How Super Eagles can become legends

Wednesday 19 March 2014

/ by Colin Udoh

Having won the African Nations Cup and qualified for the World Cup at a canter, Biola Kazeem argues that Keshi's Super Eagles must now aim for greatness. By playing expansive football
The past 2 years have been the stuff of dreams for Nigeria football fans. 
From the wreckage of a team that failed woefully to qualify for the African Nations Cup-a birthright of Nigerian football according to millions of Nigerians even though Cameroon and Egypt’s recent struggles with qualification suggests otherwise- Keshi took no time to build a team that not only qualified but in fact conquered Africa. 
What was even more impressive was how he did it. He won the AFCON with a team that had 17 debutants and 6 home based players, a risk of huge proportions as he cast aside many foreign based players with "exposure" and “experience,” two generally accepted attributes needed to emerge champions in Africa.
The Confederations Cup could have been better managed and the pain of that was mitigated by a largely painless and surprisingly comfortable qualification for the World Cup, a welcome departure from the heart-in-mouth, hands-on-calculator laden expeditions of previous qualifications. 
In all these, one constant has been obvious. Keshi has built the Eagles into a difficult to beat, hard to break down unit. 
Even the embarrassing stat of having never qualified for the CHAN tournament was reversed at Keshi’s first attempt. 
No matter who played and no matter who they played against, the team fights hard and gives as good as it gets as further epitomized by the friendly games against Catalunya and Italy, games where they played against opposition with overwhelming quality but somehow emerged undefeated.  
The game against Morocco where the team came back from being 3 goals down epitomized this even more eloquently than anything. This was a team that was ragtag at best but somehow, Keshi got them to believe they could overturn such a deficit against a team that featured many players who only a few weeks before gave Bayern Munich a right go of it at the FIFA Club World Cup.
Despite all these however, it is hard to escape the feeling of restraint, rigidity and predictability of the Super Eagles. 
The flair that wowed Nigerians and the world in the late 90s has become fleeting and rare. It has been replaced by a team that runs hard, fights hard but is largely not so exciting to watch. 
While the argument could be that the individual quality of players in the Eagles mean that the pulsating, exciting and eye pleasing brand of football last seen in the late 90s would be impossible to replicate, the counter argument is that numerous managers have built exciting, successful teams on leaner body of talent.  
The main reason why the team of the 90s assumed legendary status was that beyond being a very successful team, they were a team Nigerians loved to watch. Mesmerizing, athletic and boldly audacious, this was a team that dared and did, a team that excited and triumphed, a team that matched craft and graft in a way almost never seen before.  More often than not when they played, the streets of Nigeria emptied into houses and anywhere else there was a TV, completely enraptured by football that was almost magical. 
Opponents were outplayed, outran and outfought and there were too many memorable if not unforgettable performances. Ultimately undone by a momentary loss of concentration at the World Cup against Italy, they won lifelong fans for Nigerian football and the perceptions they built exist till today. 
The reverence and respect still accorded Nigerian football world over are largely rooted in the performances of that team and only periodically watered by the exploits of those that have come after them.
Despite having achieved almost as much as the team of the 90s, there are hardly any individual stars Nigerians are crazy about and the lack of excitement around and about them is palpable. Their performances are of the committed but hardly exciting variation and are largely forgettable. 
The reverence, unbridled passion and support the team of the 90s enjoyed is still some distance away and that is rooted in the performances of the players individually and collectively.  
With the World Cup looming, Keshi would do well to release the brakes and build a team out to excite and win games playing great stuff. 
While getting a team organized and keeping its shape is great, true greatness lies in getting them to play well and truly beyond their capabilities and having a right good go at opponents. 
With the pace, power and youth in the side, Nigeria can and should be a lot more exciting. A 4-3-3 with no attacking full backs and two principally defensive midfielders exudes caution and restraint, not audacity and fearlessness.  
The pace and directness of the front three of Moses, Emenike and Musa means that chances will be created and a few goals scored. 
However, truly memorable stuff demands a bit more. It demands great build up play, intelligent movement on and off the ball, nicely threaded passes, real danger from set piece situations and a lack of predictability. 
Snippets of what this team can be and how well it can play can be seen in the game against Mali at the semifinals of the 2013 AFCON. 
Without the pressure of winning the World Cup (forget all that talk of semifinals target as well), Keshi must find ways to get his team to play more expansive, more exciting and less predictable football if our appearance is not to be forgotten quickly.
He must find tactical flexibility and variation. While it is clear that he has great powers of motivation, he must also move up a gear in term of tactics and imagination.
It is what will fill the stands with fee paying fans anywhere in Nigeria. It is what will get people excited enough to pay money to buy replica jerseys. 
Results are all well and good. However, pride, excitement and indeed, true greatness lies in the Eagles truly playing well in Brazil.
By Biola Kazeem

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