Nigeria's Super Eagles have been stuttering for the past year. It's time for them to spread their wings and light up the football skies. From the heart of Africa, here's Gary Al-Smith.
My granddad loved Nigerian football. ‘Loved’? Yes, because my granddad is dead. Don’t worry, he lived a full life.
When it came to the Nigerian national team, he gave them utmost respect. Not because they were unbeatable, but because the Eagles had provided many of our countrymen with unforgettable regional derbies with Ghana: 5-0 to them in 1951 and then five years later, 7-0 to Ghana which sparked ecstatic pre-Independence women offering their men free sex, and then the more recent 4-1 “Brentford Massacre” Ghana won in the UK in 2007.
But in the past six months, Nigerian football has morphed in and out of many things. And when I think about it, grandpa would have had mixed feelings about the state of Nigerian football now.
Grandpa was very ill at the time Nigeria had just finished a ‘memorable’ World Cup in South Africa. Even in his illness, the old one could remember that such near-misses were not new to the Eagles. Nigeria could not get out of the group stage, but that was no problem for the old one. “They did a similar thing in the ’94 Nations Cup,” he reminded me, “In the semifinal the game went into penalties. Finidi [George] scored and [Basile] Kouamé also scored for Ivory Coast. Siasia stepped forward and missed. He was lucky the rest of the takers scored and got them into the final.”
By the time grandpa finally passed on, Nigeria had once again put its destiny into the hands of the same man who missed that penalty in ’94. This time, the man is now their coach.
The old man liked Siasia. And now, so do I. He refused to listen to talk that Siasia was a brash player, and I’m sure he would have, if he had his way, written to the Daily Graphic to advise its editors to desist from writing unfavorable things about the guy.
Sixteen years on, I did my own campaigning not in the Graphic, but on Twitter, outlining the reasons I wanted Siasia to take the job. Admittedly, I was not (and still am not) comfortable with how Siasia was made to stand toe-to-toe with his ex-national teammate and very good friend, Stephen Keshi. But that’s about the wheeling and dealing in Nigerian football; another story for another day.
Siasia was not only my choice; he is the people’s choice in Nigeria too, which makes his work even more difficult. To increase the pressure, Siasia has been given fantastic emoluments – which have never been given to any of the country’s previous 18 indigenous coaches in the country’s proud football history. His objectives are deceptive on the eye, too: Win the next African Cup of Nations. Get past the quarter-finals of Brazil 2014.
To do that he has to offend the establishment. I’m happy to say that he has started. The man has been choosing members of his technical team and has settled on Salisu Yusuf and Ike Shorunmu. There are guys he feels okay to work with and as usual, noises are being made in some corners that the “right people” were not consulted. Like grandpa would have said, “Siasia needs balls. Balls!”
Secondly, and as part of offending the establishment, Siasia needs to drop certain irreplaceable players. Players who do not know, or have forgotten, what it means to wear the green and/or white must go – no exceptions. That box is being ticked as we speak. By naming a locally based squad of 30 players to take part in an American invitational tournament next month, the smart Siasia is plotting a way to entrench his philosophy on the team by creating competition.
That tournament in the States is key because it gives the well-travelled man a chance to kill two birds with one stone: first, playing against manageable opposition will inspire confidence in his boys and secondly, it will create an impression to the Nigerian public.
Eventually the foreign-based boys would have to come in. Creating a Nigerian team for the future would mean going back into the team he coached to the finals of both the 2005 World Youth Championships in Holland and the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Those guys are the bedrock of Nigeria’s next decade of greatness.
Siasia must find a way to make them the foundation. In the last twelve months, the three different coaches have led the team (Shaibu Amodu, the Swede Lars Lagerbäck and Austin Eguavoen) have called up some 40 players. Too much. Time for a chop chop.
No one said it will be easy, because the 2005 under-20 side he coached to the final faced Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero. Before then, they’d beaten Ryan Babel’s Holland in the semis. We know where all these guys have now reached in their careers, while many of the Nigerian lads are yet to justify their potentials.
It’s time to soar. But there’s no time. Siasia must conjure belief into an excess of 150 million craving Nigerians. And he must get a captain to fly the team where he wants. His past successes with the national teams have been uproariously positive for his ego. He must now look at them, ignore the few failures (such as the ill-prepped under-20 World Youth Championships team in 2009) and move on. That’s all he can do.
Even though he’s not Nigerian, that’s what grandpa would want Siasia to do.
Gary is a freelance football writer for the likes of ESPN and kicker. You can follow him on Twitter @garyalsmith.