Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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Why the Super Eagles failed to progress in Russia 09 Jul 2018

Super Eagles vs Argentina

Picture from Nigeria vs Argentina match at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia

The elimination of the Super Eagles from the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at the Group stage is blameable on the coach, Gernot Rohr. He was the leader of the team. He had the responsibility and the charge to make the Nigeria team succeed. Had the Super Eagles reached the Round of 16 and crashed out there, Rohr would have simply equalled the best – but unflattering – Nigerian record in previous World Cup finals. But he didn't even attain this mark.
Rohr is accountable for the unsuccessful Super Eagles campaign in Russia not merely because of the philosophy of leadership responsibility, which automatically credits or discredits the leader when the team succeeds or fails. Rohr's tactical inadequacies were very glaring to pundits and fans alike.

Rohr learns and decides his tactic for winning in the first half of matches, instead of before the matches. Therefore, his tactical approach in the second half of each of the matches was different from the first half. This was consistent in both the matches the Super Eagles lost to Croatia and Argentina, as with the one they won against Iceland.

Thus, Rohr is a coach who learns from making mistakes, and not necessarily one who learns from his past mistakes. This tendency did not start at the World Cup; they characterised the friendly matches the Super Eagles played in preparing for the mundial.

In the friendly match against England, the Super Eagles whose attack was underwhelming in the first half and conceded two goals, overwhelmed their opponents in the second half and pulled a goal back. That should have been instructive. A tactical approach that chases the game is more likely to fail against seasoned teams.

Generally, a team is vulnerable to counter-attacks when chasing a game. Rather than cut the lead, it may actually concede more goals. But more importantly, like it happened in the Super Eagles' matches against Croatia and Argentina, once you concede the initiative to an opponent, it is difficult to claim it later.

Rohr's inability to learn from his mistakes is the conclusive reason the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) must part company with him and get a new coach for the Super Eagles. Rohr appears set in his way and its fundamental inadequacy has been exposed.

There is also the incongruence of starting to coach a young team by an old coach. The average age of the Super Eagles starting 11 in Russia was 24. But the team was being coached by a 65-year old man. A team that had yet to attain its prime is being coached by someone who has passed his own prime.

Against Argentina, when Rohr stood in the dugout for the longest spell at the World Cup, he caught the image of an old man that he is, compared to 58-year-old Argentine coach, Jorge Sampaoli, who was very “physical” in pacing up and down his own section of the dugout, barking instructions to his team.

But Rohr is not the only one to blame. Nigerians have always hoped against hope in the Super Eagles, believing the team will succeed at the World Cup. But we always had to face reality all too soon when the tournaments got underway.

There are cultural impediments to the advancement of the Super Eagles at the World Cup. It is the same with the other African teams, who also failed to progress beyond the Group stage in Russia. At the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) competitions, the African teams are, footballing-wise, just about culturally homogenous in terms of unprofessional attitude towards the team sport and lack of technical and tactical depth by both the players and the coaches. But the World Cup is where the best teams and the best coaches that are not in elite club football management compete technically and tactically.

African players are short on the technical aspects of the game for two reasons. One reason is inadequate learning. For instance, most Nigerian players develop from playing football on the streets. When they eventually enter club football in Nigeria afterwards, they have to make do with inadequate football infrastructures and technical staff that have too little knowledge of the game. As a result, the NFF often hires foreign coaches and the coaches in turn prefer foreign-based players for the Super Eagles.

The second reason is that African players are not teachable beyond certain extents. Once they have not learned the technical rudiments of the game before they start earning decent incomes in Europe as professional players, they are hardly able to learn enough again.     

Some of the signs for this include their disregard for the team-nature of the sport and tendency at showboating. During major tournaments like AFCON and the World Cup, African players are very concerned with being recognised by scouts for (more) lucrative contracts in Europe. Thus, they are little inclined to pass the ball to better-positioned teammates, especially in the opponent's goal area.

Nigeria's prodigious talent, Jay Jay Okocha, was more recognised for superfluous display of his dribbling skills during matches. I felt Alex Iwobi had learnt too much of this from this his uncle, when he started showboating after the Super Eagles were 2:1 up against The Greens of Algeria, during the qualification match for the World Cup in Uyo. Iwobi's progress at club and country has appeared to stall, very likely for his unbusinesslike misorientation.

The challenges the Super Eagles face have their parallels writ large in the Nigerian society. We have long been distracted from the serious business of nation-building by promoting ethnic and religious bigotry. We have lacked the discipline of policy execution. And we now lack technical expertise in almost everything. In Nigeria, every man is for himself and government is not for us all.

The Nigerian society needs reorientation, and we have to transition to the knowledge age for us to do well. The Super Eagles will not run ahead of the rest of the country in this regard. The more so, when we have yet to identify any area to fully express our national potentials.