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Nigerian Football: White Lies in Dark Times

Seni Saraki asks what happened to Nigerian football's glory days.
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Age concern: (from left) Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West and Obafemi Martins.

Nigeria is struggling to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. The Super Eagles’ world ranking dipped to a record low of 43rd in July, before a slight rebound lifted the team to 38th. Team coach Samson Siasia has spoken openly about the lack of discipline in a team laden with super egos. What has gone wrong with Nigerian football?

When considering that just 17 years ago, Nigeria was ranked 5th in the world, one must ask: how? How can a nation that was tipped to lead African football’s charge against the leading lights of Europe and South America have fallen so far, so quickly, and had its place as African football’s brightest star usurped by the Ivory Coast and Ghana?

Failing to prepare - preparing to fail?

The majority of Nigerian journalists, television pundits and ex-players blame a lack of organisation in preparing for tournaments. Just two months before their appearance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa – after an eight-year absence from the tournament - the team had still played no warm-up friendly matches. They went on to crash out before the knockout stages with newly instated coach Lars Lagerback resigning in the aftermath. When the Nigeria team travelled to London for a later cancelled friendly with Ghana, four players were absent after not applying for visas in time.

The “Super Egos”

But ask current coach Samson Siasia why Nigeria continues to underachieve and a different answer is presented. Siasia, a self-declared disciplinarian, spoke to the BBC in advance of a must-win game in Africa Cup of Nations qualifiying – against Madagascar. Nigeria went on to win, but must now beat group leaders Guinea to stand a chance of qualifying.

Siasia says he wants to indoctrinate a new culture of discipline to an ego-led team. He wants everyone to be equal, regardless of which club they play for. The “positive attitude” and “enthusiasm” of players returning from Europe to play in Africa has now gone, he says.

“I want to change a lot of things, mostly the discipline level. Anyone wearing the national colours has to play with a lot of pride,” he said

“They [the players] come with a lot of ego, they don’t want to listen to nobody, they just want to do whatever they want to do. Guys will tell you they don’t want to come. It’s really tough."

The topic of coaches is one that often arises when reviewing the downfall of the Super Eagles. Since their 1996 Olympic success, the Federation has appointed a new coach 18 times. This constant change of regime cannot benefit the team in the long run; there is no stability, with players constantly having to prove themselves to new managers and managers having to win the confidence of high-achieving players.

Age cheating?

Now for what the people think: the supporters, the average people at the market, the bloggers. Since the 1980’s, African teams, particularly Nigeria, have excelled in youth tournaments, or tournaments with an age restriction. Why is this? Age cheating.

Nigeria have twice been finalists at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and twice winners of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. However, the nation’s most celebrated success was at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, in which it gained a gold medal. Such dominance in youth tournaments even prompted football legend Pele to say, “An African team will definitely win the World Cup by the turn of the century.” Such a feat was not accomplished, and this can be partly accounted for by the age cheating of nations such as Nigeria.

It is now believed by bloggers that many players who represented Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics were over the cut-off age of 23. Taribo West, a key player at the tournament, was supposedly 22 at the time. After his retirement in October 2010, it was alleged he was in his late 50’s. Another pivotal player in Nigeria’s Olympic glory was Nwankwo Kanu, said to be 20 at the time. It is now argued that he may have been well over age at 30-years-old. Another prominent Nigerian player who did not play in the 1996 Olympic team and is yet to retire is still trailed by age-related questions. Obafemi Martins, the former Newcastle United and Internazionale striker was at the centre of a blow-up over a six year discrepancy between the date of birth on his passport and that listed by the NFF.

While many may query how the NFF got away with alleged age cheating, if indeed it did take place, a more thought-provoking question is why it did it. The obvious answer is so the team could have short-term success in youth tournaments, but it may be argued that the underlying reason is intertwined with politics.

Political instability = Nigerian football success?

During the 1990’s, the political situation in Nigeria was hostile. The nation was under military rule, with power moving between Ernest Shonekan, Ibrahim Babangida, and Sanni Abacha, all military generals. Civil unrest and violence was never far away in this 10-year dark period in Nigeria’s modern history, yet, in the middle of all of this, was the most successful spell for the Super Eagles when their world ranking peaked at 5th: the highest position an African team has ever held.

This relationship between the political stability of the nation and the success of the team, albeit possibly through deceit, is built on one factor – fear. It seems likely that the age cheating started as a result of the fear instilled in the NFF. And until today, this has persisted. In 2010, after Nigeria’s apparent under-performance at the World Cup in South Africa, President Goodluck Jonathan banned the team from all international competitions for two years so it could “re-organise”. FIFA subsequently banned Nigeria from international competition because of government interference in sport.

