SUPER EAGLES: RETURN OF A HERO BRAND
In order to guard against any unpleasant circumstance a lot of Nigerians have over the years avoided watching Nigerian matches, those who do prepare for the worst. This was as a result of a string of failures over the past nearly 2 decades after the first World Cup appearance in 1994 and the Olypmic gold medal in football in Los Angeles. The Super Eagles it would seem went on a steady decline much to the frustration of virtually every stakeholder. It was with this background that the Stephen Keshi-managed Eagles jolted Nigerians with scintillating performances from the knock-out stage of the recent African Confederations Nations’ Cup (AFCON) in South Africa. From a lack-lustre performance that drew the ire of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) officials and soccer loving Nigerians, Keshi and his boys shocked Nigeria and the world by beating formidable foes to lift the coveted trophy for the first time in 19 years, thus bringing unprecedented joy and excitement to Nigerians.
What brought an abrupt end to what is still referred to as the golden generation of brand Nigeria’s football would trigger loads of argument, accusations and counter accusations were it to be deliberated upon but one fact would not be disputed at the end of it all; brand Nigeria’s football went into the wilderness of some sort after the victory over Zambia in the chilly atmosphere of Elmenzer stadium in Tunisia, back in 1994. Though the Champions of Africa debuted and entertained the globe at the World Cup the same year, it was in a short while going to be far from even the shadows of the height it attained.
International politics which ostracized the Abacha regime, and by extension Nigeria, after the judicial killing of Ken Sar-Wiwa prevented the kings of Africa from defending their crown in the rainbow nation two years later and CAF’s hammer ensured the brand Super Eagles did not display its football artistry in Burkina Faso in 1998. That was the beginning of further journey into the football abyss for the Super brand that once bestrode the African continent like the famed colossus.
In a desperate attempt to reclaim its lost glory, the Super Eagles wriggled their way into the final of the 2000 edition of AFCON which was co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana. Like a bad dream at the main bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, an error of judgment from the centre referee and an inexperienced display of emotions denied Nigeria a possible Victor Ikpeba winning goal over arch rivals Cameroon. Nigerians were left reeling in searing agony as the Cameroonians walked away and with the coveted trophy.
Three successive editions saw the world’s most populous black race become perpetual bronze medalists. The glory days were long gone, with little or no sign of it resurfacing. The love of the fans waxed cold. The administrators of the game neglected the core values of developmental football. The players displaced the love for their fatherland and rightly sought fame and fortune in foreign lands. The revered Eagles colours of green-white-green was covered with a huge splash and stained with mediocrity. Every nation even in Africa began to fancy their chance against an obvious sleeping giant. Football was developing in other nukes and crannies of the African continent but the “Glass House” the headquarters if the NFF in Abuja was basking in the euphoria of past glories and soaking itself in scandal after scandal. The local leagues were in shambles and the National teams and Leagues are to this day without a title sponsor. Football in Nigeria was on the death row.
It was clear that the administrators of brand Nigeria’s football could not reignite the spirit that once made the nation number 5 in the football world or maybe we should say the spirit was sacrificed on the altar of self interest. It is a fact that the linchpin of that golden era was made up of the local players who donned the colours with pride and faced challenges with the tenacity typical of brand Nigeria. This was conspicuously missing in our wilderness years.
The local sets of players were never treated on a level playing field with their foreign based counterparts. Organizing a crisis-free local league has become a herculean task. Chief Oyuki Obaseki a.k.a (the moving train) fought for the establishment of the Nigeria Premier League board and thus ran an uninterrupted and transparent league during his tenure as chairman of the board. When the chief eventually resigned, league sponsorship apparently resigned with him. Who would put his money where there’s no accountability?
Despite the neglect and hard times of the league, the Nigerian creativity and fighting spirit on display by the local gladiators earned the league its number one status on the continent in 2011; though the feat was later ‘complemented’ in 2012, as it was to be labeled the longest league in the world, after it was played for over a year. More of the football was being played in the boardroom and law courts with leadership controversy being the symbol of brand Nigeria’s football house. As expected, the results continued to tell on the field. The players replicated lack of commitment. The zeal and fighting spirit that made the Eagles super was gone. There was nothing for the fans to cheer about. In fact, there were no more fans.
At long last, a Daniel came to justice. The “Big Boss” who lifted the coveted trophy as captain 19 years ago was appointed the head coach against all odds. Many never gave him a chance despite his exploits that saw him qualify little-known Togo for the 2006 World Cup. On his assumption of duty, he knew what won them the cup in 1994 was not just the foreign touch but the combination of the local brilliance with the creativity and doggedness of whoever puts on the Green White Green. Subsequent events would prove him right.
He tread the dangerous path by providing a level playing ground for the local and foreign based players not even the revered foreign coach would have dared think of it. For the first time in a long while, the local brand of players saw a future in the Super Eagles brand. This bold step by Keshi was going to make Nigeria’s football a super brand again but nobody saw it coming. Keshi crossed the first huddle of qualification with the crux of the team being local gladiators and when the opportunity to re-write the history books came, the ‘Big Boss’ stuck to his guns.
The 29th edition of AFCON commenced on 19th of January and the super Eagles began the journey to end their 19 years of wandering in the wilderness. The journey into the Promised Land was not meant to be easy and when it seemed as if it would be a dead end, a Moses rose to the occasion. Making the quarter finals was not convincing, but it was still a face saving feat. Then came the time of vindication for the local brands. The pre-tournament favourites stood in the way. The Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire had recently found a way of taming the Eagles and this time, they threatened to feed on the Eagles like chickens. A local brand couldn’t have chosen a better occasion to shine. When Sunday Mba picked the ball in the centre circle and began his run towards goal, he was definitely not on the same page with many of his team mates. The end product happens to be the stroke that broke the Elephants’ back; it was a move that Messi, the world’s best player would appreciate with a lot of envy. It took a replay for many to know the move was made by a local brand.
In the climax on a glorious Sunday night on February 10 in the Soccer City, a player named Sunday in his jersey number 19 ended the 19 years of waiting with yet another goal that typifies the Nigerian spirit; thereby replacing the agony of year 2000 with the joy of victory. Now the local brand of players has earned their respect. Keshi, a local coaching brand, now has the honor of being the only living man to have won the Nations’ Cup as a captain and a coach. The Super Eagles brand has reclaimed its status on the continent, and in the process, shown the inherent beauty of brand Nigeria to the world. They did it in a way that only Nigerians can do it; we have the knack to provide results when it is least expected. It would long be remembered that the so-called Super chicken became Super Eagles within three weeks and it would also be remembered that it was tailored in Nigeria, by a Nigerian, for Nigerians.
It goes without saying that as we savour this sweet victory, managers of the Nigerian football brand have a duty to use the occasion as a building block towards re-introducing a virile developmental football regime. The game should be better packaged for transparency in order to attract good sponsors and even make the game profitable for investors to own clubs and be able to reap from their investments as seen in advanced economies. Unless we begin the process now Nigeria’s 2013 victory just might end up as flash in the pan.