Handlers of Nigeria's senior national football team-the Super Eagles last week named a 35-man initial squad for training in Portugal, out of which 23 players would be selected to represent Nigeria in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) - the biennial football tournament on the continent taking place in South Africa in mid-January.
The Super Eagles did not qualify for the last edition of the tournament jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, due to shoddy preparations that enabled Guinea-Conakry to overtake it during the qualifying rounds. On account of its past sterling performances in AFCON tournaments, the Super Eagles are taken as a major team on the continent, its failure to qualify therefore was a huge disappointment to soccer loving Nigerians, who in turn saw it as good riddance when the team's coach was relieved of his post.
Coach Stephen Keshi has succeeded in qualifying the team for the January 2013 tournament using a crop of new and young players who, for now at least, have shown that they could be relied upon to achieve results. They may lack the experience now and exposure needed to compete favourably at the continental and global stage but these shortcomings are compensated for with their readiness to follow instructions on the pitch, which has paid off handsomely with the team's ease in winning all its qualifying games. This point is important because neglecting to play according to the coach's instructions has been the reason the Super Eagles has always flopped, a trait mainly exhibited by old and established players who become difficult to control, and eventually ruin the team spirit necessary for success. And the bid to avoid a repeat is the reason many of them have been kept out of the new list, which unfortunately has caused some unnecessary furore, with calls for the inclusion of the old and experienced players.
With a few days to the tournament, the last thing the team needs is this diversion from the need to concentrate on training and strategy. The coach has chosen the players with whom he intends to campaign for the trophy in South Africa and this should be respected. It will not be the first time new and relatively inexperienced players would be taken to big tournaments, indeed the Zambian squad that won the 2011 Cup comprised mainly of home- based players playing at AFCON level tournament for the first time. The Zambian squad defeated the Ivorian team made up of world renowned footballers at the final because it played to instruction and as a team. Nigeria can repeat the same feat if the coach has free hand to choose his players; any attempt to force him to engage players with bloated egos, and who refuse to attend pre-tournament training could be counter-productive to the success of the team.
In previous years, the Super Eagles' poor performance could be blamed on inadequate preparation as a result of lethargy on the part of the ministry of sports and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) in addressing issues of training, welfare and accommodation of the squad. This time around these two bodies ensured that preparation for the 2013 started early, giving the handlers opportunity to pit the Super Eagles against other nations' teams, and right now finishing touches are being put to training and other preparations. The expectation is that if prompt attention is paid to players' welfare, including bonuses and accommodation and other ancillary matters, there is no reason the team should not do well; indeed it might even bring home the prized trophy as was done in 1978 and 1984. Both the sports ministry and the NFF should spare no efforts in ensuring that matters of remuneration and welfare do not constitute a cog in Nigeria's AFCON 2013 campaign.