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Super Eagles, Maduka Okoye and the AFCON defeat, By Reuben Abati

Super Eagles, Maduka Okoye and the AFCON defeat, By Reuben Abati

Nigerians are very bad losers in politics, sports or both. Nothing illustrates this better than the politics of acrimony that is already emerging over the mode of primaries for the 2023 general election. But even more specifically, would be the anguish, outrage and frustration that have attended the exit of the Super Eagles from the 2021 edition of the African Cup of Nations Tournament in Cameroon. The Super Eagles finished in the preliminary group stage as the best team with all the nine points, having led Group D, where they were able to beat Egypt (1-0), Sudan (3-1) and Guinea Bissau (2-0). Four Nigerian players were included in the best XI after that round. Austin Eguavoen, Technical Director of the Super Eagles and interim coach of the team won the best coach award. The entire country was excited. Initial fears by Nigerian football pundits that the Super Eagles would fare badly if Gernot Rohr, former coach of the national team was not removed had been replaced by boundless optimism that it was fine after all that Rohr was sacked, and that without him, the country would perform exceedingly well. Eguavoen, the tested footballer who replaced Rohr, was promoted as master tactician who could in fact be promoted the substantive coach of the Super Eagles. Eguavoen was further used to justify the fact that there are good indigenous coaches who only needed to be given a chance.

It should be noted that no other factor unifies Nigerians more than football, especially when the country is competing on a continental or global stage. At such moments, Nigerians forget geography, religion and other differences that push us apart. It is only during such moments that you can have a glimpse of national pride, or patriotism among Nigerians at home and abroad from Cairo to Kaura Namoda. It was therefore not surprising to see that the Super Eagles caught the attention of the entire country with their performance during the group stage at AFCON. Men and women of means represented by the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, visited the Super Eagles and promised them a Dollar Rain, denominated in Naira, for every match they won from the group stage onwards. Between CA-COVID, the private sector coalition, and Femi Otedola, the billionaire who personally promised a largesse of $250, 000, the country’s adrenaline level rose. Go for gold, boys, we all said. The Super Eagles had won the African Cup of Nations thrice in the past (1980, 1994, 2013). They were runners up thrice (1984, 1988, 2000). At other times they got to either the quarter finals or the semi-finals. Between 1982 and 1990, they were eliminated during the group stage only once.

The bubble about the possibility of Nigeria getting to the finals of the on-going AFCON, based on group stage performance burst on Sunday, January 23 when the Super Eagles of Nigeria met the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia. In the 47th minute of the match, Tunisian ace player, Youseff Msakni sent a long volley in the direction of the Nigerian goal post. It looked like something that the goalkeeper of the Arise TV football team could easily punch away, but Nigerians were shocked to see the ball in the net, going past goalkeeper Maduka Okoye. The Super Eagles struggled for the rest of the match, but the Tunisians defended their goal, and now, the Super Eagles are out of the tournament. Nigerians are in pains. They think the team could have done better, the goalkeeper in particular. One elementary lesson in football is that no team can or should be underrated, and that every match comes with its own dynamics. And no team should rely on initial success and then go to sleep. And three, the better prepared team, the most technically smart team, psychologically strong and skilful would always win. Luck is a very small element in a sport that has risen to the level of the exactitude of science. Nigerians do not want to hear this. They are inconsolable. This is why I argue that we are bad losers. What happened to sportsmanship? Many of the people bursting a vein because the Super Eagles have crashed out of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) would not have received a penny out of the proposed Dollar Rain, anyway. Let’s look at the excuses.

