Final argument: Local V Foreign coach for Nigeria

Keshi's Triumph and the Collapse of a Simplistic Binary: Conversing with Data

Stephen Keshi leading Nigeria to its third African Cup of Nations victory had several unspoken narratives that sent messages to the larger Nigerian sporting public beyond the mere winning of an African championship.

The team’s triumph was largely unexpected and the fact that the coach was pilloried by both media and the public just after two group games and the report that the Nigerian Football Federation had already purchased homebound flight tickets in anticipation of a quarter final elimination showed how little faith was behind the victory chances of the Nigerian team.

That Nigeria, under Keshi, would proceed to eliminate tournament favorite Ivory Coast, throttle Mali before beating Burkina Faso for the Cup underlined the team’s faith in its own destiny, its quest for glory, and unquenchable thirst for writing history. In the end, its unspoken narratives produce for us a dismantling of a simplistic binary that had clouded Nigeria’s football for several decades – local v foreign coaches.

The binary of foreign and local coaches had long been an issue in Nigeria going back to John Finch who led the first Nigerian national team on a tour of England in 1949. Decades after that, no local Nigerian was deemed fit to coach the team except under the tutelage of a European.

While this may have seemed the norm during the colonial period, the idea of understudying a European coach remained in play in Nigeria for a long period into the 21st century. 

The fact that Nigeria’s only two Cup victories were achieved under two European coaches – Gloria and Westerhoff – was often put forward as proof for the continued understudy idea. Finally, a Nigerian – Keshi – has won the same trophy.

Poof goes the idea that only foreign coaches can win the big one for Nigeria. The binary of Foreign versus local must now be discarded for a simple idea of best coaching quality, without a focus on the geography of the coach. Lest I forget, there was rumor that as Keshi was in the midst of the Nations Cup group games that the Football Federation were already in talks to hire an European coach to replace Keshi and justify the misguided argument that only European coaches can successfully coach the Nigerian national team.

Nigeria’s former international, Jonathan Akpoborire, a strident supporter for foreign coaches recently argued on “I once had a coach in Germany who had all the data of all the African players in Europe. Age, positions, clubs, goals, assists, and everything you can think of…I don’t even want to mention the tactical deficit of our home coaches…”

If the difference is as stark as Akpoborire claims, one should reasonably expect significant differences in results obtained by foreign coaches compared to local ones. After all, results are and should be the bottom line for evaluating coaches.  Therefore, this controversial issue requires a look at data in order to attempt an answer to the question.

Determining the critical factors that help in answering the question is complex, to state the least. For instance, if one relies on using cup winning as a benchmark we run into the problem that Nigeria’s national team has won only three major tournaments since 1949. Each of those involved a foreign coach and longevity may well have been critical in winning at least one of the championships. Moreover, foreign coaches have had more opportunities than the local ones to be at the helm. Thus, one may argue (same as one could argue with longevity) that more opportunities also present a better chance of trophy winning. On the other side of the coin the three losses that Nigeria has suffered at home in competitive games since the mid—1960s have all been under foreign coaches. As is the street lingo; “Ahaa . . .so which one man pikin go take now?” Your answer is as good as mine.

However, while such complexities are acknowledged one should not shy away from comparing. Instead, one should seek comparative factors that are fairer than others. For instance, one may compare results in competitive games. It is this method that we use to compare the two classes of coaches to determine if there are indeed major differences, as Akpoborire claims, that warrant massive expenditure of cash on foreign coaches.

Additionally, there are claims that it is not really about result but the fact that foreign coaches are not clouded by ethnocentrism in selecting players. We also examine this by looking at how much the national team changes when a new coach is hired. We do not review ethnic background of players as we do not have data on that but by analyzing whether the national team radically changes when there is transition from foreign to local coach or vice versa one can reasonably infer whether indigenous coaches are influenced by other means besides need to achieve wins. A significant change in team make—up following a coaching transition probably signals putative reasons for player selection by a local coach.

Please note that the data we use here begin in 1965 until the recent Cup winning game against Burkina Faso. We have chosen 1965 because it was the start of Josef Ember’s tenure as coach. It was under Ember that Nigeria became a team that reasonably competed for a continental title and Ember eventually took the team to an Olympic appearance in 1968. We also restrict our attention to the following competitions — World Cup, Nations Cup, Intercontinental Cup, Afro—Asian Cup, All Africa Games, and Olympics.

The All Africa Games and Olympics data are restricted only to the period when the full Nigerian national team participated in those competitions.

Comparing Results

First we have categorized results into three and arrived at efficiency scores in each category. The categories are home, away, and neutral venue games. Most of the neutral venue games are played in the Nations Cup or World Cup finals for examples. To arrive at efficiency scores, we award 3 points for a win and a point for a draw as is international convention and then divide by maximum points obtainable. For instance, if a team won 2, drew 1, and lost 1 game away, the efficiency score is 0.583 or 7 points divided by 12 possible points.

However, we know that away wins or draws are more difficult to achieve and thus there is need to assign weights to total results. Therefore, efficiency scores for neutral games are weighted 1, home games weighted 0.75, and away games weighted 1.25 in order to appropriately analyze results. We do not go into analyzing whether a game was played against lower or top ranked teams as both foreign and local coaches have done both and, thus, we reasonably assume that such games average out.

