While Cup Final weekend is upon Nigeria, as Kano Pillars go up against Niger Tornadoes to determine who wins the 2019 Aiteo Cup on Sunday, the talk is still on the Super Eagles’ Afcon campaign.
Conversation in Nigeria remains centred on the future of coach Gernot Rohr as the team’s failure to reach the continental final continues to enrage, but little has been said about the team itself. Specifically, the loss of key personnel.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. The Aiteo final, and the domestic season as a whole, has done little to showcase new talent, so where will Rohr, or the next coach, find players to replace the likes of John Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo?
The combined retirements of captain Mikel and forward Ighalo have left two huge voids in the team. John Ogu is bound to follow suit soon, and it is possible that, being on the other side of 30, Leon Balogun is not far off. Surely there must be some concern about finding replacements?
Fans and media never seem to let up with telling Super Eagles coaches to pick players from the domestic league, with goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa the only regular home-based player in the side. But the fact remains that the NPFL has no real talent of international quality, and there is a huge body of evidence to support this.
Two wins in the CAF Champions League (both by Enyimba in 2003 and 2004) are a far cry from other top African nations. The CAF Confederation Cup (including its previous two-competition iterations) offer a slightly better picture, but the wins there came at a time when Nigerian domestic football was on a high and players from local clubs represented the country.
In recent years, performances at continental club competitions have been woeful. Lobi Stars, Nigeria’s CAF Champions League representatives last season, travelled to South Africa and were soundly beaten by Mamelodi Sundowns.
It was not just about the result, but the disjointed and predictable play of the Nigerian team that left heads and fists shaking.
Then, CAF’s African Nations Championship (CHAN), which offers a barometer of the strength of national teams sans Europe-based players, provides a clear-eyed metric. It is not one that flatters Nigeria.
The Super Eagles B-side failed to qualify for the first two tournaments, and then at the most recent final in 2018, were thrashed 4-0 by Morocco.
They also shipped four goals against rivals Ghana in the regional WAFU Cup of Nations final in 2017, and will hope to do much better this September at the event in Senegal.
Any manner of spin may be put on these results and performances, but the bottom line is that the players are simply not good enough until they move to Europe and have all their accumulated bad habits trained out of them.
On Sunday, Pillars and Tornadoes will square up in the aforementioned Aiteo Cup final. There will be further examples of this lack of formal football education, guaranteed. Anyone even suggesting the national team coach should be there, for anything other than ceremonial reasons, probably needs to rethink some life choices.
At the moment, what the Super Eagles need are two goalkeepers, one right back, one additional centreback and at least two midfielders. None of those who will be on show on Sunday can fill those gaps.
Prime Mikel on the ball was a wonderful sight to behold. Difficult, one might even say impossible, to shake off the ball and could ping passes with the precision of a German-engineered machine. No player in the domestic league comes close. Ighalo did not have the best first touch in the world, but as a cold-blooded goalscoring forward, his numbers speak for him.
The late Stephen Keshi spent over six months in camp with domestic players and ended up taking just six to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, so it isn’t for lack of effort on the coaches’ parts. Of that number, only two – Godfrey Oboabona and Sunday Mba – played significant minutes. A mere six years later, none are currently anywhere near the Super Eagles team sheet.
Rohr – if he stays – or his replacement, are better served scouting for players already in Europe to fill those gaps. At least for now.
But suggesting that Rohr, or whomever the coach may be in the coming months, picks from the teams involved in the Final is a line few are brave, or stupid, enough to venture across.
RANKINGS FAVOUR NIGERIA
Bronze may not have been the outcome that the Super Eagles hoped for in Egypt, but their eight games (the joint most of any side under the current ranking period) have seen them move 12 places up the FIFA Rankings released on Thursday.
Although the Super Eagles stayed third in Africa, their climb up the world rankings, from 45th to 33rd, is just reward for both the federation and the coach. Over the last five years, the Super Eagles have not missed a FIFA window, even to play a friendly game.
Of course, playing games without results does little to help the rankings, and the relative stability and consistent results that Rohr has brought to the Super Eagles have also played their part.
In the midst of everything swirling around the federation, coach, and team, this is one small win that deserves celebration. Because there is no doubt that if they had dropped this drastically in the opposite direction, the knives would have been out.