GOOD OR BAD, EAGLES MUST FLY IN SOUTH AFRICA
My love for soccer started right from Eziama High School, Aba from where I moved to Government College, Umuahia. At Government College I doubled as Labour Prefect and Team manager of the school's soccer team. It was a difficult but exciting assignment. Under my guidance the team won many laurels and evoked fear in other schools.
It was this deep indulgence that propelled me to overhaul the Enyimba Football Club of Aba and took it to the soccer map of Africa – winning the Nigerian League back to back and the elusive CAF Championship Cup twice. When I told Nigerians that Enyimba would win the CAF Championship trophy for the first time in its 38 years history many wrote me off. But when the trophy landed on the shores of Nigeria it elicited thunderous celebrations in both friends and critics.
Up till date, my love for soccer knows no bounds. This is why I have never failed to add my voice to any issue that concerns the development of soccer in Nigeria. The matter on the front burner of global discourse at the moment is the 2010 World Cup to be hosted by South Africa and in which the Super Eagles are serious contenders.
Nobody should be deceived by the ongoing negative publicity against the Super Eagles because it will not change the focus of the team to do well in the Mundial. After all, the team was written off in 1994 when it appeared for the first time in a World Cup tournament under the direction of Clement Westerhof. The team was captained by Stephen Keshi and supported by such players as Finidi George, Ben Iroha, Peter Rufai (who manned the goalpost), Uche Okechukwu, and Rashid Yekini (who scored Nigeria's first goal). The performance of the team was very scintillating and left the world stupefied. After beating Bulgaria, the team went ahead to meet Italy in the round of 16 and lost narrowly. The loss of the Eagles at that stage of the tournament was quite painful. The team was leading by 1-0, with a few minutes to full-time, when a defensive blunder led to the legendary Roberto Baggio to equalize for Italy. Baggio was catalyzed by the Italian national team coach, Arigo Sacchi, to go for the equalizer. Subsequent efforts by the team under Bonfrere Jo and other foreign coaches to make an impact did not take the team beyond the group stage.
The most frightening and challenging moment came for the Eagles when it qualified for the 2010 World Cup by hair's breadth. It defeated Kenya in Nairobi to pick a spot in the tournament. Mozambique defeated Tunisia to pave the way for the Eagles to make it to South Africa.
Eagles' qualification was an act of God because everything pointed to their exit from the competition had God not intervened. Appreciative of this fact, I have gone ahead to predict as far back as last year that the team would do well in the World Cup. I made this prediction having followed diligently its performance since it qualified. The exit of Coach Shuaibu Amodu almost injected bad blood into the team but for the early mediation by the National Sports Commission (NSC). Even though I have nothing against Amodu taking the team to South Africa, I do not see anything wrong engaging Lars Lagerback. The employment of the Dutch sweat merchant was absolutely in response to the outcries of Nigerians calling for the head of Amodu, after the team's not-too-encouraging outing at the January 2010 Nations' Cup in Angola where it came third - trailing Egypt, the ultimate winners, and Ghana, the runners-up. One of the favourites - Elephants of Cote D'Ivoire - did not live up to the expectations of bookmakers that tipped it to win the tournament. In its place, Egypt took away the trophy for keeps, confirming its supremacy in African soccer.
The lesson of the Nations' Cup which is not lost on Nigeria is the need for early preparations. The Eagles would have done better if they had played as a team for a long time. It took them only a few days of practice to blend for the huge continental tournament. Whereas it took Egypt over two years playing together to achieve the monumental success it recorded in the competition. How Egypt will perform in South Africa is what I may not bother to predict. But one country painfully missing out from the teams Africa is parading at the global Mundial is Tunisia. It fought a bitter qualification battle against Egypt and lost. Egypt only scraped through by luck. Watching Tunisia play a friendly against France last Sunday made my heart go out to the team. I had wished the country qualified for South Africa. It gave a good account of itself and held its own against an experienced, star-studded France which paraded the like of Moloudia of Chelsea, Henry of Barcelona, and Ribery.
The Lagerback team to South Africa is gradually turning out a very promising one, considering the steady improvement it is making. Those who watched the team's performance last Sunday in a friendly against Columbia would see a team physically feat to take on the world. The Eagles' midfield in the match was better than what we saw in the friendly with Saudi Arabia a fortnight ago.
The new discovery by Lagerback, former flying Eagles playmaker Haruna, displayed some special skills and scored the equalizer against a Columbian side that was out to disgrace the Eagles. Osaze Odemwingie was his usual fine self as he made regular forays into the 18 yard box of Columbia. It was certain from the way the Columbians were marking the Eagles that they were afraid to lose to them. I must confess that the Columbian team presented to the Eagles a very good challenge that would help to spur them into action at the tournament.
