I watched Nigeria's Falconets, the female Under-20 national team, lose to the USA at the 2012 FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup that rounds off in Japan this weekend. The girls' performances throughout the championship up to this match have been truly remarkable, to say the least.
The skills they displayed and their comfortability on the ball have been simply marvellous. They have played every match with grit and guts, speed and power, plus tonnes of confidence well beyond their rating in the world.
Ordinarily, one would be tempted to believe that all of these attributes are a reflection of something new happening to the domestic female game in the country. Unfortunately, a close look reveals no such thing. Female football in Nigeria does not appear anywhere to be on the ascendancy. It does not exist in most of the north of Nigeria (easily half the country) for it is hardly played for both cultural and religious reasons.
Even in southern Nigeria only very few schools and a sprinkling of female clubs take part in the game. The female national league is muted and very sparcely followed. It is ironic, therefore, that at international level the country may actually be on the verge of achieving higher standards and more laurels than in the male game. And the female teams at all national levels continue to post impressive performances and respectful results.
Why is this so? I truly do not have the answer. One thing for sure though, it is not as a result of better coaching.
Unfortunately, despite the promise and the potentials of Nigerian football, particularly at the male level, there has always been something missing in the Nigerian football game and style that makes the country come short at critical times during major championships, often exposing the weaknesses that have hardly ever been openly acknowledged. I have always attributed this to a deficit of knowledgeable coaches as a result of the relatively short history of the game in the country compared to more established football cultures! It is not surprising, therefore, that I have never heard or read any Nigerian coaches acknowledge that they could be the real problem, the shortfall in the growth of Nigerian football to the highest levels; that they just do not have the depth of knowledge of the game in some aspects to make Nigerian football really authentic in challenging for the top in world football.
Until we humble ourselves and accept this deficiency I had always believed we would always come short, except, of course, an occasional miracle happens and, against the odds, we compensate for our weaknesses (in discipline, tactics and organisation) with our strengths (in strength, power, speed, skills, and sheer grit) and win something. Otherwise, I had always thought I was alone in this understanding!
Akpoborie's lone voice!
This week another voice rang out from the blues with the forgotten song. I have always respected Jonathan Akpoborie. He was one of the truly young players that went to China and brought home the the Under-16 FIFA Kodak Cup. After that he moved around Europe playing for clubs and for his country for years.
Outside of playing I have also been always impressed with his intellect and the deep level of his conversations. He has a clear and expansive mind. When I read his blog this week I was not surprised.
It was so simple and at the same time so deep. It was an almost innocent review of Nigerian football, looking at it through the prism of the ongoing Women's Under-20 championship. I reproduce it here unedited and urge all to read carefully between the lines, and enjoy!
Despite been the better team, skill, fitness, athleticism, and, of course, 'over-age' players, I would have expected nothing less than the trophy. But our girls, or should I say women, lost to a USA team that was more organised, and by far less-gifted in terms of talents in display.
What I believe we Nigerians fail to understand is that football is different from FOOTBALL. The street football we all played in school is by far different from the organised football we see being played everyday. Of course, the difference is not so much when you have naturally talented players but it is enough to make you lose games when you meet a more organised team. A coach is like a Mallam controlling his cattle. If he is good you see him on the side relaxing while his cattle eat. But if he is bad, he is all over the place trying to bring back one cow from one corner.
A lot of people in Nigeria do not even understand the words 'tactics' and 'discipline', and thats what brings everything together in football. In my time as a footballer, I thought I had everything when I left for Europe, but getting to Europe I had to learn intensively to catch up with the game.
Today our girls ( or women) lost, not because they were not good enough, nor were they lacking commitment. They simply did not have the tactical discipline. They have been playing like every other player you will find on the streets in Nigeria - raw talent! I repeat that it is not every Tom, Dick and Harry that can see what I am talking about now. Just because you played football in Nigeria does not mean you can see these things. I do not even want to go into the opportunities missed in showcasing and exposing genuinely younger players from Nigeria.
Akpoborie's words resonate nicely with me. They are simple, delivered clearly. They carry great understanding of the one missing ingredient in the development of the Nigerian football player, and show very clearly the limitation in the quality of the coaches in the domestic game. I do not know what it will take for Nigerian coaches to see what Akpoborie sees and to start to impart it on Nigerian teams and players. But I guess it would take a humble heart, and one that is eager to learn!