Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Eagles Can Shine in Brazil

ANYONE who has followed my writings on the Super Eagles in the last two years with a discerning mind couldn’t have missed my skepticism about their performances.

During the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, I was among the doubters until Stephen Keshi surprised all of us by guiding his boys to the trophy.

Throughout the 2014 World Cup qualifiers that followed, I famously declared that I would “Not Believe” in our qualification until I saw the World Cup ticket with my korokoro eyes. I remember refusing to share Chief Segun Odegbami and Nwankwo Kanu’s optimism that the ticket was guaranteed even  before it was delivered. The team’s jerky performances against average teams such as Kenya, Namibia and Ethiopia didn’t just inspire my total confidence.

Last week, my preview of the Nigeria/Mexico friendly (Landmine in Atlanta) was clearly ominous. I was prepared for the worst and couldn’t hide it. But I shouldn’t have worried as the Eagles came out unscathed – yet again – in a 0-0 draw.

Following that performance and the result, coupled with the results of our World Cup first round opponents in their own respective friendly games, my confidence in the Eagles has taken a positive turn. Keshi’s team has now established a reputation in my mind that, even when not playing spectacularly, they are capable of grinding out a decent result. Football pundits always say that is a mark of a champion. No wonder the Eagles are African champions despite not being the continent’s most highly-rated team on the FIFA world rankings for some time now.

My fear of failure in the Mexico friendly was hinged on the fact that several of the Eagles’ first teamers have been inactive in their clubsides and would be match rusty. I was also concerned that, having not played together for quite a while and with Keshi also introducing a number of new faces, we were in for a disjointed performance.

Both observations were upheld as Victor Moses suffered cramps in the game before the hour mark while the Eagles struggled with their link-up play after dominating the early exchanges with Mexico. But the fact they still held out for a draw against the technically proficient Mexicans is a testimony to the team’s character and never-say-die spirit under Keshi’s watch.

We can go to Brazil now with some belief, especially as our African brothers, Guinea and Egypt, have shown us how to beat our World Cup first round opponents, Iran and Bosnia Herzegovina respectively. Guinea’s Syli Stars slammed the Iranians 2-1 while the Pharaohs of Egypt decisively beat Bosnia 2-0, both at away.

I do not know whether the Nigeria Football Federation technical committee sent people to spy on those matches and report to Stephen Keshi. In case they did not which will be quite unfortunate, they can still mitigate their oversight by obtaining the tapes of the matches and also talking to the technical staffs of Guinea and Egypt for a first hand analysis of the opponents.

Surely, our Nigerian members in Confederation of African Football (CAF) committees can make themselves useful here by calling up some of their friends in those two countries. Every information we can gather about our opponents will be useful. It is not unlikely that Argentina, Iran and Bosnia would have sent spies to Atlanta last week to size up the Super Eagles.

Talking about the game proper, I am not totally pleased that our star performers on the day were goalkeepers Vincent Enyeama and Austin Ejide. Although the Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was equally the best player on their side thus making it a Day of the Goalkeepers, I am selfishly more concerned about the fortunes of the Super Eagles. We need Enyeama and Ejide’s reliability to keep us in games, but we need our strikers even more to win us those games.

Even  with the World Cup still three months away, the Eagles  starting line-up is firmly established now. Stephen Keshi’s first eleven against Iran on June 16 will be nearly the same 11 that started against Mexico last week unless, God forbid, something untoward happens to any of the players.

Enyeama will start in goal with the back four of Efe Ambrose, Elderson Echiejile, Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo. In midfield, Mikel Obi and Ogenyi Onazi are sure bets with Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa playing from the flanks. Emmanuel Emenike will lead the attack and that makes it 10 sure bets in the starting 11. The last place will be determined by Keshi’s tactical plan, either to add another midfielder (John Ogu, Nosa Igiebor, Sunday Mba, Ramon Azeez, et al?) or a second striker (Brown Ideye, Nnamdi Oduamadi, Sola Ameobi, et al).

