By Biodun Alabi
This is strictly from my point of view as a fan of Nigeria’s senior national football team since 1980 and as a sports journalist of 25 years.
It’s imperative, for clarity, to date my observations, and how I think they led to the dizzying height the Super Eagles reached in 1994 and how ordinary the team has become in the past five years.
I watched on television the Green Eagles of Segun Odegbami, Muda Lawal, Christian Chukwu and Co as a young boy, I saw the FLAMBOYANCE, the STREETS- WROUGHT TALENTS and the DEDICATION of this squad that led to the winning of the 1980 nations Cup trophy.
I also read about the metamorphosis of this squad from the remnants of the 1976 team that took bronze at the nations Cup in Ethiopia; and how the same process played out between 1980 and 1984, culminating in that year’s nations Cup silver medal in Ivory Coast ( now Cote D’Ivoire).
Within these four years, under different coaches, there were similar patterns of emergence of new orders in the team and a seamless blend of old and new players. Late Muda Lawal and Henry Nwosu, for instance, moved from the 1980 set to 1984 set, late Stephen Keshi,somewhere along the line, came into the picture.
That was the arrival of the KESHI PHENOMENON in the Eagles. This permeated the late 1980s up till 1994.
While Keshi dominated this new generation by being in Belgium, Europe; and by influencing a major exodus of Nigerian footballers to that continent( there were John Chidozie, Tunji Banjo and the Fashanu brothers in the early 1980s), a new class of players , also with FLAMBOYANCE, STREETS-WROUGHT talents and DEDICATION, began to emerge from a richly talented and diversely gifted local LEAGUE SYSTEM which was sipping from the
fountains of organised secondary schools and communities football competitions. These came to a height at this period; not that they didn’t exist before.
Between 1986 and 1990, (another 4 years), it was easy to assemble four Eagles squads at a time; each capable of beating Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Central Africa Republic or Madagascar silly , home and away. In fact, clubs like Leventis United, Abiola Babes, Shooting stars, NNB, Iwuanyawu Nationale , or even Flash Flamingoes, Stationery Stores, ACB, First Bank, Ranchers Bees, BCC Lions, could easily beat any of these countries. I say this with my full chest!
The culmination of all these was what Clemence Westerhof inherited when he took the team to Algeria in 1990, and ran a largely home grown team to another siver medal. By 1991, many of the players began going abroad too in the face of offers too juicy to ignore. The beauty of it was the transformation of the Eagles into a MONSTER that perennial nemesis like Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon , and Ghana could not handle anymore. Senegal, Africa’s big boy of today, was far behind then.
The Eagles not only won the 1994 nations Cup in style and with arrogance, the team was also dreaded by the world going into the 1994 world cup.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Since losing to Italy in the second round of the 1994 world cup, the Eagles were never able to play with the same authority and command all through the 1998 world cup and subsequent editions. However, the squads and the players of the post 1994 era came in different shades of quality. They ranked between the good, the bad and the ugly. None was as sublime as the 1994 class.
In the space of this time, European leagues, football technologies and television began to deplete our resources. Add these to poor administration and corrupt leadership in successive tenures at the NFF, our dear game began to fall apart. The league system began to die under the heavy weight of insecurity at our stadia, horrendous officiating, poor and irregular remuneration of players and officials, no attraction and motivational incentives for the clubsides, no prize monies, the corporate sponsors became discouraged, there was no definite direction for the game, the private teams began withering and the government, which was supposed to come in , give direction for a viable ecosystem in terms of policies and infrastructure development, simply looked away.
No country without a proper, innovative,rewarding and policy-driven football league system can ever reach the top class and remain there. The league system, through the pipeline of streets football, properly guided academies, and schools tournaments( with a calendar), should be the fulcrum on which the senior national team and the junior ones rest.
The inferior thought that European football should and must always be our compass must be buried for the Eagles to gain traction and regain old pedigree. Do not blame the current generation of players in the team for they did not go through the furnace that made the name SUPER EAGLES.
The lamentations would be eternal for us as long as we are not ready to hold the bull by the horns. The interim League management Committee is doing a good job if not truncated somehow as it used to be.
Morocco and Senegal are leading the way in Africa. Yet they don’t come close to us in all ramifications, if the leadership of the game, and of the country, are driven by honesty and the integrity required to give the game a new life, and make it an industry that is richer than oil and gas.