Issues and controversies surrounding Nigerian football are numerous. Only a few people can really tell how these controversies evolve. Austin Mgbolu, who was the spokesman of the Nigeria Football Association when Nigerian players were well appreciated in Europe discusses these issues and controversies with Kunle Adewale
When many doubted the ability of the Super Eagles to do well at the last Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, former spokesman of the Nigeria Football Association, Austin Mgbolu, was one of the very few Nigerians that were hopeful.
Mgbolu said he had always been an apostle of giving the home-based players a chance to prove their abilities and that the search for quality players in the rebuilding process ought to start from home. "My reason is that most of the professional players feel they are doing this nation a favour by wearing the national jersey. As such, they are no more committed to service. They prefer to reserve the best play for their foreign clubs that pay their daily bills. Although, I don't blame them for this because the nation has not been forthcoming for a while, but that does not mean that when they accept national call-up, they should treat it with ignominy."
Mgbolu said he was glad that Coach Stephen Keshi understood this viewpoint when he accepted the national team job and began his rebuilding programme by engaging the boys that were available at home.
The result, he said was that Keshi created a pool of hungry players that were ready to serve their fatherland, adding that having watched their level of commitment while in training, he knew that the foreign-based professionals would be given a run for their money when they eventually came to camp.
"Invariably, I saw what quite a lot of people were not privy to observe, because the foundation the coach was laying was solid. While in Faro, Portugal, on their way to South Africa, the report I got further reassured my initial position about the team, particularly when they had crisis that had to do with some extraneous issues outside the pitch of play. Thank God that reason prevailed to restore sanity. The lesson we have to learn is that we must learn to trust our own, when we saddle them with responsibilities," Ngbolu opined.
On why a team that had just won the Nations Cup should struggle to secure a draw against Kenya in a World Cup qualifier, the former NFA scribe said: "What went wrong centers on the inability of the team and officials to know when to get down to basics. Yes, they won the African Cup of Nations at a time nobody gave them a chance, so they have every right to celebrate, but everything in life has a limit. That you are African champion does not mean that in a competitive match, your opponents will no longer try to outwit you. Their respect ends when the referee blows the whistle to signal the kick off.
Their mandate is to try to humiliate the opponent and nothing more. The truth is that it is easier to get to the top, but the only challenge is sustaining yourself there. So, constantly, you are a target of every other team. In other words, you don't have to be complacent, as you need to work non-stop to maintain your new status. What we saw was that our team has been on jamboree and bazaar of some sort, being hosted by people who were not there when they needed help. In fact, it is a justification of the saying that victory has many fathers, while defeat is an orphan. Not that it is wrong to host them, since they deserve all the accolades they can get from a grateful nation, but the handlers should know when to get serious with the business that brought them honour and fame. In other words, unknown to the Super Eagles handlers, all their strategies that gave them victory at the Nations Cup had been x-rayed by other opponents and antidotes were found to neutralise them. While the Harambee Stars of Kenya knew our team well and came with better strategy, the Super Eagle's team knew next to nothing about their opponents. Our thinking was that our approach to the Nation's Cup victory would see us through again. It proved to be a colossal failure since our opponent came to frustrate their host. The Nigeria Football Federation's (NFF) technical committee should have been able to provide the team some incisive privileged information on the Kenyan national team's preparation plan. Espionage activities are allowed here, because it is a battle fought with other means. This is the World Cup qualification; we should not spare cost to get the nation the qualification ticket."
Reacting to statements in some quarters that the team was still technically deficient and therefore needed a foreign coach, Ngbolu said: "My position is that those that harbour such thoughts are ingrates, who seldom appreciate what we have. Keshi has proved a point that he is capable and has the technical savvy to deliver when the need arise. So, why think otherwise. Here is a man who was given a target to deliver a semi-final ticket, but he surpassed it and got the trophy. What else do we need? He may not be the best but he understands Nigerian football better than most technical advisers being paraded by the NFF. He has played the game to the highest level; he has been trained as a coach and he is not a gambler and has a pedigree in coaching that is second to none in this continent. No foreigner understands this nation or continent like him.
