My dad was a speedy left winger who played all the way into the then popular Nigerian Ports Authority Football team in Nigeria. He probably quit playing to pursue a career in Law. His younger brother was the captain of the legendary St. Gregory’s College Football team, who were champions of the Principal Cup in Nigeria many years ago. My mother, on the other hand, was a serious football fan who frequented stadiums with the paraphernalia of her chosen team. She only stopped going to the stadium when she almost lost her ear after a fight broke out in a tension soaked match between Nigeria and Ghana in 1969 or thereabout. But she continued her support for local Nigerian teams of which Shooting Stars was the object of worship. I can actually remember my mum having the then coach of Shooting Stars over for lunch at our house in Calabar when they came to play against the Calabar Rovers. Of course they were beaten (smiles). My point is that for most of my life, I have been engrossed with analyzing and assessing skill, technique, team strategy, and pattern of play in football; and I’m proud to say that this has lasted as long as I have had the ability to swallow lumps of eba.
I was keen on taking Football as a major sport until I found that I was easily exasperated after running around the pitch. For this reason I played in defence position and still ran out of breath easily. I also played for one full year in secondary school and was coached by an extremely passionate Irish Reverend Father, who took soccer like a national call to warfare. He approached it with a kind of diligence that was akin to qualifying examinations. Once you made a mistake and didn’t follow his laid down pattern of play, he will stop the match, pull you out of the field and give you a few strokes of his bulala, then send you back to do as he says. The fear of the Reverend Father was the beginning of conventional football wisdom in St. Patricks College Calabar. As far as I can remember, my school team remained invincible until the Father was transferred elsewhere and his new team of course became the new invincible eleven. But as hard as his regime was, I learnt so much about the game.
So let me share a few key issues I have come to note about good footballers, and these are matters that those who are interested in football, and will someday want to be involved in helping Nigeria build a better culture of football, should take interest in. Much more can be said or added to these few thoughts, but these are primary issues of concern for me.
Individual discipline is a prerequisite for success in sportsmanship. Show me an undisciplined footballer, and I will show you someone whose career is sure to collapse soon. Some players are talented, but totally lacking in personal discipline and sooner or later this begins to manifest on the pitch of play. The life a footballer lives outside the field of play has a direct consequence on the quality of his display on the field. Even what he eats and drinks are central to his physical and mental state. There are countless examples to point to in Nigerian and foreign teams. Etim Esin, one of the most brilliant feet to have come out of Nigeria soccerdom totally crumbled at the peak of his career. When I saw him somewhere in Nigeria a few years ago, tears came to my eyes. Garrincha, the Brazilian reputed to be the all-time best dribbler of the ball, was also much undisciplined and this cost him his career. Today you can see excesses of this in our footballers who somehow have hit the luck-pot and have gone haywire. Passionate fans of Manchester United will tell you that Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, despite their age, repeatedly top the physical fitness test of the team. These two men have a reputation of never indulging, especially with alcohol. while some of their playing mates have fizzled out, they are constantly called upon to rescue United – one was even called out of retirement.
Collectively, discipline is the soul of a team. This is the first requirement if a bunch of talented people will sync and produce a common purpose. Players must come under heavy self-management, which means you can’t behave the way you want or do what you feel like doing, even on the field of play. One of the main troubles with talented people is that they are usually very expressive and hard to contain. But in a team that produces results, talent is usually place on the altar of a higher call to duty and discipline. We all know how Mikel Obi and Michael Essien were originally crafted. These were some amazing and explosive individual talents. But when they got into Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, they had to conform to the discipline laid out for the general team, which meant they couldn’t just go out and play what their heads told them.
It has become very clear even with the present football competitions that physical ability and talent is not enough to win you a match. You need something else, which is not easily acquired by training. Every great team has one major quality: they exert physical ability but with a higher display intelligence on the field of play. You can’t just run around the pitch working-out like Arabian horses and thinking that something good will come out of it. This is very typical of the Super Eagles after the era of Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amuneke, Finidi George, Austin Okocha and the likes. You win your game first with your brains before you move your feet. We must ensure that intelligence in a player is a major criterion for selection. You can easily tell when a player is not intelligent and only has the ability to kick, trap, and move the ball. Those qualities can only do so much.
An intelligent player already has a mental map of his pitch and owns the landed property, so he understands the angles and distances from where he stands. Odegbami, Oliseh, Okocha and presently Odemwingie are masters of this. They rarely make mistakes on the pass because for them, it is mind over feet. We can all see how horribly the Super Eagles pass the ball, with amazing errors that evokes nothing but rage. In the 2012 world Cup match between Germany and Australia, the Germans showed such intelligent football playing one of the most free flowing soccer I have seen in a while; absolute brilliance. For those who saw the January match of Real Madrid vs Valencia, you will agree that this match should be a case study for all Nigeria soccer team. Meanwhile our team is easily broken because we are still playing positional football in this century. Intelligence will tell you to find areas of least resistance on the pitch where the ball can get to you with enough space to maneuver as you deem fit. But our guys stand and wait till the ball gets to them, by the time which the opponent of course has predicted any possible angular move.
