The Real Issues

NOW that we have hopefully exorcised the demons of discord threatening to shoot down our World Cup dreams even before the tournament had got under way, let me spare some time to look at the issues that have been orchestrated as crises.

1. NFF Query to Keshi: Keshi deserved to get a query for allegedly going on holidays ahead of schedule and for resuming later than expected. Had the secretariat not questioned him, they would have failed in their duties.

The query was only an administrative matter. It did NOT question Keshi’s competence or ability to lead the Eagles to the World Cup. Any such imputation was purely speculative and unsubstantiated.

That being the case, Keshi is obligated to reply the query and explain his actions. If the secretariat consider his explanation satisfactory, that is the end of the matter. If not, they can sanction him according to the terms of his contract.

Dutchman Jo Bonfrere was queried several times by the old Nigeria Football Association (NFA) for his penchant to overstay his holiday in Holland, but Bonfrere still went on to win the Atlanta ’96 Olympic gold for Nigeria and take us to the final of the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations.

In fact, I recall that despite the queries issued to him, Bonfrere resisted strong attempts by the minister of sports at the time, Chief Jim Nwobodo, to impose Finidi George on the Atlanta Olympic team. Nwobodo addressed a press conference where he announced Finidi’s name, but Bonfrere stood his ground by picking Tijani Babangida instead.

It was only  when the Eagles were threatened with elimination from the 2002 World Cup qualifiers that Bonfrere was sacked.

Lesson: It is results that ultimately determine the fate of a coach. Most other issues are secondary. In fact, when a coach has worked hard, skipped his Christmas holiday and got good results like Keshi and his crew did at CHAN 2013, misdemeanors such as over-staying a vacation are often overlooked or punished only with a slap on the wrist.

However, the NFF are at liberty to decide on what to do in this instance. Keshi must take his punishment without complaining and get down to work.

2. Keshi vs NFF Technical Committee: I can say categorically that the legendary “power tussle” between Stephen Keshi and the NFF technical committee over the selection of the Super Eagles World Cup team is all media hype! It does not exist. And even if it exists in the minds of some people, the purported tussle is a no-contest because there can be only one winner: the coach!
The technical committee is constituted by knowledgeable football technocrats who know about the duties and POWERS of a football coach. Paul Bassey is a veteran journalist; Victor Ikpeba, Austin Okocha and Garba Lawal are all former international professionals while Christian Chukwu is a former national team captain, assistant coach and head coach.

All of these gentlemen know very well that all over the world, it is the prerogative of the team coach to determine which player is called to camp, who is selected or dropped at any time and who makes the final squad to any tournament.

I can attest that Chukwu has been quoted as affirming this truism in several media interviews. And, early this week, Bassey was quoted in The Guardian newspapers as declaring, inter alia:
“The committee doesn’t have any problem with Keshi, the press is just over blowing the issue of players selection. “The NFF technical committee can never derail Keshi’s preparations for the World Cup because we have worked hard with the coach to make the Eagles regain respect in Africa and the world.  At this point, necessary logistics have been provided for the Eagles to train in the U.S…we have also gone ahead to ensure the Super Eagles get the best apparatus to work with when they arrive Brazil.

“Our duty as technical committee is to advise the coach and he has the right to go ahead to do what he likes. For example, if the committee tells him that (Chigozie) Agbim is not the best keeper in the Nigeria Premier League and he takes him to Brazil, that is left for him. The only thing is that we must point out issues for people to know we did our job.”
Well said, Etubom Paul Bassey.

Indeed, the technical committee is only an ADVISORY BODY that cannot be in any power tussle with the coach over selection of players. They, like the rest of us journalists and fans, can have their SAY on who should go to the World Cup. But it is the coach that must have his WAY on who makes the final squad. This is the standard practice in world football and Nigeria cannot be different.

Both at club and international levels, managements and FAs do not interfere in technical issues. Their job is to support the coach and if the team is successful, everyone is happy. But if the team fails, the coach is fired and management remains.

In a recent example, the management of Tottenham Hotspur could not force Andres Villas Boas (AVB) to play Emmanuel Adebayor despite paying so much for the player. But when the coach couldn’t deliver results, they simply sacked him. The new coach Tim Sherwood immediately brought in Adebayor who responded with goals. But while AVB was there, Adebayor remained in the cooler. That is coach’s power.

Another recent example is Chelsea where Jose Mourinho sold off Juan Mata who had been the club’s player of the year for two years in a row before Mourinho’s arrival. Mourinho simply didn’t like Mata’s style, so Mata had to go despite his popularity with the fans.

At international level, there are hundreds of cases when the national coach left out “popular” players and the heavens did not fall. Such coaches eventually got their contracts terminated or extended based on the results they achieved. But at least, they knew that their fates were sealed by the choices they made.

Any attempt to deny a coach the RIGHT to select his team is interference, pure and simple. The NFF hired Keshi and they can fire him. But they have no powers to select players for him.

Whether the Eagles will open the World Cup camp with 35, 30 or even 25 players before the final 23 are selected is Stephen Keshi’s prerogative. Whether Villareal striker Ike Uche or goalkeeper Agbim will or will not go to the World Cup is Keshi’s decision to make. All the media talk that he must “DEFEND” his list of players before the technical committee is mere bullish talk. A coach may be asked to “EXPLAIN” his team selection, but he cannot be compelled to “DEFEND” his choices.

Erstwhile Super Eagles coach Samson Siasia was often asked by the NFF technical committee to come and “defend” his team list. But when he failed to qualify for the 2012 AFCON and he was sacked, not a single member of the committee was sacked along with him.

As we await the release of the Eagles’ World Cup squad, therefore, let it be clear to everyone that it will be drawn up by Keshi and his assistants and no one else. While “explaining” his choices to the technical committee, Keshi may or may not wish to consider some of the suggestions that will be made to him by Paul Bassey and co.

Keshi must pick the final squad because he will be judged by the performance and results achieved by his team.

The Return of Osaze

TALKING about having our own say in the Super Eagles World Cup selection, I am sure that most Nigerian soccer fans are expecting Osaze Odemwengie’s return to the team. So am I, and Stephen Keshi is not likely to say no.

About two years ago, I placed an embargo on Osaze in this column when he accused “all’ Nigerian sports journalists on Twitter of demanding money from footballers. I challenged him publicly to substantiate his sweeping allegation, but he couldn’t. Osaze subsequently tweeted himself into trouble at his English clubsides and the Super Eagles as he continued to talk down on every body. My embargo has been in place since then.

Two weeks ago, Keshi confirmed that Osaze has apologized to the Nigerian football hierachy and promised to behave well, henceforth. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that Keshi will call the player up for the World Cup, especially as the Eagles have some challenges in the goal-scoring department.

Also this week, Complete Sports readers voted Osaze as their best player-of-the-month for March 2014 in appreciation of his current form which should help us at the Mundial. In consideration of all these recent developments, I have also lifted my embargo on Osaze in this column. We all make mistakes in life and I hope Osaze has learned some lessons from his own mistakes. The fact that Nigeria won the 2013 Nations Cup in his absence should hopefully make him humble himself on his return to the team.

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