When Ramadan Sobhy’s tame shot trickled through a sea of players in the box and found the net in Egypt in March last year, Nigeria once again found themselves on the brink of elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations qualifying. The game finished 1-0, leaving Nigeria unable to qualify for this year’s Africa Cup of Nations with one group game still to play – the second tournament in a row that the nation had failed to reach – and there was an undeniable sense of déjà vu following what was a disappointing, but perhaps not entirely unexpected, underachievement.
“It is inexcusable that the great Super Eagles will not be at the biggest tournament in Africa twice in a row,” said former Nigeria international Segun Odegbami, echoing the thoughts of most of the nation. The players were there. The likes of Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho, to name just a few, are all plying their trade in the Premier, and they certainly possess a far greater pool of talent than many of the countries that did qualify for the tournament.
But Nigeria won just one game in a group that also contained Tanzania and Chad – the latter of which had to withdraw, citing financial issues as the reason – and once again unceremoniously crashed out at the earliest possible stage. As a football-obsessed nation, with considerably the largest population and economy in the vast continent of Africa, why then is it that the Super Eagles have failed to live up to expectation so inadequately, particularly in recent years?
Nigeria arrived on the global scene at the 1994 World Cup in the USA, bringing with them a graceful, captivating style of football that had been birthed from their impressive youth sides of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Between the years of 1985 and 1993, the country’s under-17 team reached the youth World Cup final four times, winning it twice, and boasting talents such as Nwankwo Kanu and Celestine Babayaro.
By the time their debut World Cup appearance came around, they set about their task with an assurance and swagger rarely seen of an African side, impressively topping their group ahead of Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Managed by the influential Clemens Westerhof, they were eliminated by Italy in the last-16 in extra-time, but they had made an immeasurable impact on the world stage, effectively putting themselves, and Africa to an extent, on the map.
But even with such a commendable effort in the USA, there remains a sense that more could have been done with what came to be known as the golden era of Nigerian football. In a way, the ’90s were almost indicative of their reputation as perennial underachievers. There was, though, far more stability on and off the pitch then there has been in recent years.
In January 1994, Nigeria had won the AFCON against Tunisia, which, amazingly, was their last success in the competition until their triumph under Stephen Keshi in 2013. Even with a relative level of success by their previous standards in the ’90s, it was almost the beginning of their inability to convert teams of natural, raw talent into the forces that their successes at youth level had hinted at.
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Despite that, arguably Nigeria’s most impressive achievement was to come in 1996, when they won gold at the Atlanta Olympics. Nicknamed the ‘Dream Team’ by the country’s press, a side led by the mercurial talents of Jay-Jay Okocha beat Brazil and Argentina on their way to one of sport’s most enviable honours.
Unfortunately in football, the Olympics is not regarded nearly as highly as the World Cup, which Nigeria were once again involved in 1998, this time in France. Again, they qualified for the last-16, but this time there was the added factor of expectation that had come from a decade of emergence. They were emphatically eliminated in a 4-1 defeat against Denmark, and the tournament was largely considered a disappointment.
The decade certainly proved successful in bringing Nigeria to the forefront of African football, but the clear talent they had produced brought with it a demand for success which has ultimately not been met with any consistency or stability ever since. Having gone from near anonymity to one of the continent’s superpowers, there was now an assumption that progress would inevitably follow.
It didn’t, and although Nigeria performed relatively well at both the 2000 and 2002 AFCON, they failed to progress beyond the group stage of the next three World Cups, not even qualifying for the tournament in 2006.
It was after their elimination in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup that off-field interference began to creep into the affairs of the national team. Having accumulated just a solitary point and exited in a rather apathetic manner, president Goodluck Jonathan suspended the national football team from international competition for two years. This resulted in FIFA threatening to expel Nigeria from world football if the government did not uplift the ban, and Jonathan, to the relief of the majority of the football loving nation, eventually succumbed.
