the same again between the two countries in football.
Such a feat by the South Africans, as was displayed by their team, is never accomplished in a day or in a sprint. Becoming a football giant is never achieved overnight. It is usually a marathon, a painstaking journey, a systematic progression through stages of slow development armed with the patience of a vulture that can produce such a performance.
In short, the improvement of the Bafana Bafana is real. It has taken them all of 25 years to break through the psychological, physical and technical barriers that generally held them back for so long, and left them basking only in the pyrrhic but deserved victory at the 1996 AFCON hosted by them for some consolation.
Nigeria has been their ultimate litmus test because, aside from never defeating Nigeria, it has never been an easy task to do by any country anywhere. So, to achieve that on Nigerian ground was an exceptional feat that must be acknowledged even though the Eagles were also abysmally poor on the night.
The South African team played with a lot of gusto, confidence, discipline, organization and with a simple strategy that was executed effectively and masterfully. Towards the end of the match, they made the Nigerian team look like bungling school boys. The Nigerians resorted to the football of the 1960s – long, high hopeful balls from defense to a frontline that was tamed by towering defenders.
At the end of the day, everyone agrees, Gernot Rohr is to blame. It was all his fault, his mistakes and his responsibility. The team he assembled was simply not good enough.
He took South Africa for granted and assumed that any team he assembled would defeat them based on history and past tradition. He played with the weakest goalkeeper to have ever kept goal for the Super Eagles. He played a debutant young player in the heart of the defense. He played with three great defensive midfielders in one team at the same time. Throughout most of the match they clashed in their roles. He did not have a holding midfield player as well as a creative midfield general. He did not play the young in-form forwards at the start of the game. He did not have the player(s) to calm things down when the going got rough and to maintain some discipline in formation. Finally, he only deployed his new, young, in-form and lethal forwards late in the game when the match had already been lost. The players became totally lost also and would now require some deep psychological healing to regain their confidence going forward.
But having said all of that, I refuse to take back my words from last week that a new Super Eagles team is in the offing.
It is apparent that Gernot Rohr, the German manager of the Super Eagles, did not have the deep understanding of the psychology of Nigerian football – that you do not pamper players hewn on the rough, tough, crisis-driven and chaotic diet of Nigerian football. Clemens Westerhof made them ‘mad’ by depriving them, annoying them, challenging them and daring them before throwing them into the dungeon of hard games. Rohr must take a few lessons from his methods.
The greatest challenge Rohr would now have to face is how to rekindle the Nigerian spirit in the team and to restore the self-confidence that must have been shattered by their failure to live up to all the pre-match hype and huge expectations of Nigerians in the new players.
The absence of the experiences of players like Vincent Enyeama, Mikel Obi and Victor Moses was apparent in that match. Those were needed at a point during the match to calm down the players and make them maintain their more effective passing game with fast runs down the flanks to break down the South African’s defense till the very end.
So, beyond last Saturday, Rohr’s work is well cut out for him. He must have learnt new and useful lessons. Some elementary mistakes were made that must never be repeated.
He must get the Eagles to put this painful defeat behind them, and start to slowly nurture the team back to health. He needs time and many matches, both of which, unfortunately, are in short supply. He must finally reassure Nigerians about the future to secure their full support again.
Rohr, without question has the right temperament. He is cool, calm and collected. The last things he needs now are any form of rebuke or interference by the NFF, its technical committee or the public. What he needs are support and understanding.
These Eagles can still be the future of Nigerian football if Rohr does not allow this one match to destabilize, discourage and distract him from his goal of a new and better Super Eaglesthat can play at the highest levels.
He has embarked on the journey already and is assembling the right kind of players amongst those available presently around the world. He will encounter hiccups like the South African defeat along the way, but how he manages to weather the storms and still maintain a winning tradition through the critical and difficult matches ahead will be his ultimate challenge.
The team needs an injection of a few critical mature and experienced players in the squad, particularly in goal, in the heart of the defense and in the attacking midfield position. It needs a creative midfield general, an artist, a player that can hold the ball and deliver ‘killer’ passes to free a front line brimming with goal scoring talents. The very quick attackers must be filled with the confidence and freedom to take on defenders, use the spaces in the flanks and their natural physicality within the box to finish in front of goal.
So, although their wings are temporarily clipped, they will soon grow back, and the Eagles will fly high once again.
This time the Super Eagles were truly well beaten. I say, congratulations to Bafana Bafana for a great, well-deserved victory!