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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Russia Here We Come By Ray Ekpu

After the 1-0 defeat of Zambia at the Godswill Akpabio stadium in Uyo our nerves were at ease. That success announced our qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia with one qualifier to spare. The players joyfully tossed their coach in the air like a ball but they did not let him drop on the floor like a coin. Those of us who were in no position to toss the coach, Gernot Rohr in the air can simply toss our hats (and wigs) in grateful appreciation of that achievement.

When it occurred to Nigerians that the Super Eagles were in the same group as Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia there was some bit of teeth-gnashing and no songs of happiness. Our competitors in the group had counted us out before the first ball was kicked. Their view was that even though we won the African Cup of Nations in 2013 we had failed to qualify for the next two consecutive tournaments after that. So our football had gone downhill and in a group labeled the group of death we had no chance at all. The challenge was truly gargantuan.

After the turbulence of the Sunday Oliseh days and stories of salaries not paid, or lodged or vouchers missing many football glitterati may have come to the conclusion that we may watch the excitement, drama and the insanity of the 2018 finals without the Super Eagles on parade. Now our young and old lads will be on parade when the whistle goes off. As an icing on the cake the existential issues such as allowances and bonuses have been decided. The coaches are not likely to go on strike because of non-payment of salaries. A patriotic and football loving company, Aiteo, has graciously agreed to pick up the bills and make our Russia trip hassle-free. The boys seem ready to bring frissons of passion into the game as the coach begins the build-up of a quality team.

Two weeks ago, the Super Eagles did the unthinkable. They humiliated one of the world’s football superpowers. Argentina, with a 4-2 defeat in a friendly match in Russia. It may mean that Nigeria has improved considerably tactically because the Super Eagles were trailing behind the two time world champions by two goals before our team’s resurgence. It may also mean that Argentine football is in decline. Diego Maradona, the greatest dribbler of all time, is highly critical of the team’s coaching credentials. Maradona who managed the team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa now wants the job back.

In Nigeria, we are crowing about the feat of feasting on the Argentine team. That is appropriate but the journey has only just begun. When the draws are made on December 1, we will know who our opponents will be. That is when the real work will begin. But I suggest we do not get carried away by the whipping of Argentina. In the senior world cup everything counts: the food, the weather, the air, the language, the field, the boots, the jerseys, the lodging, the espirit de corps, the timeliness, the tactical, psychological, physical discipline, the medicals, practically everything counts. The superpowers of world football, Germany, Brazil, Spain, Argentina etc. plan everything to the minutest detail in order to give their teams a winning muscle. Nigeria must do likewise.

Coach Rohr has done a great job of discovering and bringing to the turf such hyphenated Nigerians as Leon Balogun, William Troost-Ekong, Ola Aina, Tyron Ebuehi and Brian Idowu. There are probably some others still waiting to be convinced that it is better to commit to Nigeria than to the countries of their birth. The advantage of bringing in these Nigerian oyibos is that they, one and all, come from a football environment that emphasizes skill, discipline, consistency and hardwork. There are no federal character considerations. If you are good you are in; if you are not good you are out. There is no room for mediocrity. Second chances are rare so any Nigerian who plays abroad knows this. It can be said, therefore, that any Nigerian who plays abroad especially in Europe is rated much higher than those playing at home.

The Nigerian Football League is one of the weakest in the continent. The organisation is suspect; the pay is poor; the fields are unkempt and the discipline is low. That is why it has not been able to attract any foreign player or coach of significance into its fold. So Rohr is right in fishing for superb players of Nigerian parentage abroad. They come well-equipped not only with enviable skill sets but also with a high spirit of competitiveness. Happily, the coach has said that he hopes to bring more new faces into the team so that the fight for shirts will be fierce.

The Super Eagles completed the World Cup qualifiers without losing any match. It recorded two draws and conceded four goals in the six matches that it played. That is a good record. But it also shows that the defence needs to be panel-beaten. Since the discovery of acute leukemia in Carl Iheme’s system we have had to search for a goalkeeper who is consistently reliable. We have tried Daniel Akpeyi who seems to need a high dose of self-confidence; we had also used Dele Alampasu who did well in the youth competitions but seems to have fallen off the coach’s radar. Ikechukwu Ezenwa has an abundance of self-confidence but he has, like most goalkeepers, a problem with crosses. Francis Uzoho, the new boy on the block had played in the youth competitions. He manned the second half of the friendly against Argentina and his reflexes seemed good. He is the new goalkeeper for Deporivo La Coruna of Spain. His star is rising but I think the coach must still persist in the task of luring Vincent Enyeama into the team so as to provide more competition among the goal-tenders. The defence seems to have been fully fortified with the Oyibos that have come into the team but it still looks uncoordinated. Any good goalkeeper must help himself and his team by organising his defence effectively and distributing the ball sensibly to achieve the goal of reaching the opponent’s danger zone. The goalkeepers position is very strategic is the only one where three choices are made. All other positions have two persons each in a competition with a 23 man team. So we must strive to solve the goalkeeper puzzle before long.

The strike force of Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Ihenacho seems to be working smoothly because they see themselves as friends not competitors. Off the field they are amiable, friendly and love to exchange good natured banter. We need another strike force in that mould, one that is not ego-driven, but willing to work for the good of the team. By the permutations the coach is making, he may be able to find a viable combination that will deliver the goods. The strength of Rohr’s team seems to be in the age and height of some of his Turks. They are young and are spring-heeled headers. But who is the dead ball expert in the team, the one who can bend the ball like Beckham or curve it like Okocha?

In the world cup, most teams may not have the grace of Pele or the guile of Johan Cruyff or the technique of Beckenbauer, or the tough-mindedness of Christian Ronaldo or the mesmerism of Messi. However, if it has tactical discipline, the sense of where to be, the commitment to give not less than all, and a little lump of luck it can get its due reward. I say to the Super Eagles, go.

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