He is technically sound. The nation can only encourage him to do more by sending him to refresher course when he is less busy to improve on areas he is deficient. I believe we have had enough of foreign coaches, because I see them as conduit pipes through which money is wasted. Our experience with them has not been palatable. Remember the one that abandoned us in South Africa 2010, after having collected our money. Others have used the instrumentality of FIFA's legalese to dupe us of thousands of dollars all in the name of breach of contracts. Yet, none has been able to deliver after Clemence Westerhof and Bonfere Jo. Were they to be Keshi, Nigeria would have paid through its nose for failing to pay his salary prior to the Nations Cup, or for non-provision of both accommodation and official car as at and when due. So, Nigeria does not need a foreign coach for now."
He indeed lauded Keshi for his decision to invite new players for the Kenyan game, saying "It will be wrong for him to close the door on other players simply because they won the African Cup of Nations trophy. At least, he told us that building the team was work-in-progress and that he had not gotten to the final destination. So, it is still open to all Nigerians, provided they can meet the stipulated criteria for call up. There is no permanent shirt in the Super Eagles camp. Only the best can be sure. So, let there be healthy rivalry in camp till we get to our Eldorado, which is still far off. For now, Obafemi Martins has been given a chance and we can now tell the difference between him and Emenike. The trial for a potent finisher goes on and anybody that is gifted can get the position for good. Position in the national team should not be permanent for anybody unless he works hard for it. This is what Nigeria needs in a country of more than 150 million people."
Asked whether Martins still deserved another chance, considering his performance against Kenya and if his move to MLS is in the right direction, he said: "My take is that he has given his best, which we appreciate as a grateful nation, but there are still defects, which we need to further correct in subsequent matches when given opportunity. His recent performance is not enough to draw conclusions, because I'm not satisfied at all with the performance. We need a player with height, lethal, forceful and highly mobile in the form of the late Rashid Yekini. I see traces of these in Emenike, and I expect him to lead the strike force. Martins' performance did not meet my expectation. Well, as regards his move to MLS, I believe it is a personal decision. Players go there either as a sign of retirement or to seek greener pasture. For a Nigerian player of note, I think it is not the best place to ply his trade for now."
The former glass house spokesman indeed believes that Osaze Odemwingie still has business in the national team. "Oh, yes, Osaze has a future with the national team as a Nigerian of note. But he appears not to be ready because of some personal issues that borders on discipline, which is worrisome to some of us, who are his admirers. He has allowed fame to get into his head to the extent that he can insult anybody at the slightest provocation. In the national team, respect for constituted authority is demanded. When one is allowed to set a bad example, it will spoil the team. A bad apple can spoil the whole basket. So, the player needs to work on himself so that he can return to the team as soon as possible, but not on his condition but on that of the coach, who needs to be satisfied with his conduct first. I'm amazed that the same ugly trend is what he is exhibiting at his club. He needs to check his ways."
Ngbolu blamed the dwindling fortune of the country's football to complacency, saying the level of the nation's football was lowered, because the administrators became complacent in their approach to football development. The principle of 'catch them young' was relegated to the background and coaches depended on finished products rather than search for raw talent to develop. That is why I have been full of praises for Keshi, because you contribute to the nation's soccer development when you open up the national team camp. For instance, the invitation of our local league players has shown that the league is being monitored. This will invariably propel other players to do well with the intention of getting call ups in the future. Moreover, we need more competitions locally for all age categories, rather than going to hold international competitions abroad because of the usual quest for dollars, without consideration being given to quality of players taken abroad."
He was however quick to disagree with the notion that a country's league is a reflection of its national team. "I don't subscribe to that argument because in Africa today, the bulk of the quality players we have are based abroad, since our leagues serve as a feeder to most European teams. So the league cannot serve as a barometer to judge a national team of any nation. It can only be used to judge when the nation's players are domiciled at home. In any case, Nigeria appears to be on the way back to reckoning because of recent structures put in place by the league management committee to revamp the fortunes of the league. We need sponsorships, better pay for players to attract the best from other countries and better management."
