Location: Abuja, Nigeria
It is difficult to imagine any team struggling through a more chaotic build-up to a major football competition than Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.
The West Africans’ hopes of a smooth campaign in the first-ever FIFA World Cup finals on African soil this summer have been threatened by an unending collision involving the national football’s governing body, Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and the Presidential Task Force (PTF), an ad-hoc committee set up to oversee the Super Eagles’ success in 2010 campaign.
The PTF was set up by the country’s former President, the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, to compliment the efforts of the NFF who determined the team that qualified for the 2010 World Cup. However, the two organisations continue to step on each others’ toes. Despite achieving their target of seeing Nigeria qualify for the World Cup competition, albeit in an unconvincing fashion, the politically motivated committee refused to disband afterwards. Their involvement in the Super Eagles’ journey to success seems to be a great threat to NFF’s efforts, who has dubbed PTF’s involvement as an attempt to duplicate their effort to re-brand Nigerian football.
“The Presidential Task Force will undoubtedly disturb our activities in South Africa because we are not on the same page as them,” said NFF Assistant Chief Communication Officer, Abdul Baki.
The PTA started to stamp its authority on the highest level of Nigerian soccer by jettisoning indigenous Coach Shaibu Amodu, who presided over the Super Eagles’ disappointing third-place finish in the 2010 African Cup of Nations in Angola. Ironically, the 51-year-old ill-fated coach was replaced in similar circumstances just prior to the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea by fellow local coach and former member of Nigeria FA, Adegboye Onigbinde.
Lars Lagerback, a 61-year-old former Sweden coach, was named Nigeria’s new boss, a contentious move that brought much disappointment to NFF top officials. Diehard football pundits also expressed their frustration, saying they had hoped for an indigenous coach to take charge of the team at Africa’s premier World Cup finals. The PTA will shell out a substantial US$1.3 million (through NFF) as a lump sum for the Swede’s salary for the five-month period that he will work in Nigeria, with an option to extend.
“Lars Lagerback was not our choice,” said NFF official Abdul Baki, who hinted that the unending feud between the NFF and PTF led to the wrongful dismissal of Coach Amodu in February.
“Lagerback is not the answer to our numerous football problems. I don’t see him achieving anything in five months,” added Etim Esin, a former Super Eagles star who was touted as the country’s most popular player from 1987 to 1990.
Esin, who was nicknamed Nigeria’s Maradona during his glory days, continued: “I think by and large we don’t know what we are doing. I mean, why do we keep going for foreign coaches? I don’t see success at the end of the tunnel”.
“For US$1.3 million any coach would accept the challenge of taking the Super Eagles to the semi-final in South Africa. Whether he makes it or not, he will get paid. This is a misplaced priority and a total waste of money on a coach who, in addition to his little knowledge about the Super Eagles, also has a very limited time to work with the team before the World Cup finals. We should get one of our local coaches, either Austin Eguavon, Samson Siasia (the successful U-20 coach) or Sunday Oliseh (member of the Super Eagles 1994 dream team) to take the Super Eagles to the World Cup and then work with them towards 2014.”
Had Nigeria held on to Coach Amudo, who got the sack despite achieving his semi-final target in Angola, the Super Eagles would have been the only participating country, apart from Algeria, to boast of an African coach on African soil. But any hope of matching these statistics to make a slice of history during Africa’s premier FIFA World Cup finals has been dashed by the arrival of the less fancy Swede which some NFF officials deemed a “crazy idea”.
“We never wanted a foreign coach. Out of the 32 teams, Amodu is the only black coach, and the tournament is taking place in a black soil, and we are the largest black nation on earth. We are also celebrating our 50 year Golden Jubilee as a nation, so we don’t want an expatriate. However, some crazy people compelled us to take a foreign coach,” moaned Baki. “We value the World Cup, but we want to show the South Africans that we are truly independent, as our government led the liberation struggle again apartheid.”
