By Ade Ojeikere
If Nigeria must consider herself as a soccer-crazy nation, then Super Eagles must qualify for the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup, to justify our massive population of over 200 million people, with vast potentials to reach for the zenith in any profession. Anything short of a quarter-finals ticket in Qatar would make a mockery of the quality of players available to the country and their exploits with their European clubs.
Our players have grown in stature in Europe, wresting shirts from other nationals in their clubs. They enjoy weekly rave reviews based on their performances, with many wondering why these boys can’t replicate their clubs’ form playing for Nigeria. Whereas our players have grown in geometric proportions, our administrators and coaches are tottering arithmetically, thus creating a lacuna which ought to have been fixed after the country did well in her maiden World Cup appearance in United States in 1994. Nigeria didn’t make it to the quarter-finals in 1994, but our second round ouster came with a lot of gains, chiefly among them was Nigeria being ranked the fifth best playing nation in the world.
The rebirth of the USA’94 World Cup Super Eagles side came with radical changes which pitched Clemens Westerhof against his critics, most of whom wanted a predictable team of players based on their pedigree, not their current forms. Westerhof wasn’t going to be stampeded into sticking with unruly players simply because they rescued the country in previous competitions. Westerhof thought about the future. He visited the domestic league centres. Took pride in living with us here, eating our food, learning to cook some of them and seeing games by himself, not relying on newspapers’ reports or jaundiced commentaries in the electronic media.
Westerhof’s revolutionary changes ensured that Nigerian won the gold medal in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympic Games, with the bulk of the players he discovered doing the country proud. Many may not know that it was Westerhof who spotted Nwankwo Kanu in the domestic league and recommended him to Golden Eaglets’ Coach Fanny Amun. Kanu was part of the players used to reinforce the World Cup winning Golden Eaglets in 1993.
In fact, the last set of players used before picking the USA’s 94 squad were members of the side that picked the Olympic Games gold in Atlanta, including Taribo West. Many have credited the feat to Johannes Bonfrere. But Westerhof did the spade work, not forgetting that Bonfrere was part of the instruments the Dutch used to reinvigorate the Eagles to winning ways.
Westerhof’s side played with zeal and passion. They lasted the 90 minutes and walked tall out of the field to rousing applause because the fans knew they gave their best. Rebuilding the Eagles under Westerhof had its twists and turns, but it was apparent that the squad would shock the world like they did in the US. Westerhof read the riot act to players who played for top sides in Europe, leaving the task of filling the existing vacancies in the team to home-grown players. This policy gingered the good ones in the league to give their best. Need I name them to save space?
I’ve sat through Super Eagles’ matches under Gernot Rohr dispirited. I would only applaud his ability to spot talents in Europe. Rohr did well in a few games in terms of his tactics. However, he doesn’t look like the coach to qualify Nigeria for the quarter-finals in Qatar, irrespective of what he said about his penchant for making late changes in Eagles’ matches.
This writer can’t understand what Rohr meant with his claim that he used goalkeeper’s experience with African nations in picking his team.
Ade Ojeikere is an award-winning Sports Editor
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