But a rejoinder to this theory is that other African nations have excelled in times of stability and the absence of overt political pressure. Under multiple coups staged between 1966 and 1990, Ghana failed to reach a World Cup. Only in the more stable environment of 2006 did Ghana qualify for its first World Cup and reach the quarter-finals, equaling the record for an African team. Of course, many other variables can be argued to be at play, from investment in sport, to the prominence of diaspora players in footballing countries, to out-migration from the country during the economic depression of 1981.

Up until 2006, the Ivory Coast football team, fondly known as “The Elephants”, was a relative nonentity of African football. But as the country’s major players - including Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, now of Manchester City and formerly of Barcelona - started moving to big European clubs, the team has soared to a FIFA ranking of 14 after two impressive World Cup campaigns which brought many neutrals to their side. The Ivory Coast, however, has a notoriously unstable and hostile political situation, marked by two gruesome civil wars.

While FIFA’s latest rankings release showed a slight rise for Nigeria, it is clear that, for now, the glory days of yesteryear are but a distant memory, replaced by must-win matches against the likes of Madagascar and Guinea. Determining the precise reasons for this fall from grace is, due to the number of variables, a complex question with no single answer. But it is clear that the seemingly white lies of the NFF in the 1990’s have caught up with them, as the apparent “young” potential of Nigeria is ageing quicker than anyone could have imagined.

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Comments

Let me commend you for your concern for Nigerian football.
My grouse with your post is the fact that you made it look like Nigeria is the only country in football history to have suffered a slide in fortunes and the only age cheat nation in world football.
Football history is replete with nations that have been through what Nigeria is passing through.
An example would be England. With all the razzmattaz around the 3 Lions, I can't remember them winning a thing in decades. Cote d' voire was in football wilderness for years longer than Nigeria's. Ghana? Started their recovery in 2008 when they hosted the cup of nations. My point is: every nation goes through a wilderness season in football!
Age cheating? It cuts across the world! Why pick on Nigeria? I guess you are Nigerian. Have you ever read anywhere that Ghanaians call their teams cheat? You think they don't cheat? Only in Nigeria, right?
While you alter your age to gain admission and get jobs, you point accussing fingers at footballers for doing same to better their lot. Case of pot calling the kettle black. Nigeria age cheats? Even FIFA is tired of your stories without evidence! So? Shut up, please!

The focus of the piece was on Nigeria. Omission does not mean ignorance. The focus was on Nigeria's fall from grace. Ivory Coast was mentioned, if you read it properly, as was Ghana. Nigeria's age-cheating is well documented and crticised, whereas Ghana's is not to the same extent. Comparing England's "wilderness season in football" with Nigeria's is ridiculous. They have consistently qualified for World Cups and Euro Championships(2008 not included) for decades. Age cheating was merely one factor that may have caused Nigeria's prolonged absence from the elite.
Contrary to your assumptions, I am still a student.
Thanks for taking time out to analyse the piece.

Age cheat is a manace in football as well as other sports. Age cheat is a bane in Africa not to exempt any country. If you put the head to head of countries in Africa in the last twenty years head to head participation in FIFA orgarnised competition you will tip Nigeria ahead of most African nations. In the Last 30 years We have been around the Nations cup medals more than any other country in Africa; I mean Gold, silver and Bronze. Hence. Nigeria is a great country we may be battling with our challenges but not to look as if we are the only one in this mess.FIFA is a European dominated entity. How many of black will you see in any top EUropean club? There is a quota in selection so that citizen are not left out of this top clubs. Barcelona for example brought Fabregas back to spain because of National team more than other reasons. We need to build up African clubs to world class if we must do well. Stop blaming age for bad performance of Nigeria; it is the same to most countries. We must plan to get the best always for competitions. Nigeria has over hundreds of players that can play for the Super Eagles scattered all over the world. Nigeria will keep replacing these players. We must have a perfect plan that will make our players grow up with a style of play; play more together and play competetively among the best in the world often.

The paragon of undertsadning these issues is right here!

Youngg Shane shoutout to the reply though, great article.

Whoever says taribo west and kanu are in their 50s are nothing more than idiots....how can you play football in your 50s?? do they think this is chess or golf??.....kanu is not an age cheat period!!!....if he was, he wouldnt have had such a great career. if someone like say sebastian diesler was nigerian, people would have said he was an age cheat thats why he retired early or was always getting injured. I know age cheats abound plenty in nigeria, but like someone above me said its not only limited to us(which of course isnt an excuse) but let us stop being stupid and go wash our mouths...kanu isnt older than 35, yobo isnt an age cheat; neither is mikel, anichebe, enyema, joel obi, etc and neither was oliseh, okocha, amokachi, uche okechukwu et all. its time for us to start being positive and think of a way to move nigerian football foward