In years past, Nigerian players just walk into European teams and pick up shirts, but now they go through series of trials before they can be considered for a place. Ngbolu agrees that it was no longer easy for Nigerian players to get placement in clubs in Europe, as they did in the past, because majority of the players have not been sufficiently trained, but that the craze for dollars and better standard of living have forced them into seeking easy way out. "We now have half baked players who lie about what they can do. They have deceived most clubs that have now discovered their antics and are bent on ensuring that they prove their mettle before being signed on. Moreover, because of the mass exodus of players to Europe in the late 90s and early 2000, the quality and standard of play have depreciated.
Comparing the board, which he served under with the present NNF board, Ngbolu said: "The present team is trying its best to better their predecessor, but when compared to our time, which is referred to as the golden era of Nigerian football, the gap is still wide. We were a bunch of dedicated staff who braved all odds to make sure that Nigeria excelled in all competitions. The legacy left behind is what is still sustaining the nation's football till date. For instance, the present sponsorship enjoyed by Nigeria football was secured by us. It was known then as VIXEN, which later transformed to GLO. Back then in 2000, when we signed the contract, it was to fetch NFA $12 million, till it was watered down by some interests that subsequently emerged. Incidentally, no regime has been able to go out of their way to get additional funds till date. In fact, we prepared the way for what they are enjoying today. Unfortunately, most of the developmental programmes instituted during our time could no longer be sustained for reasons beyond my comprehension. I wasn't surprised when our football nosedived."
Some schools of thought have argued that abandoning the nation's traditional wing play for midfield play was taking its toll on its football, but Ngbolu's had a different opinion.
"The game of football is highly dynamic. Modern football has no place for teams that are either rigid or static in their approach; otherwise they will be defeated. Ability to convert chances on demand, depending on the approach of your opponents, matters a great deal. So, wing play is good but we should not rely on it completely. The strategy of our coach or his formations is what matters. Imagine what Barcelona is going through presently. All that is needed is to vary your pattern to further confuse your opponents, who had prepared to confront and checkmate you."
On the lamentations by some ex-internationals that have accused the football authorities of not coming to their aid despite having served the country meritoriously, the former scribe said: "They can't eat their cake and have it. While the going was good they cared less about their future and lived ostentatious lifestyles. So, as it is, they should equally face the music. I don't subscribe to this school of thought because, Nigeria owe these players a duty to guide them aright. First, I will suggest that 50% of their bonus be taken and saved after every match while on duty for the national team and invested on their behalf. They could start drawing on such policy after retirement to take care of themselves or complement what they have. The reason for this is that the football house is not buoyant enough to shoulder such responsibility, considering their meager earnings, but they have a role to evolve policies that will be beneficial to all. In other words, ex-players are justified if they cry of neglect because there are various ways through which they could be integrated into our football administration without creating problems. There must be a comprehensive welfare package borne out of honest intentions to cater for the needs of our ex-players. The notion of winner takes it all must be discarded for genuine reconciliation to take root in the murky waters of our football politics."
The 1994 set of the Super Eagles would always be regarded as a reference point and it was not surprising that Ngbolu referred to it as the height of Nigerian football, but he said the best Nigerian player ever was not something that could be easily known. "The height of Nigerian football was 1994 when we won the African Cup of Nations and qualified for the World Cup for the first time in our history. The same team went ahead to win the Olympic Games gold medal in 1996.
But it will be difficult to know the nation's greatest footballer of all time, because they came in different era and made their impacts. We have heard of the legendary Teslim 'Thunder' Balogun, Haruna Ilerika, Albert Onyeanwuna, Dominic Dombraye, Christian Chukwu, Godwin Odiye, Segun Odegbami, Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Austin Okocha, etc to mention but a few. They all came with special attributes that stood them out and endeared them to the fans. In other words, the nation is blessed with quality footballers and it will be difficult to select the best."