Which Super Eagles? By Ade Ojeikere

Every Nigerian is a football expert. It doesn’t matter if he or she has not kicked the ball before. He is quick to regale you with his exploits while playing the game with bare feet. If you have played it, then you will know that it is a different ball-game kicking the ball barefoot and playing it with boots on. It is even a tougher task running with it, if you are wearing the boots for the first time.

But don’t blame the pundit; that is the universal nature of the game. The people are passionate about it. For us, it is next to our religion. It unites us in our diversity. Everything stops when Nigeria has a game. It gets worse the next day, if the Nigerian team wins. The analysis is compelling. Everyone is involved in the discussion. When the team is defeated, it is a different ball game. Let me save you the ordeal of going through reactions to defeats.

The loser is an orphan. This is my message to Super Eagles’ chief coach Stephen Keshi as he ponders over the calibre of players to take to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. We must parade our best, in terms of performance, not loyalty. Keshi must stoop to conquer, if he wants to be the toast of the World Cup in Brazil. He must open his heart to tolerate his players’ idiosyncrasies. He must learn to use the finer qualities of his players to achieve success. He will be alone in Brazil, if (God forbid) the Eagles don’t dazzle the world. He will be shocked to read comments of some of his friends. But that is the Nigerian fan for you (a fair-weather friend).

For Keshi, these are his most difficult times. I must remind him to guard against any form of fixation in his selection for the World Cup. Those who were in South Africa have been duly rewarded with cash, houses and national honours. Going to Brazil should be done on a clean slate. Merit, not sentiments, should form the basis of picking the players. The team is no cult. It also shouldn’t be a rehabilitation centre or a platform to expose weaklings for mercantile purposes.

Shutting out those who didn’t participate in the qualifiers is bunkum. Players’ match forms are not static. If anyone isn’t fit enough to give his best in Brazil, he should be dropped, even if he scored all the goals that earned us the ticket. We must not find ourselves in the 1998 setting in which holidaying players were invited to join the Eagles squad for being stars in the 1994 edition. It was our worst outing. Most of the players were either recuperating from injuries or were not fit. They shamelessly refused to decline the invitation, perhaps because participating in the World Cup is any player’s dream.

The transition of the Eagles squad that clinched the Africa Cup of Nations to the team that secured the 2014 World Cup ticket smacked of malice, which was couched in the garment of discipline. Yet, concerted efforts by the technical crew to render some of the dropped stars otiose have fallen flat on their faces. Some of the positions where these dropped stars excelled in the past are the team’s albatross. They must exploit the window that the World Cup preparations offer to re-invite these players to fight for shirts.

Club form should be the first parameter for picking those who will play in Brazil. This point presupposes that such players are talented, committed and disciplined. Otherwise, they won’t be in Europe, Asia or even the Americas, pursuing professional careers. The exploits of foreign based players have been this country’s biggest public relations tool to change people’s perception of Nigeria.

Indeed, our players have been worthy ambassadors of our country. They have conducted themselves remarkably, culminating in the splendid performance with global applause. Rather than tag those players as undisciplined, it would help the coaches if they could hear their grievances and attempt to resolve them for the good of the team.

Consider Victor Anichebe’s refusal to play for Nigeria again after being dumped to take care of an injury sustained while playing for the country. One was miffed reading the clarion call by Delta State’s executive chairman of the Sports Commission, Pinnick Amaju, admonishing Keshi not to invite Anichebe to the World Cup camp. Perhaps, one needs to ask Amaju if it is right to jettison a player who sustained injury playing for Nigeria. Again, Amaju should tell us if he would act differently, if he was Anichebe? We must learn to treat our players as humans, whose welfare should interest us as much as we monitor their weekly performances before inviting them to play for us.

Indeed, those who campaigned against Shola Ameobi’s invitation after Newcastle FC of England’s manager stopped from playing for Nigeria at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on grounds of contractual agreement with the Barclays English Premier League side have eaten their word, with Ameobi’s sterling show against the Italians last month.

