Nigeria crashed out of the World Cup following a 2-0 defeat to France. The defeat will cut them deeply, but no one will be more hurt than Stephen Keshi, who has worked miracles with a team that comes with its limitations. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Another World Cup, another stumbling block for Nigeria. The Super Eagles crashed out of the World Cup following a 2-0 defeat to France in the Round of 16 on Monday night. It was a disappointing result and a disappointing second-half performance. So many chances went a-begging, but Nigeria just could not bury them. Were it not for the French’s wayward shooting, the result might have been much worse.
For much of the first half, the Super Eagles were pressing and pushing, even if they were a little bit nervy. They were confident and on the attack, perhaps hoping to tire France out more quickly than would be the natural course of action. For the first half, they were shaky in defence, but managed to get away with a few chances. As ever, Vincent Enyeama saved his team. But Enyeama’s heroics could only take his team so far. By the time France scored the winning goal, they’d nested comfortably in the Super Eagles’ defence. Some of his goalkeeping against the French was questionable, but he can be forgiven for his defence let him down.
When the second goal went in, an own goal, Nigeria had faded just like their hopes in the tournament. Perhaps it was symbolic of the Nigerian team itself over the last few years. Nigeria’s rise to become Africa’s champions has not been easy and much of that has come at the hands of magician Stephen Keshi.
Twenty years after being part of the magical Nigerian squad of 1994, Keshi found himself at a World Cup once more – this time, as a coach who has had to endure a torrid time, and one who has been a miracle worker. In 2013, when Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations, he went much of the year without getting paid. Despite promises, he never fully got his due. Even with the trophy, there were rumours that he might be sacked. Now, with what Nigeria’s powers will consider failure, his future is not certain.
Africa’s reluctance to trust local coaches has been well-documented and that is perhaps why Keshi’s achievement, as a local coach, stretches and resonates beyond World Cup failure. He was made his views about the lack of opportunity for local coaches quite clear.
“The white guys are coming to Africa just for the money,” he told The Guardian in 2013.
“They are not doing anything that we cannot do. I am not racist but that’s just the way it is. I am never against a white coach in Africa, because I’ve always worked with white coaches. If you want to bring in a classic, an experienced coach from Europe, I am ready to learn from that coach, because he’s better than me, he has more knowledge than me. Meanwhile, we have quality African players, or ex-African players, who can do the same thing, but they’re not given the opportunity because they’re just black dudes. I don’t like it.”
He has talked much about being held back and the expectations that follow coaches around, but lamented the lack of trust local coaches get.
Nigeria’s struggles never seem to end. When they failed at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Goodluck Jonathan suspended the national team from competition. The man was rescinded, then Fifa imposed sanctions for political interference and then changed their minds. From that, Keshi took over and turned the team around.
Under Keshi, they underwent a renaissance without the egos and the glittering stars in their line-up. His charisma has sometimes obscured his sense of tactical nuance. Keshi has followed his own logic in building the team, and trusted players who prefer loyalty over royalty and gave Nigeria a footballing identity. He has been prepared to shut up shop if so required, as he showed against Iran and Bosnia. The frustration against Iran did see a few questionable substitutions and saw the side taking to playing long balls, but as Iran showed against Argentina, their sole purpose is to irk. More experienced teams with superstars in their midst will exploit it like Argentina did, Nigeria did well to simply hold on.
His approach against France seemed to be similar, shutting up shop and hoping for a break on the counter. But it failed and the Nigeria’s inability to get bodies forward early on cost them dearly.
Jay-Jay Okocha, the former Nigerian captain, has already raised his voice against Keshi. Following their 0-0 draw against Iran in the opening stage, Okocha said: “This was a must-win for Nigeria but we did not take it. We did not do enough, we were poor. Keshi did not do enough work on the team. The tactical play was so bad, I hold Keshi responsible for this.”
Those words look ominous now. Okocha is on the technical committee of the Nigeria Football Federation.
Nigeria’s mixed fortunes might not be enough to help Keshi. They faltered during the Confederations Cup, completely outplayed by Uruguay and Spain and now have now exited the World Cup in rather unglamorous fashion. But their qualification for the finals was faultless. Nigeria are one of two unbeaten African sides (along with Ivory Coast), and ended with five points clear in their group, then beat Ethiopia 4-1 in a play-off to seal the deal. And, of course, their AFCON trophy was a glorious achievement for Keshi and company.
Nigeria fell flat against France towards the end of the game. Coaching cannot fix that entirely.
What lies ahead for Keshi now remains to be seen. There are the rumours that he could be handed the Bafana Bafana job. Logic would dictate that he continues in his current role, because it is only through consistency that unity and results can be forged. Nigeria showed glimpses of brilliance during their World Cup campaign, even if they were stodgy and boring at times. For all their failures, Keshi deserves better than a boot under the bum. Or, perhaps, Nigeria does not deserve him. DM
Photo: Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama cannot save the ball before Paul Pogba (back-R) will score the 1-0 during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between France and Nigeria at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, 30 June 2014.
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