Austin Eguavoen, the interim coach has since stepped down, to return immediately to his formal position as Technical Director of the Super Eagles. This means that the Super Eagles would now be managed going forward by Jose Poseiro, the Portuguese coach that the NFF engaged in December 2021, just before the AFCON. The defeat of the Super Eagles in Cameroon may be unfortunately read as a setback for indigenous coaches, unfortunately, because of Eguavoen’s stature and past records. He blames poor officiating, and the Senegalese referee, Mguette N’Diaye. Why? Alex Iwobi got a red card in the 66th minute reducing the Super Eagles to 10. Iheanacho also got a yellow card. There may have been cases of poor refereeing at AFCON, the most dramatic example being the group stage match between Tunisia and Mali which the Rwandan referee, Janny Sikazwe, ended prematurely twice as if he was in a hurry to catch up with a date. But Nigeria cannot give such excuse. Many teams have won with 10 men on the field, overcoming an 11-man team in come-back situations.  Bayern beating Stuttgart 4-0, in March 2021, Chelsea 10 men beating West Ham 4-1, way back in 2006, Manchester City coming up from 3-0 down and with ten men to beat Tottenham 4-3 in the 2003-4 FA Cup, Chelsea beating Barcelona in the second leg of the 2012 Champions League semi-final, Arsenal beating Newcastle 1-0 with just 10 men in 2015, Manchester United beating Crystal Palace 2-1, with 10 men in 2016. It can be argued that there may be other considerations or that it is not always that a 10-man team can perform magic. Yes. Alex Iwobi was pivotal to the Nigerian team on Sunday. His exit from the field affected the team.  

But the key issue is that the Tunisian team was better prepared and far stronger in terms of tactics. We played a Tunisian team that had 10 of its main players down with COVID. Their main coach, Mondher Kebaier was not even available. He was in his hotel room isolating, after testing positive for COVID. The Tunisians fielded their Team B. They were strong on ground, and focused. The Super Eagles throughout the first half played as if some of them had just returned from a house of pleasure, and were having trouble concentrating on the task at hand.  It was clear that they underrated the Tunisians despite having been warned by the likes of Jay Jay Okocha and others that the Tunisian football team should not be under-estimated. Daniel Amokachi famously said in fact, that the Carthage Eagles have the capacity to blow hot and cold like the British weather. On Sunday, January 23, Nigerians learnt a bitter lesson about the Carthage Eagles and the British weather analogy. The Tunisia coach says they were able to beat the Super Eagles because Nigeria was predictable. Eguavoen has reminded him that Nigeria had defeated Tunisia before now with just 10 men. So, why didn’t we re-enact the feat this time around? That is the question. The Eagles were tired. They could not fly.  

Twitter Nigeria and Reno Omokri, the self-confessed Buhari Hater, have not been sympathetic at all. They blame President Muhammadu Buahri, who had made a phone call to the Super Eagles, before the match, as the source of the bad luck that led to their defeat. Quoting the Book of Job at 32:8, Omokri accuses President Buhari of negative energy, and hence anything he touches, goes to dust. In Turkey, President Recep Erdogan and his sycophants would have taken this as hate speech. A Turkish journalist, Sedef Kabas is in jail for having the temerity to compose a poetic innuendo about the President’s head. Omoyele Sowore, El Zaharadeen and Agba Jalingo in Nigeria have had their own experiences in that regard also here in Nigeria. It is certainly not true that the President’s phone call led to the Super Eagles defeat, the superstitious affirmation is too far-fetched but when Nigerians mix politics with sports and everything else, there can be no limit to the manufacture of conspiracy theories. “Who gave the team, Buhari’s number?”, someone actually asked. One fellow with the twitter handle @ayemojubar turned the reactions into a choreographed farce when he picked on another public figure, Desmond Elliot: “Blame Desmond Elliot for all this.” How? Desmond Elliot is an actor and a member of the Lagos State House of Assembly. What has he got to do with the performance of the Super Eagles in the Cup of Nations?

