THE DWINDLING CHANCES OF THE SUPER EAGLES!

(Mathematical7: Segun Odegbami Column)
I am in trouble. A very close friend has been reading my views about Nigeria and the country’s chances in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

He has decided to invest a fortune in attending his very first World Cup because, as he alarmingly told me, I have painted such a positive picture since after the exploits of the Super Eagles at the last African Cup of Nations championship in South Africa in 2013, that he now truly believes with all his being that Nigeria will win the Word Cup! He has saddled me with the responsibility to make all the arrangements for his trip there.

I readily admit that I have paid the Super Eagles and their manager, Stephen Keshi, such glowing tributes that I may have inadvertently painted such a picture – that Nigeria would do very well during the World Cup. But to win it? That is a completely different story.

Some months ago, I could have wagered that Nigeria would get very close to such a lofty height, but right now, such hopes are becoming faint.

A few months in the life of a football team is a very long time indeed. The past few months have not been the perfect arrangement for a team that is destined to win!

The situation with me is that whenever it comes to the matter of Nigeria and the World Cup, I have remained an unrepentant optimist.

Through the years since 1994 when I was embedded in the team as the last person to hold the scrapped position of Team manager of the Super Eagles, I have learnt not to underestimate the capacity of the Nigerian team to spring pleasant surprises.

1994, of course, stands as a historic anchor. It was an extra-ordinary year. The Super Eagles could very easily have got to the semi-finals (and probably beyond) of the USA ’94 World Cup but for the unfortunate slip up against Italy in a quarter-final match they dominated, but let slip through their fingers in the dying minutes of the game, due to inexperience.  That team was loaded with individually brilliant players.

In 1998, Nigeria, with a depleted team from 1994, and a build up to the championship marked with confusion and a new coach that was more of a tourist than a coach, that did not know his left from his right about Nigerian football, and had no solid plan to compete for the trophy, put up one of it’s most remarkable performances ever, as well as its worst! Such was the level of the inconsistency of the team that they defeated pre-tournament favorites, Spain, by 3-2, and lost scandalously to Denmark by 4 -1, only two matches later!   The team was a mish-mash of a few great players, but not a team!

2002 was a year to forget in a hurry. The team was so ‘good’ it deservedly did not win a single match during it’s group matches.  The team had neither great individual players nor anything that looked remotely like a team.
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2010 was Nigeria’s last outing at the World Cup. The confusion in the team about who would lead it to the World Cup rendered any meaningful preparation impossible, and the team lost even before setting out for South Africa.  The side also had an aging squad of a few good players but no team!

Through all the 4 World Cup championships that Nigeria had participated in since inception, I had been consistent in building up hope that the Super Eagles would re-enact their 1994 shock-and-awe character.

So, in my usual optimism that the Nigerian spirit would prevail against the tide of the facts on ground, I have been singing like a canary that Brazil 2014 holds great promise. I believe every word I have written so far: Nigeria has a new team that is not psychologically burdened by the failures of the past; a new coach who is giving his players great confidence and guidance; and a set of players with hunger in their eyes and an uncommon fighting spirit. I have not been able to disbelieve my initial instincts that this group of a few outstanding players but playing as a team with the attitude of a champion, would go far in the Brazil 2014 World Cup.

That is why I am in trouble. That is why Engineer Nat Ikem, my good friend, a fanatical lover of Nigerian football and the Super Eagles, is bristling with enthusiasm to invest in going to his first ever World Cup! Nat says he recklessly shares my optimism and intends to go to Brazil and return with the Super Eagles holding the 2014 World Cup. What a dream!

So, as we approach Brazil 2014, with about 100 days to go, what do I see?

Nigerians are raising high the banner of hope. They have risen in one voice to support Stephen Keshi to lead the national team he has been building for the past two years to Brazil. Nigerians have rejected any form of interference from any quarters in Keshi’s work.

Finally, the core of the team is already in place, even though a few new and old names still come up occasionally in media conversations.  Friendly matches have been lined up. A camping site has been chosen in America for the last lap of preparations. Indeed, the road to Brazil is laced with hope!

Suddenly, Clemens Westerhof’s old theorem about Nigerian football has started to send early warning signals: ‘When everything is going well and quiet and smooth the Nigerian team falters’.

I have started to sense some tingling of apprehension. It has nothing to do with Stephen Keshi, or anything untoward about the team. The matter is really outside anyone’s control.

The Nigerian team is not loaded with outstanding players. It’s strength is in the team –team work and team spirit, physical condition of the players, and the players’ fighting spirit.

Winning or going far in the World Cup requires playing at a very high level consistently through all the matches, and having plenty of luck.  But to play consistently at a high level against strong oppositions requires that players are not just good  individually but also must be in tip-top shape for the championship. Their level of performance must be high, and they must be sharp and at their peak!

That’s the cause of my new apprehension with the present Super Eagles. The most important ingredient to prepare the players and put them at their peak is missing! Almost all the key players in the team have not been playing regularly in their clubs! They have not accumulated enough match time, match fitness and consistency required to make them ready for the World Cup. The critical one-month camping period before the championship is never enough to provide that essential edge that players need to perform optimally.
A few examples will suffice.

Vincent Enyeama is the safest pair of hands in the team.

Kenneth Omeruo is the key man in the heart of the Nigerian defense. He is the cool customer, using his head all the time.

Mikel Obi is the team’s main anchorman in the centre of the park.
Victor Moses provides the creativity up front.

I do not know much about how the other main players are faring, but of the four above , only Vincent has been playing consistently and amassing invaluable match experience, fitness, sharpness and confidence.

What is happening to all other Nigerian players that are listed as carrying the people’s hope to Brazil 2014?

The World Cup is for teams that have great players, a good preparation, experience, plenty of practice, matches and confidence.  Nigeria may have some good players that have not been playing regularly enough in their domestic clubs in the past few months to give the kind of confidence that would justify my oft-painted picture that the Super Eagles will triumph in Brazil.

I am told that very few on Keshi’s list are getting regular first team action at the highest level of the game. I really do not know whatelse can be done other than start to reduce expectations and fast and pray!

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