WITH the AFCON 2013 celebrations effectively over for Nigeria, it is gratifying to note that the Football Federation (NFF) and Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi have accepted good counsel to bury the hatchet and start planning for the next challenge for the African champions. Last weekend, respected football aficionado John Mastoroudes was the guest on my programme, Soccertalk on Radio. While congratulating Keshi on his achievement, the former Leventis United boss says the Super Eagles are still far away from world class. Enjoy my conversation with Mastoroudes as he bluntly dissects the much celebrated African champions...
Mumini: The euphoria of Nigeria’s victory at the 2013 AFCON is beginning to die down, but I’ m sure you still have a few things to say about the tournament.
John: Exactly what you said, Mumini. There is definitely euphoria in the air; there is hope of the Super Eagles eventually becoming an international force so that the world will start appreciating the strength of our team as Champions of Africa. It‘s good that we are still jubilating. We have bragging rights as African Champions until the next competition and so we can keep celebrating.
However, I was very pleased to hear (Super Eagles coach Stephen) Keshi say the team is still in progress because we just cannot think we have reached our peak yet. We still have to work hard to become a dominant force in world football. You can win a tournament with a lot of things working in your favour.
But we still don’t have a complete team yet. For me, there are certain things that we really need to put in place to become a world force. I‘m happy that Keshi acknowledged this too and is ready to continue working hard to make the team stronger.
Mumini: Did you ever imagine that the team could win the AFCON in South Africa prior to the start of the competition?
John: No, I did not believe Nigeria could win. In the first three games, the team did not do well. It was not until the closing stage of the third game against Ethiopia that we were sure of making it to the next round. Everyone was skeptical about the team‘s chances, in the first round.
In the first game against Burkina Faso, we saw a disjointed Super Eagles. As a matter of fact, I was so disappointed with their performance in that game. I started thinking that the condition of the pitch, which was not good, affected the performance of our boys. But at the same time, there was no co-ordination in the defence, midfield and attack. I think what really helped the team at the stage was the influence of our goalkeeper (Vincent Enyeama). He did a good job in organizing his defence well. I must say Enyeama had an excellent tournament.
Mikel Obi too had an excellent tournament. I never saw him play so well for Nigeria in the past, like he did in South Africa. But the revelation of the tournament was Victor Moses, because without him our attack could have been totally un-coordinated. That showed in the game he didn’t play. Emmanuel Emenike deserves commendation, too. He justified the faith of the coaches in him. But Brown Ideye, Ahmed Musa and Ikechukwu Uche, I didn’t think were good enough.
In the midfield, Sunday Mba scored two fantastic goals. What made the two goals fantastic was not the way he scored them but the manner in which he worked his way into those good positions. But the rest of his game was nothing to write home about. He fought well, but didn’t exhibit much football class. Ogenyi Onazi from Lazio had a good tournament. He played very well and brought a lot of stability to the midfield unlike when Fengor Ogude was played in that position. Ogude was just committing fouls and there was not one good pass from him. I think Inter Milan‘s Joel Obi – who missed the tournament due to injury – would be a good addition to the team. He will certainly bring solidity to our midfield.
Then, we still need two strikers especially an outside right (Number 7). Musa had so much potential but I don’t know what happened to him. The orange tint on his hair didn’t help him. It was not until the last two games that he actually played better. He was falling on the ground and couldn’t control the ball well; he ran faster than the ball. His fall in the final match when a pass from Moses was coming to him was certainly the biggest joke of the tournament. We need to add quality players to our attack; strikers who are of international standards.
The defenders are good. Ambrose Efe, for me, was a revelation. Remember that at the start of the tournament, I told you that it is important for us to have good full backs. Full backs who will help the defence and also join in the attack. Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile both had a good tournament. However, I’m concerned that if anything happens to either of them, we might find it difficult to replace them. We still need to build a stronger squad.
The two central defenders -Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona- I think will play together for a long time. They have the talent and will grow as well. The two of them have a great future ahead. However, I am of the opinion that they played pure, physical African football which is why they did well. If we meet skillful squads, teams that put the ball down and have good technique; I don’t know how well they will cope with that. As far as African football is concerned, in which you play with speed and power, they did well, but international football is totally different. In the beginning, the defense was not solid enough, we conceded some goals which I refer to as jokes. But we were lucky to progress until the team later improved.
Mumini: Obviously, Nigerians are just happy that the Super Eagles won the Nations Cup and it seems most people are not really looking critically at all these details you are talking about. Next month, the 2014 World Cup qualifiers will resume and all the points you mentioned need to be addressed. How quickly do you think Keshi will be able to plug all the holes you just talked about?
John: As a matter of fact, I think he himself must have definitely seen most of those things and I‘m sure he has a pool of players he can call upon now to beef up the team.
There are some players we didn’t call in the past who I think can still help the team. I‘m thinking of Osaze Odemwingie even though it is not ideal to start bringing new players in, especially those he did not want in the first place. But I don’t think it will be a bad idea to bring in one or two. Odemwingie will certainly bring class to the team. Assuming he has any remorse for what he has done, if he comes with his tails between his legs and follows the coaches’ instructions, he will definitely help the team. We don’t have a striker of his class in the team at the moment.
Mumini: You are right there because the moment Emenike had an injury and couldn’t play in the final, the attack was generally blunt?
John: Ideye is a good striker but he cannot function without Emenike. On his own, he can do nothing. That is my personal assessment.
Emenike’s problem in the past with the Super Eagles was that he was not scoring. Now he has his scoring boots laced on firmly, he has shown how prolific he can be for both club and country. What impressed me most is not that he scored four goals at the Nations Cup because he missed some good scoring chances, too. But it is his fighting spirit that really impressed me.