But the man who has suffered most in the hands of football-loving Nigerians is Maduka Okoye, the 22-year-old goalkeeper of the Super Eagles. Maduka Okoye is a goalkeeper with Watford FC, UK, currently on loan to Sparta RotterDam, and on national duty for the Super Eagles in the 2021 AFCON. During the group stage matches, Okoye was the darling of Nigerians. He was highly instrumental to Nigeria’s three-match win, displaying great talent beyond initial expectations. He was hailed as one of the new faces of Nigerian football and those on whom the future depends including Alex Iwobi, William Troost-Ekong, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Taiwo Awoniyi, Moses Simon and others. Female fans particularly loved Maduka Okoye. They were more interested in his looks, and many of them said so on social media. The famsing was so much from cougars and all kinds of eyes-rolling, lips-pouting, Nigerian girls, I had to advise on television that the Super Eagles crew should keep ladies away from Maduka Okoye, to prevent them from spoiling him with love and affection, the same way they spoiled some other young men we know who have children from multiple continents. After Nigeria lost the match against Tunisia, the same Nigerians, men and women who praised Okoye turned against him. He was called “fine useless boy on the pitch…Okoye too sexy for the shot.” Memes suddenly emerged: “Okoye on Instagram vs. Okoye on the field” – very uncomplimentary reactions to a young man who came to help his country. On Twitter, @jibbyfordPr said “It is not Okoye’s fault. He probably thought the shot was from a photograph.” Another person: @EneMariah1 said “I think he should go for modeling. Football is not his calling sha.”  

One more reaction from @chimejaypee: “He tried to pose for the shot.”  Former Super Eagles striker, Julius Aghahowa also singles out Maduka Okoye for blame, accusing him of failing to save a ball that was coming directly “towards his direction.” What is the big lesson? Nigerians simply don’t want to lose at all. They will blame anybody including the weather. In life, in every sphere of it, you are only as good as your last performance. The day you fail, nobody remembers all the good things you did previously. The same people who praise you today can turn against you tomorrow, once their expectations are not met. It was never about you to start with, but their own feelings and selfishness. Can someone please explain this to Maduka Okoye to let him know that he tried his best and we must be glad that he showed up for Nigeria?

But why is everyone so uptight about Nigeria’s performance at the AFCON? You cannot sow corn and expect to reap wheat. Is that possible, within the laws of nature? Nigeria wants to win gold at AFCON 2021, but the same country was never ready to excel. In fact, the sterling performance at the group stage was a miracle. In Nigeria, we go to tournaments and expect to perform miracles – miracles that are not backed up with strong preparation and organization. We experiment and expect accidental success. That kind of approach to international competition, be it in sports, science or literature, does not yield the accidents that we expect simply because the opponents are better prepared. Rohr was Nigeria’s longest serving Technical adviser but after 64 months, he had nothing to show for it. Nonetheless, Rohr must be laughing wherever he is now. After he was sacked, he granted interviews in which he said his sack was unnecessary and he could have won the cup for Nigeria. Nobody trusted him because the best he offered and achieved was a third place position in the 2019 AFCON in Egypt. During the playoffs for the 2021 AFCON in Cameroon, Nigerians were shocked that the country only narrowly qualified. They also found it hard to believe that Nigeria had to struggle not to be disgraced by Cape Verde. They asked for Rohr’s sack. And he was booted out, and now he doesn’t even have a visa to Nigeria. He can’t even access the unpaid arrears that have now been paid into his Nigerian bank accounts. He should therefore be very careful how he laughs because he was certainly part of the problem: coaching the Nigerian national team from Europe, and failing to modernise his tactics! 

There are other problems of course: the crisis of football administration in Nigeria. Those who can make a difference are not  allowed to express opinions: so much division in the House of Football. Nigeria also lacks the infrastructure for developing local talent. The structures of old that produced gifted footballers from the secondary school level, Principal’s Cup have disappeared. Nigeria used to have a robust local league in the days of Stationery Stores of Lagos, BCC Lions of Gboko, Leventis United, Abiola Babes FC, Iwuanyanwu National, Enugu Rangers, Bendel Insurance, IICC Shooting Stars FC of Ibadan, NEPA FC, New Nigeria Bank FC, Calabar Rovers, Mighty Jets of Jos.  Not anymore. There are many teams across the country, but their owners are not investing enough. Nigeria has the talents and a youthful population that can offer more, given the right nurturing environment. We should stop blaming phone calls, spiritual energy, Okoye’s good looks or the weather for the Super Eagles exit from the 2021 AFCON in Cameroon. The exit was foreseeable. Under different circumstances, it was avoidable.    

Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos. 

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