I have taken a proper look at the Eagles' opponents in Group B, namely South Korea, Argentina, and Greece. These countries have done very well in international soccer. But the most outstanding of the lot is Argentina, coached by former captain of the Argentine national team, Diego Maradona, who has curiously vowed to dance naked in Buenos Aires should Argentina win the World Cup in South Africa. Many may not know that Argentina is not as intimidating as it used to be. Argentina used to present a huge nightmare to many countries in competitive soccer in South America.
But it has suddenly lost the shine as it has fallen to lesser teams on the continent. At least, the tough opposition it encountered in the qualification series was a pointer to the loss of steam by the team. The only thing that raises some awe about the Argentine team is the stars it currently parades. Do not forget that the great Messi of Barcelona and Milito of Inter Milan are the hit men on whom Maradona hinges his hope of lifting the trophy. In his assessment, Nigeria would not offer much resistance. But he will be making a big mistake if he underrates the Super Eagles. Messi may be a fine, robust player, but he can be contained by the youthful, aggressive Nigerian lads who have their eyes set on getting very far in the competition. Inter Milan demonstrated how vulnerable Messi could be when it routed Barcelona in the semi-final of the European Cup Championship. The Inter defence did not give him any room to show his artistry as usual. This is the strategy the Nigerian side must adopt if it is to hold back the Messi onslaught.
Another player to watch on the Argentine line up is Milito who wrecked Bayern Munich in the finals of the European Cup by scoring the two goals that settled the match to give Inter their third trophy this year. Inter had earlier won the Italian League and Italian Cup.
On the Korean side, I do not foresee much difficulty for Nigeria. Even though the Koreans are a fairly good side they still lack the kind of clout necessary to threaten the Eagles. They will bank on the experience and dexterity of such players as A.S. Monaco striker Park Chu Young and Manchester United utility player and captain of the Korean side, Park Ji-sung. Both players sank the Japanese national team by scoring one goal apiece when both sides met recently in a friendly match preparatory to the World Cup.
From the match against Japan one major weakness on the side of Korea is discernible: they have a very low counter-attack capability, which is an area the Eagles are trying to sharpen their skill. Beating Japan was a major achievement for the Korean World Cup team.
Greece is a good team but will pose a little problem to the Eagles. I agree no team should be neglected. Nevertheless, this does not mean we cannot write off some teams before the tournament commences. Since the focus of this essay is the Eagles it is only proper to review very systematically how the team is going to perform. The World Cup, which starts in another five days time, is the most important soccer event in the world calendar and it is a great thing the Eagles are participating.
I do not want to subscribe to the negative publicity the Eagles are receiving currently. All I know is that the team has the capacity of impressing at the event. The Eagles perform better when they are under the klieg-lights. It doesn't matter if every other person writes the team off. As for me, I am solidly behind the team and believe they will do very well. After all, nobody gave the 1994 World Cup squad any chance to go beyond the first round. To everybody's consternation, the team qualified from their group and went ahead to play in the last 16. It would have been a different story today if they had defeated Italy because they had everything going for them. It was inexperience that cost them the match, leaving Italy to qualify for the quarter-finals.
The Eagles have been sufficiently motivated by the government with enough money to cater to the needs of the team. The recent party held in their honour by President Goodluck Jonathan was a rare way to send them off to the football spectacle. The whole squad is one closely-knit family and can upset the forecast of notable bookmakers. I have always asked what will make the boys not do well in South Africa. Most of the players are professionals and have plied their trade in notable clubs around the globe. My major worry was the ankle injury sustained by Mikel Obi during his club's (Chelsea's) match against Tottenham Hotspur in one of the final matches in the UK 2010 Premier League. Chelsea won the match 2-1. It is heart-warming to observe that Mikel is making tremendous progress and may be fit before the Eagles' first match.
I am glad that Lagerback included Kanu Nwankwo (of Portsmouth FC, London) in his line-up. Though Kanu may no longer play as wonderfully as he used to in his heyday, but his experience is still relevant to the team. As captain he is mentally equipped to marshal the attack and inject discipline when and where necessary.
I have taken a critical study of the style of play of the Eagles and rue the absence of strikers. This deficiency manifested in the 1-1 draw they played when they met Columbia in a friendly last Sunday. This is one area the coach should concentrate his effort for the remaining part of their preparations. Once the strikers are up and doing then the other departments will naturally fall in place. The goalkeeper, Enyeama, is doing pretty fine these days. He showed flashes of skill when they met Columbia. The same situation is applicable to other players that make up the squad.
Let me advise the players to shun individualistic play and instead prosecute their matches as a team. They should attack and defend at the same time. This is the only way they can beat Argentina and, in fact, every other team for that matter.
I commend the players and officials to the direction and protection of God as they depart for South Africa to bring honour to Nigeria.