Ideye, who I do not value as a striker also fought for the team, too. He was always running, fighting to get the ball back. The same thing with Sunday Mba. Even though I didn’t see much class from him as a footballer, he was always fighting too. That was what we lacked in the recent past; we lacked the fighting spirit. That spirit was so evident in South Africa. You see, our boys came into the competition as underdogs.
In my article before we played against Ivory Coast, I called on soccer-loving Nigerians to rally behind the Super Eagles. Rallying behind them was what would give them the positive energy to do well. We did that and totally outplayed the Ivorians. Most importantly, we played on a good pitch which allowed our boys to exhibit their class. Against Mali, it was another superb performance from our boys. It was even better than what we saw against Ivory Coast. From the beginning, I said that the Ivorian team was old. So, we took advantage of that, we also played as a team and beat them hands down. As a matter of fact, the 2-1 final score line was not a true reflection of the game.
Mumini: Now, I will like you to comment on the home boys that made the team. A lot of Nigerians are expecting that the home boys should play bigger roles in the Super Eagles. Do you agree?
John: Well, the home-based guys who played in South Africa did well. I think they have the potential to play better than they did. They will grow but they can‘t do that in our league here. These boys, I’m talking about the home-based lads, very soon will want to become professionals. I‘m of the opinion that we should not discriminate between home and foreign based players; everybody who is a Nigerian deserves to play in the national team if he is good. Therefore, I don’t want to make any distinction.
Now, if he (Keshi) can find some more talents, for example there is a guy (Ejike Uzoenyi) who is a good left winger. I saw him last year when he was introduced in some games; he exhibited good skills and class. In subsequent games, he completely collapsed; he was not the same player and that was why he was not used again. I don’t want to place so much emphasis on this because, as I said earlier, any player our national team coaches find in the national league who can do well, will not be playing in the league in the next six months. What do you do then? Should we just leave it at that?
It is the duty of our coaches, not the national team coaches alone, but all other coaches, too, to recommend good players to their colleagues who are managing the various national teams. Then, they will go and look at such players. In addition, there should be proper communication on the players needed: left full backs, wingers and all different positions. Keshi should begin to do this. That is what I’m looking forward to. The coaches should be able to recommend players to him which he in turn he will assess. That is how it should be done.
Mumini: The point you are making is that irrespective of where players are playing, home or abroad, Keshi should just go for Nigeria’s best players?
John: I don’t like this idea of people thinking that it is because Keshi selected six home-based players that we did well in South Africa. That‘s not right. If people are saying he should use more home-based players and Keshi follows the trend like Samson Siaisa did then, well…. you know Siasia listened to what Nigerians were saying, and then thought he could do anything he liked. He later found out that it was not right.
Mumini: Let‘s look at the immediate assignment before the Super Eagles, that is the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. From what we saw at the Nations Cup, quite a number of African countries like Cape Verde and Burkina Faso are coming through strongly. They have shown they are also good. The traditional top teams like Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Algeria and Tunisia are still there. Cameroun and Egypt will also be back. How do you think Nigeria will cope? Remember there are still only five World Cup tickets for African teams.
John: Well, as African Champions we have already made a statement on what we can do. By rights, we have got to be there. Unfortunately, that right must be exhibited on the field of play; we have to work for the points that will ensure we qualify for Brazil 2014. I believe that our success in South Africa is going to make our boys respect themselves more, that’s an important thing. As long as they realize that they are champions and they go out determined to teach the other teams a lesson. Once they go with this strong attitude, then they will qualify. Even though anybody can beat anybody in Africa nowadays, we have to fight for it. You have to be totally superior to the other teams to be sure of qualifying. Now we are superior to the other teams, but I hope we will go out there and prove it that we are champions.
Mumini: Talking about being Champions, you made history with Leventis United when you were the Manager of that great team. They were Champions in Nigeria’s division three, division two and division one in successive years during the 1980s. We will like to learn one or two things from there, in order to give us a consistent Super Eagles. How did you do it back then?
John: One important thing is that there must be continuous motivation and continuous refreshment of the team. For example, the team that won the Nations Cup might not be good enough to do well at the World Cup where the stakes will be higher. That is why I’m saying Keshi has to enlarge his squad with players that can help him achieve his aim. If the two full backs are not playing, I don’t think we have good replacements. I remember that when Echejile sustained an injury, I was scared for the player -Juwon Oshaniwa- brought in to replace him. Keshi needs to start using more players now. Thank God we have the Confederations Cup coming up in June in Brazil. We must use that competition to bring in some good players into the team.
nPOST SCRIPT: What are your views on Mastoroudes’ critical analysis of the Super Eagles? Send your response to 08179545076 or soccertalk@ completesportsnigeria.com. Better still, you may visit my blog www.soccertalknigeria.blogspot.com today to post your comment and join the conversation at the forum. See you there.
Barca in Danger
nI AM writing this ahead of the Spanish Copa del Rey second leg clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Nou Camp, so I can’t comment on the outcome (You know the result). Both sides meet up again on Saturday in the Spanish League but that match may be of little significance as Barcelona already have a good points cushion to regain the League title by season’s end.
The tie that is of interest to me concerning Barca is their Round of 16 clash with AC Milan in the Champions League. Milan’s 2-0 first leg win at San Siro last week was so comprehensive that it is difficult to see a way back for Lionel Messi and co.
The signs are ominous for Barcelona because it was in similar fashion that another Italian team, Inter Milan, under Jose Mourinho eliminated them from the same competition in 2010. I can’t wait for the return leg at the Nou Camp to see how the Catalans will try to unlock an inspired, water-tight Milan defence and still stop the dangerous counter-attacking Milan forward line from doing further damage at the other end.
In my opinion, this is the game that will define Barcelona’s 2012/2013 season.