[First published on February 26, 2012]
Stephen Keshi, the coach of Nigeria’s senior national soccer team, is doing something the country has not done in decades. He is trying to rebuild the team from the ground up, using players on the local scene.
Some of our recent local coaches have given the impression that such “local” players are not good enough. I have argued, in the past, that it depends on what you are looking for, and that local players ought to provide the bulk of the national team. A certain kind of complex instructs us to pay prime attention to players abroad; we reason that if a “top” European team signs such a player, he must be very good. And if he is that good, he should be in the national team.
It is true: you have to meet certain qualities to be considered by those established teams overseas, but soccer is a team sport with many dimensions, including physical and psychological angles. An illustrious player who migrates to Europe is not the same player who comes back to compete in Africa, especially when he has only a day or two to train as well as deal with relatives and friends.
While many of our good players play abroad, they sometimes lose the edge when it comes to competing in Africa on account of such factors as weather, travel, food, scheduling, training equipment, and playing pitches.
Whatever is his own reasoning, Mr. Keshi seems to share my faith in the quality of the local player, at least in intra-African competition.
In support of his efforts, I offer the following story from 2003 about a football team called Akwuegbu United.
The Owerri-based clubside was actually a collection of soccer talent from the streets of the Imo State capital which came together through the initiative of Benedict Akwuegbu, a Super Eagle who at that time played club football in Austria.
Mr. Akwuegbu, concerned to see so many talented footballers being swallowed up by unemployment, crime and lack of opportunity, set up the football club at his own expense, and with the collaboration of another former player, Sony Opara.
The industrious Akwuegbu then prevailed upon another former frontline national team player and 1980 African Cup of Nations winner, David Adiele, to coach the team, reportedly pro bono. Mr. Adiele, a disciplined, hard-nosed defender in his time, accepted.
The new coach had the blood of a Challenge Cup winner flowing in his veins from the remarkable Bendel Insurance team of 1978. That year, the Insurance team swept its way through the competition to take the trophy.
What was really remarkable was that the team featured very young talent, such as Sam Okpodu, Henry Ogboe, and the late Chris Ogwu. It was equally remarkable that the teams it defeated in the semi-final and final were two of Nigeria’s best: IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and Rangers Football Club of Enugu.
That experience was what Mr. Adiele brought with him when he took up Akwuegbu United and began to prepare them for the rigors of Challenge Cup, competition. His rag-tag team, built on limited resources, began to win and win, defeating multi-million Naira teams as they went along.
In one match played in Benin City, the players were forced to sleep in an abandoned building because the team could not afford paid accommodation. Still, they won their match. In the zonal finals in Kaduna, they reportedly played on empty stomachs when they faced Amodu Shuaibu’s Sharks. Lacking transportation, they also had to walk to the stadium.
Despite all of those setbacks, when the zonal playoffs were over, Akwuegbu was only one point behind the mighty Sharks. They then needed to return to Owerri, but unable to pay their hotel bills, were stranded in Kaduna.
They played on, eventually losing a controversial quarter-final encounter to Lobi United, one of the top Division One teams in the country.
It remained a marvel to me that, in the end, the team disbanded as abruptly as it had begun, because nobody would come forward with the small amount of money it needed to remain in business.
But that is beside the point: Mr. Benedict Akwuegbu wanted to give the boys of Owerri a chance to do something they loved to do. He did, and then he proved something else: the depth and quality of the soccer talent in the streets of Nigeria.
That situation has not changed today, although it may be far more difficult to scout the entire country now than was the case just 10 years ago.
In our local leagues, schools, streets and unemployment queues, there is tremendous talent waiting to be identified, encouraged and trained. If a true national team were ever developed, it will be on the basis of that pool rather than a routine and regular importation of “top” players from all over the world.
The truth is that anybody can import players, give them shirts and call them the national team, but not everybody can coach. What is really needed is what Mr. Keshi is providing: building a team on the basis of players available for him to work with.
Having players available, within the concept of team development, to talk and train together regularly, is how a coach knows who is available, who is match fit, who is motivated, and who has the quality to run through trees for him. Experience teaches us that the fact that a man is making the headlines in Bulgaria or Russia does not mean he is ready for the tortuous journey to Nigeria, the horrors of Murtala Muhammed Airport when he arrives, or the humidity of Addis Ababa two days later.
I have never understood why a man who has been playing in frigid winter conditions for months is flown into the hostile heat of Abuja for transmission to the torturous turf of Pointe Noir in the Congo to do anything other than try to save his own life. Unless his quality is miles above what is available at home, the objective circumstances make him an inferior participant to his local counterpart for the battle to which he is being invited.
Whatever is lacking in the Super Eagles has always been developed here, not imported: the dead ball wizardry of Sebastian Brodericks, Friday Ekpo and Christopher Ohenhen; the heading precision of Peter Anieke and Mutiu Adepoju; the in-box deadliness of Thompson Usiyan and Segun Olukanmi; and the patriotism in the national colours of Segun Odegbami and Kanu Nwankwo. Foreign coaches cannot bring it, and imported troops that are suddenly bigger than the national team do not have it.
Perhaps the greatest enemy to building the team of Mr. Keshi’s dream will be his ability to ensure that in his camp, equality reigns and everyone is simply a player trying to earn a shirt on the training ground. Players should be encouraged to keep their private lifestyles to themselves while they are in camp in order to minimize distractions to the team.
The principle should be that there is a team in Nigeria, from which those invited to the national camp, whenever it opens, will contribute.
Most of all, the objective should be to re-establish the concept of team, and teamwork. A good team will always be superior to a collection of stars, which is where Nigeria often gets it wrong.
It is also where Mr. Keshi should work hard to integrate long-term planning, facilities maintenance, as well as player monitoring and documentation, into his new job. If he can prove he has the ability to be fair to every player, he will enjoy one of the greatest pools of players in the world from which to win competitions.