Table 1
Foreign Coaches                                                            Local Coaches
                                                Home Games
Won   Drew          Lost   Eff.    Wgt Eff.      Won  Drew Lost   Eff.    Wgt. Eff.
50      7        3        .87     .65              37      12      0        .84     .63
                                                Away Games
Won   Drew          Lost   Eff.    Wgt Eff.      Won  Drew Lost   Eff.    Wgt. Eff.
9        22      23      .30     .38              15      21      13      .45     .56
                                                Neutral Games
Won   Drew          Lost   Eff.    Wgt Eff.      Won  Drew Lost   Eff.    Wgt. Eff.
23      13      21      .48     .48              20      11      8        .61     .61    

Table 1 shows results obtained in each category comparing foreign and local coaches. It also shows efficiency scores before (Eff.) and after they are weighted (Wgt. Eff.). As the data demonstrates, the idea that foreign coaches are better than local coaches is not true at least as far as comparing the types of foreign coaches hired by Nigeria and the local ones used.

While Nigeria may have had successes with the likes of Westerhoff and Otto Gloria, we have also had poor results from other foreign coaches. The fact that the data are quite comparable also indicates that we have had good Nigerian coaches.

So why have foreign coaches won three of four competitions won by Nigeria? The answer lies in the fact that foreign coaches have won them at home where the efficiency scores for all Nigerian coaches are high and, therefore, it is conceivable that a Nigerian coach would have won at home. To be sure, the only other competition we hosted at home was lost by a foreign coach making it clear that there are no guarantees even by a foreign coach.  Nigeria has only won two championships on neutral ground and away from home in 1994 under a foreign coach and 2013 under a local coach. However, Westerhoff is clearly an aberration among foreign coaches as no other foreign or local coach has achieved that feat. This means that the fact that Westerhoff won that title is not based on his biological attribute of “foreign coach.”

To be fair to Akpoborire’s views, he acknowledges that his call for European coaches is not a call for “. . all the dodgy coaches (From Europe) our football house has paraded in the last few years o!”  In essence, the clue and explanation may lie elsewhere instead of within the current divide of foreign v. local coaches! It points to ‘good’ coaches, no matter the geography.

To the credit of local coaches, they have been remarkably better in away and neutral venue games. While some may argue that foreign coaches played most of the neutral games at the more difficult World Cup finals stage, what then explains the away games, which do not involve World Cup final games? One must be cautious, however, in attributing away game successes to all local coaches because a bulk of those away victories came under just one of them — Shaibu Amodu.

Amodu currently holds the Nigerian record of winning six consecutive competitive games and holds the record for largest margin of away victory by the senior national team. No other Nigerian coach has done this. Thus, winning away cannot be attributed to the fact that Amodu is “local.” Just like in Westerhoff’s case, we have to seek the key explanation elsewhere!

Bias in Team Selection

As we mentioned above, there have been substantial argument that local Nigerian coaches are influenced in team selection by ethnic and other subjective considerations and, thus, the need for a foreign coach. We looked at data, again from 1965 to the 2013, comparing transition line ups used by Nigerian coaches in a competitive game about a year after transitioning from a foreign one to a Nigerian or vice versa by foreign coach after transitioning from a Nigerian. A radical change in Line—up should give us a clue?

We find that such radical changes in line—ups have only occurred three times during the data period. In essence, it means that the claim is not supported by data, at least at the full national team level.

The periods where we found this radical departure is Onigbinde taking over from Otto Gloria, Manfred Hoener taking over from Paul Hamilton, and Westerhoff taking over from Paul Hamilton.

In each of those periods the line—up change was not just 5 to 6 players but changes of 8 or more starters. Note that such radical changes may actually have occurred in transitioning from foreign to foreign or local to local coaches.

However, our focus is not on that type of transition. But could there be other explanations for radical changes in the type of transition that we are interested in?

For one, Onigbinde was asked to completely overhaul the team after the departure of Gloria and, thus, it was clearly expected that the team would change radically based on administrative mandate. That was not the case of the Hoener or Westerhoff changes. Could it then be the case that Paul Hamilton, the local coach involved in both Hoener and Westerhoff changes, had a team that just was not up to par. As I noted, I do not want to speculate on ethnocentric explanations because a rudimentary observation of the line—ups should immediate dispel such claims. Nevertheless, I cannot fully explain aberrations in those two cases but it is possible that radical changes occurred because of wide divergence on player evaluation.

The reason for this article was to review data and not rely on subjective opinions in investigating the issue of foreign v local coaches. Too many times, Nigerian officials and the fans rely on emotions and subjective considerations on debating an issue for which data is readily available for a deeper and more meaningful explanation. As we have seen above, foreign coaches do not come with any guarantees of productivity. It makes more sense to look at the qualities of an individual coach, regardless of the coach’s geographical abode as there are both good coaches overseas and at home in Nigeria. In addition, the claim that local coaches rely on ethnocentric considerations in significantly selecting their teams is not supported by available data. It is more likely that a coach is influenced by his or her wish to remain in the job for a longer period of time by deviating as little as possible from the line—up that he meets on ground and then make gradual changes afterwards.

——— Prof. Chuka Onwumechili

You can follow Prof. Chuka on twitter via @onwumechiliC
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  1. Wooow, a great piece of article. I absolutely agree with the statistics and comparism, I think local coaches are better with the eagles than the foreign ones.
    To my own opinion i think anyones suggesting a foreign coach in place of Keshi is otherwise assumed 'blind',cos keshi has acheived and accomplished what we expected of him.