Since 2010 Nigeria have had no less than six different managers, with the instability surrounding the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) leading to an often compromising atmosphere. Football has been plagued by the NFF’s inefficiencies, which have included a bitter leadership crisis, in-fighting over the presidency, and regular political and financial problems.
The tenure of coach Stephen Keshi from 2011 to 2014 was a perfect example of the issues centred around the national team’s hierarchy. A prolonged saga following the 2014 World Cup – in which Nigeria were eliminated by France in the last-16 – saw Keshi precipitously dismissed, despite having somewhat reinvigorated the national team during his three-year spell.
He had led Nigeria to victory in the 2013 AFCON , their first trophy in 19 years with what was arguably a less talented squad than his predecessors had at their disposal over the last two decades. The qualifying campaign for the 2015 AFCON had admittedly been poor but there were still two games to play with the chance of progression remaining. What was most remarkable was that Keshi departed following a 3-1 win over Sudan that had restored an element of optimism.
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Even during his periods of relative success, though, Keshi had an unstable relationship with the NFF. After he had won the 2013 AFCON, he offered his resignation amid reports that the board had approached former Zambia coach Hervé Renard. He was persuaded to remain in charge, but then followed a period of seven months in which Keshi was not paid, with the NFF citing bankruptcy.
These issues only serve to highlight the often capricious nature of the decisions taken by the NFF. There is certainly a clear lack of organisation, and evidently a power vacuum that has become a visible burden on everyone associated with the national team in recent years. The administrative problems are not just aeffecting the here and now either – there has been an inexcusable lack of investment in youth at grassroots level, as well as an apparent indifference towards domestic club football in the country.
The politically-centred NFF has come under criticsm for its lack of focus on football itself, with many of its members considered to be uninterested in the game they claim to represent. Adegboyega Onigbinde, who managed the Super Eagles at the 2002 World Cup, spoke earlier this year of his disillusionment at the current state of football in the country, when the NFF had gone months without appointing a new coach: “When I say that the major problem with our football is administrative, people get angry, they think that I am running them down,” he said. “You have a very strictly technical matter that we have not been able to appoint a coach. It is also purely administrative matter, an issue that could be resolved within a couple of weeks. Sports is not something that should be politicised, that’s why Nigeria are not stable, and that is why they are not doing well.”
Although there are undeniable issues currently inhibiting the players from simply playing football with no distractions, some have blamed a lack of a definable philosophy since the so-called golden era. The regular turn around of coaches is inevitably a part of that, but even without all the off the field issues, there seems to have been a lack of cohesion amongst the teams put together over the past three years or so in particular, especially when considering the astonishing fact that Nigeria won the under-17 World Cup in both 2013 and 2015, as well as 2007 – and finished runners up in 2009. The players in some of those teams should now be making their mark for the senior team, or at least making their breakthrough in the next few years, but as Nigerian journalist Yomi Kazeem put it in an interview with Copa90: “Nobody is excited, nobody is really celebrating these wins, because we expect that, despite having won these World Cups, these guys will most likely fade away.”
Last year, the country was sent into a deep recession after a rapid decline in oil prices, which led to the events at the Olympics in Brazil last summer. The lack of funds reached a point at which the plane journey to take the players to South America was a struggle to afford, and Nigeria arrived just hours before their opening game. Then came the disastrous qualifying campaign for the 2017 AFCON, which ultimately ended in elimination once again, leaving football fans across the country feeling alienated and disconcerted.
This has led to some calling for the NFF to look beyond solely appointing Nigerian coaches, 11 of which have come and gone since 2010. Former chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, Anthony Kojo-Williams, who is opposed to the divisive board’s current methods, said: “I still maintain that no Nigerian coach is suitable to coach the Eagles. We must look beyond Nigeria but they did not listen to me and look at the deeper mess and disgrace they have brought to us.”
Even looking in from the outside, it’s clear that Nigeria have severe problems with those in power, not unlike world football in general. But with the right adjustments and reform, there remains the potential of an African football superpower that could one day return to what now seems very much like the golden era of the 1990s
By Callum Rice-Coates. Follow @Callumrc96