23 December 2012

Nigeria: Keshi Brave Enough to Use Home-Based Eagles for Afcon 2013?

The great Pharaoh's of Egypt will not be in South Africa in 4 weeks time when Afcon 2013 will kick off. Their absence has been one of the great shocks of this edition's qualification matches.

I believe that smart coaches will be looking towards the pyramids and adopting elements of the formula that have made Egypt the most successful national team in the championship's history. Their record is so unmatched that the two countries that come after them in the ladder of achievement would have to win three more titles (without Egypt winning another) to even catch up with them. Ghana and the Cameroon come a distant second to Egypt with their 4 victories each.

So, there is something special about Egypt and the formula they have used so far (if there is any) that should interest any serious manager contemplating winning Afcon 2013. That's why although Egypt would not be seen, they will surely be felt.

This week, in all the 16 African countries that have qualified to participate in Afcon 2013, there is a frenzy. All the teams have started their home-run activities as part of the final lap of training and camping. Both activities are preceded by the release of final list of players by the managers.

No where else is the influence of the Egyptian formula better unfolding than in Nigeria where, as I wrote here some weeks ago, national coach Stephen Keshi's strategy for the nations cup has started to unfurl. This week, the discourse in the media has been Keshi's first list where he invited 10 players from the domestic league to the start of his final camping before the championship. It is unprecedented in Nigeria's history since Keshi started the emigration of Nigerian players to Europe in the early 1990s.

Without question, Keshi has learnt from the failures of past coaches of the Super Eagles and wants to do something different in order to achieve a different result. Makes absolute sense. In theory!

So, Egypt and Zambia are on his mind even as he calls on the public and the media not to distract him or his team with their seeming 'interference' through the heated debates that his selection of 10 home-based players for a possible place in the team that will campaign in the continent's most important and most difficult championship has generated.

The African Cup of Nations is not for 'babies'. Look at the records, only very few teams have dominated it. Apart from the three listed above (Egypt, Ghana and Cameroon) that are at the apex of achievement in the continent, only Nigeria and Congo Democratic Republic have won the championship more than once (twice each). All other winners, including several known 'giants' have only managed to win it either once or not at all. Imagine that Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Cote D'Ivoire, Zambia, South Africa are in this list. It underlines the huge mountain that teams have to climb to be able to win Africa's football showpiece.

That's why national coaches explore all possibilities to attempt to discover a winning formula. One way is to look at those that have won consistently before, and learn their ways. Another way is to adopt new strategies and hope that they do not fail. Yet, another is to do what most coaches do, go to the championship without any strategic plan, and hope to win. These ones usually end up adding plenty of colour to the event and making up the numbers of attendee nations!

Keshi, apparently has chosen option one. That's why there is great interest in his unfolding strategy that comes out of Egypt. After all he was captain of the 1994 conquering Eagles that won Tunisia '94. He knows that Westerhof's strategy is the closest thing to the Egyptian formula, although the circumstances of that time no longer exist in 2012. Keshi is doing his best at improvisation hoping to get the same result - building a team around a core of players that have been playing together for some time, even if they are not the best individually.

The Egyptian formula is simple - in a championship, a collection of average players that is kept together for an appreciable period of time, and built into a unit, is usually stronger than a collection of brilliant players hurriedly assembled.

Egypt provides the perfect case-study.

Egypt has a football system that makes migration of players to Europe very difficult at a young age, and an economically viable domestic league that makes migration unattractive to local players. Most Egyptian players play their football in Egypt with exceptions here and there. People hardly ever remember the names of Egyptian players that have excelled at previous championships. Except for Nido (whose reputation was built on the premise of high expectation that never materialised) and Abu Treika, who was truly individually outstanding, not many people easily remember the outstanding stars from Egypt's past victories. This is because Egyptians play more as a team than as individuals.

In Egypt domestic league players are easily and more frequently assembled to achieve team cohesion and understanding. That's makes for the evolution of solid Egyptian teams even sometimes in the possible absence of outstanding super stars. Again that's why their records in African football at Club and national levels are unmatched by any other country in the continent.

At Club level Cairo-based Al Ahly FC have won the CAF Champions league a record 7 times. El Zamalek FC have won it 5 times. Meanwhile, Egypt's achievements at Club level have been transferred into building their national teams for the African championship.

That's how in the Nations Cup, Egypt have won the championship 7 times!

With most teams depending on assembling their best players only two weeks to the championship and hoping individual brilliance will make up for team work and spirit, the setting for failure has been well established. European club duties make it impossible to do any better with the players in building a team.

So, Stephen Keshi is playing real smart. He also has Zambia on his mind. He recalls that the Chipolopolo had the trade mark of the Egyptian strategy one year ago when they won the championship with several players drawn from the Zambian domestic league.

Kesih's 10 players from the domestic league resumed camping in Abuja this week along with some other invited fringe players in some European clubs. They will play a few friendlies starting with the one against Catalania in Spain next week from where the boys will start to be separated from the men.

Finally, a few other players will be added to the team two weeks to the championship. These are the ones without whom the Eagles may never be considered 'super'. They may be the best players in the team, but in the ultimate requirement of the Egyptian formula they may be the weaker link in the Super Eagles.

Having said all that, Keshi believes he will achieve the necessary balance between a team and an assembly of individually good players in a short time. He believes he has provided the rookie, home-based players enough exposure and experience in the friendly matches so far played, to make them confident enough to become the core of his team to South Africa.

The entire country is holding its breath in anticipation of the product of this experimentation from January 19.

But before then, there is still some doubt that Keshi will have the courage to take this through to the end and use home-based players in any large number. It will take uncommon courage and self-belief for him to go all the way and do it.

It is a tall order, but if any one can do it, Keshi can. Nigerians are waiting and watching!

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