One is sure that Kelvin Boateng would have played for Nigeria, having resigned officially and shunned us when we needed him to stay with the team. Not so for the Ghanaians. They went to Boateng to resolve what his grievances in his European club. Boating played in Black Stars’ second leg game against Egypt and scored the only goal in their 2-1 loss. This is in spite of the fact that Ghana won the first leg game resoundingly 6-1 in Accra. This is what we need now. Again, the story of how the Ghanaians went back to convince Michael Essien and Sully Muntari to return to the Black Stars explains why they are in the train to Brazil. The act of forgiveness is divine. Our coaches must take a cue from the Ghanaian examples.

The Eagles coach should also return to those players he wanted to convince to play for Nigeria, if their inclusion will strengthen the squad. I’m sure he won’t wait for Bayern Munich’s Nigeria-born left wing back David Alaba to call him to say that he wants to play for Nigeria, if he was still available. Alaba is easily the best left wing back in the world. It is also being said that he is versatile. He can play in any position from the defence to the midfield. We are in dire need of such utility players at the World Cup. Allowing the players to show interest in playing for us before going to them is far-fetched. Most of these players have never been here. Their resentment rests more on what they read and hear about us in the media. There are also the weather, the food and how they would relate to their mates. The Eagles coach, given his pedigree in the game, should sit with them to change this mindset. His players can do this. After all, Emenike reminds us that Joseph Yobo convinced him to play for Nigeria. Anichebe played for Nigeria too because of Yobo’s persuasion while both of them played for Everton.

Before our fifth sojourn to the World Cup, bookies reckon that we will be the best of the five African qualifiers. But we flop; largely because of the divided house we represent during the competition. The crack in the Eagles starts from the selection of players with those dropped telling tales of the unexpected. Interference in the team’s selection has been the Eagles’ albatross, although we only get to hear of such devious acts after the competition. The coaches must state their problems before the World Cup and not after. No sour grapes. But with a technical crew comprising ex-internationals, can we field an Eagles side devoid of past mistakes? I doubt it, given all that transpired after Nigeria regained the African crown on Februarys 10, 2103 in South Africa. Accusations were thrown across all the segments of the team to such an extent that there was celebration within the rank and file, when Nigeria grabbed a 95th minute equaliser against Kenyan in Calabar.

Need I recount the coach versus NFF brouhaha over unpaid salaries? Or should one recall the cross of swords between top players and the coach? Let’s not even talk about the resignation announced in a South Africa radio station to the consternation of the sports minister.

What we have now is an Eagles side lacking in some key positions. It is expected, given the rebuilding. With only one FIFA-free window available to all participating teams, one cannot fathom how Eagles coaches will fill the team’s weak link. It is their job, yet they must readmit some of the sidelined stars, if they can help strengthen the team. Forgiving erring but fit players should, however, not foreclose the search for younger players so that we don’t do a fresh rebuilding after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Having enforced discipline in the team, the coaches should embrace reconciliation, if the out-of-favour players show remorse, especially those who have openly apologised. That Nigeria qualified for the 2014 World Cup tourney without them underscores the fact that no one is indispensible.

The biggest lesson from the Eagles’ outing at the Confederations Cup in Brazil was the lack of quality players on the bench. Victor Moses, Nnamdi Oduamadi, Oguenyi Onazi, Godfrey Omeruo, Emmanuel Emenike et al were injured. The first answer the list for the 2014 World Cup Eagles’squad should provide finding capable replacements for Moses, Oduamadi, Onazi, Omeruo and Emenike as well as such sure bets as Vincent Enyeama, John Mikel Obi, Godfrey Obaobona, Elderson Echiejile and Ahmed Musa.

This article is not trying to do the coach’s job. But if our parameters for picking good national teams are akin to what operates in other climes, it goes without saying that some of the issues raised will guide the coach to pick his squad.

The Eagles can prove the bookmakers wrong in Brazil. But it should all start with fairness in team selection. Sometimes, one wonders what the Eagles ask God for when the team’s selection is flawed by unethical practices. No wonder they earned the sobriquet “Super Chicken.”

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In the beginning...Let there be Light

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