Against Mexico, Moses and Musa, ironically name-sakes of the same prophet whose famous story is told in the Quran and Bible, were my flops of the match in Atlanta. I predicted Moses’ rustiness due to his inactivity at Liverpool and I expect that he will be knocked into proper physical shape during the Eagles final camping and preparations leading to the World Cup. But I am not sure whether any length of camping can help Musa to deliver the type of crosses that Emenike can turn into goals. Musa was awful against Mexico.

After several years in the professional ranks of European football, one expects Musa’s crosses and passes to have improved tremendously, but they appear to be worsening. Keshi may need to invite the likes of Segun Odegbami, Finidi George and Tijani Babangida, all former great right wingers for Nigeria, to teach Musa how to cross the ball intelligently after using his fantastic speed to get into dangerous positions.

Moses, meanwhile, must also drop his proclivity for showboating and elaboration which have consigned him to the bench at Liverpool and learn to play simple and effective football. If we’re going to win matches in Brazil, our  forward line must do a lot better than we saw against Mexico and our wingers will be crucial to achieving that. I would rather our strikers won the men-of-the-match awards than goalkeepers.

As we saw at South Africa 2010 World Cup when Enyeama’s heroics against Argentina limited our loss to only 1-0, man-of-the-match  goalkeepers only help you avoid defeat or limit the damage. Goalkeepers seldom  win you games, strikers do because they score the goals!

Cry Not For Abdullahi

PRESIDENT Goodluck Jonathan drew the ire of many Nigerians last week when he unceremoniously removed Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi as minister of sports and chairman of the National Sports Commission (NSC).

The popular feeling was that though the president was fully within his rights to hire or fire a minister, Abdullahi’s sudden removal was illogical because his ministry had been one of those consistently bringing accolades for the Jonathan administration with his (Abdullahi’s) strings of successes in sports.

The highlights of the young minister’s tenure were the Super Eagles triumph at the Africa Cup of Nations and the Golden Eaglets victory at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup last year; Blessing Okagbare’s double medal win at the IAAF World Athletics Championships and several innovative projects being planned and/or executed to reposition Nigerian sports at grassroots, recreational and competitive levels. Notably also, Abdullahi succeeded in diffusing the rancour and power play within the sports fraternity which had often led to failures in the past.

For Jonathan to have removed such a “performing” and scandal-free minister while some that were immersed in a cesspool of scandals were sitting pretty in his cabinet speaks volumes about the president’s judgement. Indeed, the clear imputation is that performance is not as important as political alliance.

For those who do not know, Abdullahi was sacked because he was a nominee of Dr. Bukola Saraki who has since dumped the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). Abdullahi was caught between loyalty to his original benefactor (Saraki) and his direct boss (Jonathan). He probably thought he could keep both men happy by towing a middle course and letting his good performance speak for him. But the PDP hierachy in Saraki and Abdullahi’s Kwara State had apparently been pressurising Jonathan to sack Abdullahi. It is not a mere coincidence that Abdullahi was dropped soon after Jonathan‘s visit to Kwara on a political campaign rally.

My take in all of this is that Abdullahi has behaved honourably. Had he betrayed Saraki in order to keep his ministerial job, he would still have lost the job some day, some time, anyway. Worse still, his removal then could be the consequence of a scandal which would have destroyed his legacy.

I prefer the circumstances of Abdullahi’s recent sacking and I’m sure that, with deep introspection, he wouldn’t come to a different conclusion. He has served his country excellently, emerged untainted by any scandal and retained his credibility by not betraying his loyalty.

Nobody should cry for Bolaji Abdullahi. Instead, let’s learn from him, and then congratulate him for starting well and finishing better as Nigeria’s minister of sports. A future of great possibilities awaits those who protect their credibility. Bolaji Abdullahi will be back!

Good Luck, Danagogo

SOLDIER goes, soldier comes, the barracks remain, goes a popular Nigerian saying. I congratulate Dr. Tamuno Danagogo on his appointment as the new minister of sports. I wish him a tenure that is even more successful that Bolaji Abdullahi’s. But he must be committed to working with deep partriotism, honesty and sincerity. Welcome, Dr. Danagogo and, good luck.


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