Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nigeria denied window to the world

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan must be a brave man. I've travelled to 80-odd countries and nowhere have I ever found such seething energy as in Nigeria - an electricity which translates into both rampant passion and expectation when applied to football.

While covering the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations, I'll never forget the outrage of Nigerian fans who - infuriated by the hosts' failure to beat group rivals Congo - smashed the team bus and were only prevented from accessing the dressing rooms by volleys of tear gas.

Many Nigerians believe football to be the only area which ever unites their vastly disparate land of over 300 tribes and 150 million inhabitants.

Now though, the sport has been taken away from them.

For the government's dissolution of the national team for two years means - should it ever come to pass - that the Super Eagles, now dubbed the Super Chickens, will miss the 2012 Nations Cup. Perhaps Libya 2013 as well.

Well known for taking an exceedingly dim view of governmental interference in a national federation's affairs, football's world governing body Fifa may also threaten a ban.

But one wonders whether such a suspension - from the government or Fifa (although a Normalisation Committee may well be looming) - is the best way of getting Nigeria's football house in admittedly much-needed order. For this year's World Cup preparations were certainly bumpy.

Shortly after January's Nations Cup, coach Shaibu Amodu was fired despite achieving his NFF targets of a) qualifying for South Africa and b) reaching the Nations Cup in Angola, where Nigeria took third.

Lars Lagerback was appointed in February but only after Glenn Hoddle said he'd rejected the post after being told his short-term deal worth US$1m would be announced as US$1.5m by the NFF - and financial accountability is forming part of the government's ongoing investigation.

Nigeria then warmed up by having more friendlies cancelled than played while their World Cup base camp was changed at the last minute - costing the NFF a US$125,000 Fifa fine. But still the squad ended up at sea level in South Africa, which seemed strange when their first two matches were at altitude.

Player selection also had the Nigerian media speculating about favouritism, with Lagerback forced to deny he had selected Kanu under NFF pressure, and though coming within a whisker of qualifying, undone by Sani Keita's moment of madness, was it any surprise Group B didn't go to plan?

Nigeria suffered a continental ban in the nineties after being barred from the 1998 Nations Cup by Caf for withdrawing from South Africa 1996 following criticism from Nelson Mandela over the ruling military's hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists.

That prevented one of Nigeria's, and Africa's, best ever sides from contesting the 2008 Nations Cup - just two years after the Okocha, Oliseh, Babangida, Kanu, Amuneke generation had proved truly golden when winning the 1996 Olympics.

Nigeria did reach the last 16 at France '98 - but the West Africans haven't won a World Cup game since and their 2002 and 2010 campaigns, either side of their failure to qualify for Germany, ended in the first round.

Given that this disappointing World Cup prompted the government's drastic move, one wonders whether they're prepared to sacrifice the 2014 campaign for the long-term future? Or this is simply a dramatic way of decapitating the current NFF board?

Meanwhile, the fans who've long bemoaned their federation's failures probably don't
know whether to laugh or cry.

"We are a rich nation but very poor, because we've made mistakes in many areas, but the one area where we've ever shown greatness is football," says Segun Odegbami, who won the 1980 Nations Cup, when explaining his compatriots' fervour.

"The players show our best side to the world and the whole nation unites behind them. Very simply, football is a reminder of our potential as a great country."

Not at the moment. Good luck Jonathan indeed.

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