Mourning Nigeria’s Football Throes

By Sam Nwoko

It is enough to decry the moribund state of Nigerian football. It is apt to overtly mourn football in Nigeria even if we concede that our soccer is not completely dead yet. Our Lady Football is seriously palpitating and desperately gasping for breath; she is passionately looking around for support and is waiting for help from the nation’s soccer administrators.

Soccer in Nigeria, as things stand today in that sector of our nation, is like a patient left in the care of aloof doctors and nurses who care only about name and perks of their profession rather than what could be done to make the patient better. The deep anomalies in our soccer and its administration didn’t start yesterday.

These anomalies have not received any serious, systematic and altruistic attention from either the Nigerian political authorities or those saddled with the administration of football in the country. But for some of the determined steps the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) is managing to take, we might as well have kissed our leagues goodbye.

Nigeria did not qualify for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar. We were eliminated at the final stage of the qualifiers by our eternal bitter football rivals, Ghana. The elimination was even more painful because it happened at our backyard before our very eyes in Abuja.

The real cost of that loss in football terms, apart from its huge pain, is better not quantified. Ghana – the same Ghana, our football co-wife – also eliminated Nigeria from the Championship of African Nations (CHAN) that held in Algeria earlier in the year. Our home-based Super Eagles players fought so hard, even if to a make a name for themselves, against the home-based Black Stars of Ghana.

But they lost the penalty shootout that decided the game. Regardless of the euphemism, we failed at the last hurdle. The same Ghana eliminated Nigeria from a major football tournament for the second time in a quick succession. It is shameful and disheartening.

Our country also failed to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. We became prominent in the Olympics Soccer event after winning the gold medal in a spectacular fashion in Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics. We shall not be putting up an appearance for eight years. Guinea defeated Nigeria 2-0 in the final qualifier and thereby bundled us out of the global soccer event of the most glamorous all-sports event on earth.

When Guinea eliminated Nigeria, it thus became the second time in a row we have failed to qualify for the Summer Olympics soccer event. This failure thus stretched from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which held in 2021. We were not part of the soccer event of that Olympic Games too.

However, we qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup coming up in Australia and New Zealand later this year. We were also at the FIFA Female U-17 Female World Cup played in India in October last year. The Under-17 girls even won a bronze medal in a pulsating third place final against Germany.  These women are the ones who are still giving soccer in Nigeria the hope that we are still alive in the soccer pitch.

In football, you can never say never when a game is not over yet, but you have to work hard to make that contention come to reality. Apart from the women, we are just nowhere in soccer consideration in Africa. Our football clubs playing continental competitions are all eliminated. This fact sends the same signal as we are highlighting on the ills bedeviling soccer development and administration in Nigeria.

Nigeria currently is standing at the 40th place in the world’s soccer ranking. This is about the lowest we had sunk since we crashed to that abysmal 82nd in 1999. It was pardonable because back then, Nigeria was just coming out of a pariah state and was just getting out of the throes of a brutal military regime. Ironically, we had been ranked fifth best soccer playing nation in the world just four years earlier after the FIFA World Cup of 1994 played in the United States of America.

Graciously, our country will also be competing in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Argentina beginning next Saturday. Our boys got the better of an unlucky Uganda 1 – 0 courtesy of an own goal by Uganda’s Ibrahim Juma. Those who saw the game would recall that we barely survived that encounter because the Ugandans were lacking in composure in front of  the goal.

We should also thank our goalkeeper, Chijioke Aniagboso, for his heroics against the Ugandans. We scrapped past Uganda but not Gambia in the semifinal. We literally snatched the World Cup ticket from Uganda. Now, we have Brazil, Italy, and Dominican Republic to deal with in our tricky preliminary Group D at the World Youth Championship.

Our boys are preparing hard in Argentina. They have lined up some friendly games to tune-up the team. But should we be expectant? Why not? It’s football game and, as we say on the streets, a mosquito can floor an elephant. However, I think we shouldn’t be too hopeful when the FIFA U-20 Tournament kicks off on Saturday. Do not expect so much so that you will not be disappointed.

We usually rely so much on providence, awkward plans, and our anyhowness. Remember that a Nigerian national team coach, whose team was not playing well in a competition we hosted, said his team “will wobble and fumble to the final”? Indeed, our team wobbled and fumbled but never got to the final in the 1995 African Youth Championship. A well-prepared team knocked us out of the competition at the quarter finals.

If the plethora of soccer talents in Nigeria is anything to go by, we shouldn’t have been looking at our country from the prism of a mosquito in the comity of footballing nations. The painful but obviously deserved crash of the Golden Eaglets at the ongoing African Under-17 Championship is the latest in the litany of woes piling on soccer in Nigeria.

They are like the throes. The U-17 Boys failed at the most important hurdle of the competition on Thursday and underscored the recent failings of  Nigeria in the field of soccer.

When our boys succumbed to the superior firepower of their counterparts from Burkina Faso, it highlighted the fact that we have not been building on our successes, if we haven’t been retrogressing. A scan of our female football also reveals that other African nations have caught up with us in terms of soccer development.

That is why we are not always sure of what would happen when we play those nations we ordinarily would have thoroughly flogged on the soccer pitch. Nigeria is now “one of the countries” and no longer the fearsome force in African football. Our crumbled club performances are another pointer to our bowed heads in football.

Shall Nigerians be allowed to continue to wallow in this pain and international football shame? Shouldn’t we plan and sincerely build on our previous successes? Our one step forward two steps backward in football development is not helpful. Let’s start with the local league and learn from others if there is the need. What have we done with that beautiful arrangement with Morocco which Amaju Pinnick spoke about? Can we see Morocco flying now? We can do better!