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They killed the goose that laid the golden egg

Most of us would remember the Aesop Fable about The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg that we read as children. The moral of the story is that short-term greed ruins the profitability of an asset. This story could well be a metaphor for Nigeria. Practically everything that required to be nurtured in order to benefit Nigeria and Nigerians has been cynically destroyed by short-term greed, from our institutions to our infrastructure to our education system.

As everything that holds the fabric of Nigerian society together was crumbling right before our eyes, we had one thing that held us together. It helped us escape the misery all around us. It was something that mattered to most of us regardless of all the stuff that divided us like politics, religion, ethnicity, etc. It was our national sport – football, and our national football team, the Super Eagles.

The Super Eagles, in the days they used to soar, did more to put Nigeria on the map than any president, minister, grossly overpaid legislator, or any puerile attempt at “rebranding” the nation. But the Eagles couldn’t escape that reverse Midas Touch that is part of the territory in Nigeria. Rather than turn this asset into gold, it has become horse manure, with thanks to the short-term greed and criminality of those entrusted with the hopes and aspirations of Nigerian football fans.

For the first time since 1986, Nigeria has failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. A country that is expected to be one of the footballing powerhouses in Africa has failed to make it to a tournament that should feature 16 of the best African teams. We have failed because of the same reasons that most things have failed in Nigeria – corruption compounded by incompetence from the people meant to be running the game.

In the mid 1990s when Nigeria won the Cup of Nations for the second time, and hit the ground running at their first World Cup in the US in 1994 with a 3-0 shellacking of Bulgaria, playing attacking football with the sort of swagger not seen since Pele and co wrote their names in gold in Mexico in 1970, many wrongly assumed that talent grew out of Nigerian thin air. And the mercurial skills of the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Finidi George, and later Nwankwo Kanu could be easily replaced without much effort. By 1996, inspired by Kanu, we won Olympic gold, and even threatened to be among the favourites as the 1998 World Cup approached.

But victory at World Cup level is as much about talent as preparation and you could not trust the incompetents at the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) to run a bath, let alone run our football. These people, with no exception, have seen the Super Eagles as a golden goose that must be destroyed in order for them to gain access to the gold. In real terms, it has meant not employing coaches of the calibre commensurate with the level of football many of our players have become used to at their European clubs. This is because a coach at that level, with a professional reputation to maintain, is very unlikely to be malleable and wouldn’t sign up to the dodgy dealings that have become the norm with squad selections for the Eagles.

I have been informed by people who should know that several NFF officials and former officials represent the interests of certain players. These players are usually picked for internationals at the expense of perhaps others that were more deserving. Being a Nigerian international makes a player more marketable to foreign clubs, so several agents representing some players are not averse to making payments to NFF officials to ensure their players get picked. I have also seen evidence and heard that coaches could have been supplementing their incomes with payments from agents to select some players. Some Eagles coaches have continued to select players that are not attached to any clubs for crucial games. This suggests Eagles matches are being used to market the player and a cavalier approach to the team’s prospects is adopted in fielding someone who couldn’t possibly be match-fit.

At the World Cup in 2002, a player based in Germany informed a friend of mine that he was asked to pay $10,000 for a place in the squad. Yakubu Aiyegbeni, who was at Israeli club Maccabi Haifa at the time, didn’t make the final cut. Avram Grant, his coach then, reportedly claimed that Yakubu didn’t go to the World Cup because another player paid to take his place. Victor Agali also made similar allegations, claiming that he refused to join the World Cup squad because he didn’t want a part in paying for a squad place.

Incidentally, before he became a Super Eagles assistant coach under Shuaibu Amodu, the former international Daniel Amokachi also alleged that Nigerian coaches received as little as $500 to field some players. This has been a persistent problem over the years and has refused to go away. The problem of corruption is compounded by the seeming unwillingness on the part of Nigerian coaches to take the necessary steps to develop professionally. Many of our former players retire from the game and then expect to wing their way through a coaching career without any serious work in improving their knowledge of the game through gaining the necessary coaching qualifications.

Most of us fans marvel at the wonderful passing game of Barcelona and by extension, Spain, and how it has brought them success. As I stood watching the Eagles struggle to retain possession against Ghana at Vicarage Road in Watford during their friendly, I kept wondering when we will undertake the painstaking work and organisation that are needed to be able to play football the proper way and bring much-needed success to long-suffering fans. This requires long-term thinking, professional organisation and competence in the management of Nigerian football. It involves having a coordinated and structured approach to youth and coaching development. Barcelona provides a template with an academy – La Masia – that exposes promising young boys from as early as 11 to quality coaching and instils the sort of tactical intelligence, the comfort on the ball, and fosters the footballing philosophy that leads to sustainable success.

The NFF needs to start nurturing our coaches and providing the enabling environment for their continuous professional development. Germany’s first round exit in Euro 2000 prompted a radical rethink of their approach to youth development. All the clubs in the top two divisions agreed to run centrally regulated academies in order to have a licence. The German system costs clubs about €80 million a year, with boys exposed to quality coaching from the age of 12. Germany also has 34,970 coaches holding UEFA’s A, B and Pro licences. Spain has 23,995. Many of these professionally-qualified coaches are involved in youth football. This means that by the time the players make it to the senior national teams, they have already had several years of crucial learning on how to play the game properly. Only one Nigerian has a UEFA Pro Licence – Sunday Oliseh, and Chris Green, the Chairman of the NFF Technical Committee claimed recently that Nigeria doesn’t even have a coach with a Confederation of African Football (CAF) certificate. I would really like to know what NFF Technical Committee does or what it is doing to address this sorry state of affairs.

We need to learn the painful lessons from missing out of the Cup of Nations and start now. The first thing we need is relative success at national team level. To make a fist of this we need a coach that is of the standard that most of our players take for granted at their European clubs. I’m sorry, Samson Siasia is woefully out of his depth and needs to go back to school and learn his trade properly.

To improve the quality of the youngsters coming through, we need to expose them to quality coaching early. This means developing programmes on what Aime Jacquet, France’s World Cup-winning coach, called “teaching the teachers”. I would suggest someone like Sunday Oliseh is appointed technical director at the NFF with a brief to improve the structures for learning for Nigerian coaches and create a coordinated system for developing young players, taking in best practice from elsewhere. Oliseh is a perfect fit for this job with his playing experience in Belgium, Italy, Holland and Germany.

We should also explore ways to improve our domestic league as a springboard for sustained success at national level. 

Failure to qualify for the African Cup of Nations due to greed and incompetence has sounded the death knell for the golden goose of Nigerian football. Only long-term thinking, investment and professionalism can revive it.

Editor's note: First published on CIC's blog.