I had taken it upon myself to analyze how Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta etc. perform their wonders, and I came to one simple conclusion: sheer intelligence. Once the ball touches their feet, they know exactly what the ultimate goal is. So every move of theirs is interesting to watch because you see purpose. Check out Messi against Arsenal and Milito against Bayern Munich. You will see why you need to predetermine players who have intelligence as a quality when choosing a team. Gratefully we have lots of them, but sadly not many in the Super Eagles team as we find in the present Golden Eaglets, who play “playstation football”. Such players need to be groomed carefully and exposed to more international opponents to gain more of what I write on next, Confidence. In fact we lost the match against Greece in 2010 because our players were not intelligent at all. Consider Inter Milan against Ac Milan in a local derby in 2010. Inter Milan were given two red cards in that match, but still beat AC Milan 2-0. How did they manage that? Simply Intelligent playing!
Whenever I watch the tiny Messi, Iniesta, Xabi, and some other physically petit player venture before intimidating defence lines and injure them with deft touches, I am delighted. There is an effrontery about their play that says that they know exactly what they can do and nobody can stop them. Confidence is exuding from every move. This is why Barcelona has the most formidable midfield, made up of very confident ‘smallies’ who can dance before your defenders and nothing will happen. They go in and go out and defy even the biggest of players. Confident players who are not afraid to make a surging attack are the sword of any teams’ weaponry. Nigerian players rarely make such surging attacks. Our players are usually clueless when they are outside the 18 yard box of the opponent, thus relying heavily on wingers to send in crosses.
One Nigerian footballer who I enjoyed watching make such confident surging attacks was Stanley Okoro during the 2009 Under 17 world cup. That small man is daring and only needs to be coached properly and honed, and he can be a killing machine. Maradona in his days would run against any defence line believing he can get his way through. Worse case you foul him to your disadvantage and he will score by a free kick or a penalty. As small as Lionel Messi is, he is a Lion within. The confidence with which he holds the ball and defies any player is a beauty to watch. This keeps him always in control of his 5 yard circumference from where he can determine the amount of damage he should do on the opposing player. Patrick Vieira exclaimed that the first time he encountered Messi, he couldn’t understand why a tiny thing like that wouldn’t fear to come against him despite repeatedly rough-tackling him. Confidence makes you remain calm in the midst of raging animals around you, and makes you mentally balanced to think through the strategy of your opponents.
SPEED AND CONTROL:
Finally this one explains itself. You will kill your team if you are flat-footed and meet a fast paced team. I felt so sorry for Canada when they met the Argentinian B team in a friendly match. They were flogged 6-0 by some eleven flying boys. While the Canadians were still thinking of the next move, Argentina had grabbed possession and scored. An example of flat-footedness in the Super Eagles team is Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Dickson Etuhu, Chidi Odiah, Danny Shittu, Nosa Igiebor, and several of the current Super eagles players. These guys can’t run. Even when they do, they have very little control of the ball. How many times did Odiah and Etuhu terminate a good pass because they couldn’t run or lost control of the ball? For that reason they keep playing a positional game and never make the Nigerian build up from the back like free flowing. Diaby killed the midfield of France against Mexico. He messed them up against Uruguay as well, but the coach still fielded him. I can’t understand. He has a bit of control, but very flat-footed hence easily lose possession.
Speed and Control should be a basic requirement to build a World Cup ready team. We can’t keep on playing our lackluster style which has characterized us for so long. When I watch the younger teams I feel hopeful. But this is usually thwarted as soon as they get into the senior teams; it is as though they are then served a dangerous dosage of heavy-footedness, killing every form of urgency and fervor which a team should have. I watched the 2010 Greek team play display speed and control, even though most of them are far older than our players. So age has little to do here. We were more physical and had stronger bodies, but what we lacked in Speed and Control totally made us crumble before a less fancied Greek team.
Discipline, Intelligence, Confidence, Speed and Control are what I have noticed current players in the Nigerian team lack. If we are going to build a team, we need to emphasize on this core requirements. The good thing is that you can easily see these qualities in a player at the point of engaging him. Our Reverend Father Coach in secondary school assembled a team of players that had these qualities. I often wondered why he didn’t pick some other guys who were pretty good at the game. It was not until I began noticing his style of play that it dawned on me that he had created a killer squad that no one could easily beat.
Interestingly I have an interest in this matter and learnt quite a lot off field because my dad would usually keep me awake and entertain me with stories upon stories of soccer stars and their deft moves. From footballers like Eusebio, George Best, Stanley Matthews, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Gordon Banks, Pele, to the more contemporary stars, he even compelled me to read some of their biographies like that of Stanley Matthews which was a whole book. It was from these men and my Irish Reverend Father Coach that I gleaned my understanding of these four attributes that a world class player must have.
So as we rebuild from scratch (yes from scratch). We need to start viewing our footballers within the prism of these qualities. If we build a team where players lack these qualities, we will remain tourist in future competitions and keep referring to the glory days of the mid-90s.