Nigerian coaches – no matter how good they are, are painted with the same brush when it comes to the national team; and the stories make the rounds each time an unknown face shows up in the Super Eagles. Sadly, the stories continue to make the rounds even when they are not in charge of the team: that the coaches are corrupt, and that the new player (or his agent) ‘paid’ rather than played his way to into the team.
However, this matter of new players appearing at the last minute is not a new phenomenon, but it came sharply into focus in recent years. In 1994, the Super Eagles won the Africa Cup of Nations and qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time. The quartet of Isaac Semitoje, Uche Okechukwu, Uche Okafor, and Stephen Keshi were the central defenders in that AFCON Championship side. By the time the World Cup came round, Chidi Nwanu, whose last appearance for Nigeria in a major tournament was at the Seoul Olympics, popped up and became a major miracle, both in terms of selection and playing major minutes at the tournament.
No, the charge is not that Clemens Westerhof, the man who worked the World Cup qualification for Nigeria, took a bribe, the story is that the appearance of miracle players in the Super Eagles did not start today.
In 2002, one of the then most recognizable players in the world, and one of the most influential players in the Nigeria national team, Taribo West, granted an angry interview following the poor outing by the Eagles at the World Cup. Taribo was upset because just before the Mundial, a tsunami had swept through the team, taking out the most influential players whose places were taken by miracle youngsters.
Sunday Oliseh, Victor Ikpeba, Finidi George, Tijani Babangida and Victor Agali were dropped; and newly minted miracles like Bartholomew Ogbeche, Femi Opabunmi, Benedict Akwuegbu, James Obiorah and Rabiu Afolabi made the trip. In that interview, West bitterly lamented being forced to take the pitch with “junk players”. That team was led to the tournament by Adegboye Onigbinde.
It was the turn of Stephen Keshi to spring a surprise in 2014 when Nigeria qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. If Nigerian football fans were mildly shocked by the inclusion of Kunle Odunlami (mild because Keshi had been selecting home based players for his team, and Odunlami of Sunshine Stars was on the World Cup train with Chigozie Agbim of Gombe United and Azubuike Egwueke of Warri Wolves), nothing prepared fans the fans for the magical appearance of Shola Ameobi.
Then, at the 2018 World Cup which Russia hosted, Gernot Rohr almost reprised the Onigbinde trick of 2002; Brian Idowu first came out of left field, Francis Uzoho quickly followed. As Nigerians adjusted to the new entrants, they found out that wasn’t all; Simeon Nwankwo appeared like a comet, made the World Cup and disappeared the same way he came. A true miracle.
Since that time, Rohr has become arguably the greatest creator of Super Eagles miracles we have ever seen: that, in part, may be due to the rebuilding process he landed into when he took the Nigerian job. But that process has taken so long that inevitably, new names seem unending.
It has also not helped Rohr’s case that the Nigeria Football Federation under Amaju Pinnick has developed an intense liking of Nigerians born abroad; so much so that the urgency to cap as many as possible in the shortest possible time, has been dazzling. What this means is that new names (miraculously) appear on the team sheets of the Super Eagles almost every game day.
The point is, every coach that has taken charge of the Super Eagles, from Clemens Westerhof at the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations, to Gernot Rohr at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, has seen the need to add the spice of a new player to the team, and that is okay. What fans and analysts find bothersome, are the (sometimes hidden) reasons these players are selected.