By Akinbode Oguntuyi

More breaches are appearing in the house that is built with mud, plastered with cement-coloured plastic, and is being passed off as an architectural masterpiece, designed and built to last a lifetime. The Nigerian U-23 team will not be at the Athens Olympics, accusations are flying around as to the cause or causes of the crash; and the coaches who were announced as the men to tinker the U-17 and U-20 teams, in preparation for their own World Cup qualifiers, have been sacked ever before they took up the appointment. A classic case of Comedy of Errors!

In case you’re wondering which breach was the first, that was the “incident of the bad boys” at the last African Nations Cup. Not the performance of the team itself, just the management of the crisis that turned Nigeria into the butt of jokes of nations whose soccer teams cannot hold a candle to the Super Eagles, and elicited derogatory comments from a manager who is struggling to keep his team afloat in the English Premiership. The fiasco that was the qualifiers for the Olympic soccer event is the second – at least in recent history. We won’t bother to grade the joke that was the appointed-and-sacked-before-resuming-duty saga that has just unfolded.

For the purpose of clarity: the ticket to Athens was not lost at the Rades stadium in Tunis , No. That ticket had been waiting to be picked up by one of the other teams in the group, since the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) appointed Musa Abdullahi as the coach of the team. Forget all the mud flying around between Ikhana Kadiri, the NFA and the sports minister after the second Tunisian debacle: that ‘rescue mission’ is tantamount to the case of a lifeguard whose section of the beach has six cases of drowning people: he would do what he could, and leave the rest to pay for their foolishness. Nigeria never had that qualification ticket; it was all a mirage which Tunisia (in Bauchi) and Senegal (in Dakar ) had underlined for us, by the time we took heed, it was too late.

Another breach almost appeared in Abuja penultimate Tuesday, as the Falcons toiled against a jaded Banyana, and almost got caught by skilful counter-attacking play. The Falcons will be in Athens thanks mainly to the resilience of our girls and nothing else. The appointment of Ismaila Mabo is as big a mistake as that of Musa Abdullahi, period. But then again, we will ‘discover’ that at the Olympics.

By the way, Cameroon too will not be defending the title they won with so much aplomb in Australia . The last two Champions, both from Africa ; neighbours afflicted with the same disease, suffering from the same ailment, have suffered the same fate. Was it a coincidence that the Central African nation fared badly at the last Nations Cup? Don’t think so. The events of the past three months had to be the culmination of years of papering over cracks. And sadly, Nigeria is on the same route.

The general consensus (since the majority carries the vote) is that the senior national team should be handled by a foreigner, while (favoured) local coaches handle the junior teams. The truth is that the problems facing Nigerian football WILL NOT be wiped away by a foreign coach. It will amount to only more papering of a collapsing structure. Hiring a foreign coach will just be like expending air freshener in a house built on a functional dung hill: the smell will not go away. Any relief will only be temporary.

It took a while before our U-17 team appeared at a World tournament after a lengthy absence; in a competition other nations almost started attending for appearance sake. Such was the dominance till the goose that used to lay the golden eggs of youth talent; the Youths Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) was slowly strangled by greedy Sports Ministry officials. The last time (that may yet turn out to be a pun!) we got to the Finals; the team was undone by the tactical ineptitude of the coach. It may yet happen again, only thing is that this time; it may be much, much earlier. The same can be said of the U-20 team, whose forays into the international arena have been restricted to cameo appearances at the African Championships. We may be laying the foundation of yet another failure for these teams by the decisions that are been made about their coaching staff.

Which criteria do we use in selecting our age group coaches? What are the objectives we set for them? How far have we met these objectives in the past 25 odd years? These are the questions we must consider, as the qualification matches of the age-grade competitions – the U-17 and U-20 – kick off across the continent. If missing out of the Olympics is just painful, being absent from these two will be more than that: it will be painful, and it will be a disgrace. So how did we come up with the names of Godwin Izillien and Kafaru Alabi in the first instance? Was it to satisfy the infamous national character – an Ibo man is handling the senior team, so, let an Edo man handle the juniors, while a Yoruba man handle the academicals, a Hausa man is already in charge of the female team!

The track record of Alabi and Izillien with the teams they have handled in the local league is good, but the question we must ask ourselves is this: is there anything that suggests they were ready to face some of the most well organized youth teams on the continent? Let’s face it, the gap between local and international football is wide. And our guys would have found that they’re in way over their heads. It is for this reason that countries appoint former internationals (of the not too distant past), who have garnered some experience at club level, as the coaches of their junior teams. Some nations use the juniors as training ground for future senior national team coaches.
We must encourage our former internationals to take up coaching by treating them right, upgrading the recognized talents amongst them - by attaching them to reputable European clubs and sponsoring them to FIFA/UEFA organized coaching seminars and courses - and showing appreciation when they win honours for the country. THE ERA OF HIRING COACHES WITHOUT CONTRACTS AND BAD-MOUTHING THEM WHEN THEY REFUSE TO KOW-TOW TO NFA AND SPORTS MINISTRY OFFICIALS MUST END.

Now that we have arrived at this cross-road again, we must carefully consider: what exactly do we want to achieve with our youth football programme? Do we want to be a Portugal , or do we want to do a France ? Or is our target to catch up with the Brazilians?

Portugal raised a ‘golden generation’ that triumphed at the junior level, but have consistently failed at the highest level. The French were just so-so at youth level, but they currently parade one of the most exciting senior teams of all time, with successes and records to match. Brazil posted just a little over average performances at junior tournaments for a long time; now, they hold every trophy in international football, except the female crown and the Olympic title. What do we want? The answer to the question will point the way to the salvation of our football.

The truth is, if we have a policy, then the appointment of coaches, and the selection of national team players, will not be a matter of national character: only the cream will be considered.

So, what else to do? There is enough talent in this country to see us through the African qualifiers, and the first objective should be to FIND them. Then we must determine whether we want long term gains or short term gains, this will tell us WHICH of the players to use, and what we’ll ask of them and their handlers.

But above all these, we must clean up the Nigeria Football Association. The image of ‘anything goes, as long as the price is right’ that swirls around the Glass House must be dispelled with professionalism that our football deserves, and maybe, just maybe, we can still salvage something from the dunghill.

The Super Eagles? Another matter entirely!

This piece was written in 2003 by Bode Oguntuyi; How nice it is to read again in 2011
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  1. corruption is hampering the development of African football.

    "The whole African football set up is corrupt,"
    "Our federations are not professional and often the federations like the money that comes with football but not football itself.