Contrary to claims that the PTF supported the hiring of a foreign coach for the national team, one of its members said that his organisation’s motivation was to support NFF’s decisions. John Fashanu, a member of the Task Force, said the duty to hire and fire a national team coach depended solely on the decision made by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and not the PTF. The PTF’s role, he stressed, was only to complement the efforts of the NFF in working towards the success of Nigeria in South Africa.
”What we do at PTF is give NFF maximum support and not dictate what they should do. We only offered to pay the coach’s salary simply because the NFF did not have the necessary funds,” said the 47-year-old ex- England international player-cum-TV presenter. “The PTF is aware of how much importance the president places on a good World Cup performance and we cannot do anything to sabotage that effort.”
Fashanu, however, stated that the decision to appoint Lagerback ahead of coaches like Glenn Hoddle and Sven-Goran Eriksson, who were both linked with the job, was a move in the right direction.
He described the Swede as a man with a lot of experience in international coaching who is capable of turning things around for the team in South Africa.
“Passionate Nigerians have always called for the appointment of a manager who will drive the team to play professionally in the World Cup, as opposed to Coach Amodu’s tactics and leadership, which was severely criticized during the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola,” said Fashanu. “Lars is a man with a wealth of experience in football coaching and at this moment he’s the best choice for Nigeria.”
This latest wrangle in Nigerian football only goes to show how politics have paralyzed the country’s development of the sport. For a country that established a reputation for its perennial ethnic violence, the round leather game serves as the only power to unite Nigerian citizens. However, problems ranging between inadequate sports facilities to inadequate skilled personnel tend to undermine the impact of football in the country.
Back in 2006, the Nigerian Football Association elected Sani Lulu as its new chairman. The election came after a two-year power struggle for control over Nigerian football. At the heart of it was a difference of opinion as to how much government involvement there should be in the running of the game. The Nigerian government believes that as it funds most of the country’s sports activities it should have a say in how they are run. On the other hand, football’s world governing body, FIFA, disagrees.
Until recently the NFF had a chairman, Ibrahim Galadima, whose call for his organisation’s autonomy was welcomed by FIFA. But his attempts to keep the NFF independent were not appreciated by the government, and he was bundled out of office.
“Nigeria’s football potential can be compared with the crude oil we have in the country; it doesn’t benefit the poor because of political involvement,” remarked a Nigerian sports journalist, Adeyinka Adedipe.
Adedipe, who works with the Guardian Newspaper in Lagos, said that until politics was separated from the running of Nigerian sports, the country would continue to play second fiddle to other continental football power houses.
“Irrespective of whether government funds the game or not, it is not a licence to dictate how the game should be run. Football belongs to the people, not the government,” he added.
Despite these power struggles, many faithful football fans have backed the Super Eagles as a candidate to go far in South Africa. As one of the power houses of African football, Nigeria drew in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers for the African zone. Despite being drawn in a seemingly weak group comprised of Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa in the second round, the Super Eagles struggled to come out on top.
The score sheet deceived Nigerians as they won all the second round games, smashing 11 goals and conceding just one with the maximum 18 points. In the third and final round, which decided which team would head to South Africa, the Eagles again drew against minnows Mozambique and Kenya with only Tunisia being tough opponents. But it was a rough road for the Eagles who had to endure some tense final moments to finish only a point above Tunisia to take the sole qualifying spot from the group, following a thrilling 3-2 win over Kenya.
One of the biggest strengths of Nigeria’s squad, however, is their experience of playing in a number of European and worldwide leagues.
This must have compelled Coach Lagerback to name a squad with a heavy emphasis on players from the English Premiership. Everton’s Victor Anichebe has been recalled along with John Utaka, the Portsmouth forward who was left out of the Nations Cup, and injured Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, who missed the new Premier League Champions’ last four games including the FA Cup finals against Portsmouth.
The Swede has also retained veteran striker, Nwankwo Kanu, as the team’s captain, facing criticism that if Kanu was not fit enough for the Nations Cup, how would be cope in the World Cup.
Russian-Nigerian forward, Peter Odemwingie, is another threat for a squad, whose unconvincing display at the 2010 Nations Cup finals in Angola will unarguably have many pundits and fans adopting a wait-and-see attitude in South Africa.