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Thursday, January 14, 2010

There's No Longer a Powerhouse in African Football

Am not flabbergasted. But surprised - a little - I am. It's either that the so-considered "small teams" within the African football landscape have upped their game, or there's no longer an "African football giant" in the continent - with due respect to Egypt. Yes, Egypt. The Pharaohs are perhaps the only team that remains the one and true powerhouse in African football, in spite of not qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, a thing that still hurts the North African nation like the quake that just hit the Caribbean nation of Haiti.

The Pharaohs, aiming to win the title for an unparalleled three consecutive times and taking home their continental-record sixth trophy, are the only so-called "big teams" in the ongoing Cup of Nations which has not registered a result that is contrary to the one expected by many. Of course they have achieved this fete at at the expense of another giant (or is it sleeping giant) in the name of Nigeria, the "Super Chickens" (read "Super Eagles" if you still believe they are one).

Nigeria is undoubtedly a sleeping giant - if matters football are to be staged on the agora. But are they the only ones?

Nigeria -  From high-flying Super Eagles to Super "Chickens" who simply can't fly higher than a pig's height, Nigeria's situation on the field is growing from bad to worse, worse to appalling. After struggling to run away with a tentative, lucky but resounding 3-1 victory over Kenya and qualifying for June's FIFA World Cup in South Africa (thanks even to Mozambique), the Super Eagles are not only struggling for form but seems to have run out of ideas and creativity in defence, midfield, striking and perhaps goalkeeping position (if Vincent Enyeama's hauler for the first goal is anything to go by). This is in spite of a star-studded side oozing some of the best talents exported from the Black continent into European premier football. Wolfsburg hit-man Obafemi Martins (nursing an injury), Portsmouth's elixir of immortality Nwankwo Kanu - who came in for an under-par John Obi Mikel of Chelsea, Lokomotiv's Osaze Odemwingie (was out with a sore throat), Everton's Joseph Yobo and Yakubu the Yark Aiyegbeni, Olympique Marseille's Taye Taiwo, and Hoffenheim's Chinedu Obasi, to name but a few.

And in spite of going to battle with Egypt holding an impressive record of not having lost to the defending champions since 1963, all the Pharaohs had to do was kick the ball around, concede the first goal after 11 minutes of spirited display by the Super Eagles, level within the next 25 minutes, continue marauding towards Nigeria's goal and the rest could only be history as Hassan Shehata's diligent and more-hungry eleven brushed aside their slothful opponents with aplomb and almost annihilated them in the second half. It was such an upset, some thought.

To many though, this was not a surprising result as it just underpins the continuing drop and drop of the Super Eagles' stature as Africa's football giants.

So where and when did the rain start pitter-pattering the Eagles? Was it after the departure of their creative midfielder talisman in Augustine Jay Jay Okocha? Is it the appointment of coaches who have been described as "lazy and unable to scout, identify and nurture budding local talent"? Is it the all too evident nature of Nigerian players not showing enough commitment to the national team? Or is it that so much more is expected of the 1980 and 1994 champions than they could ever deliver at these times?

Whatever it is, the downfall of Nigerian football - marked by big-name but under-performing stars - started even before they were knocked out of the quarter-finals in the 2008 Africa Cup on Nations, a year in which they also failed to qualify for the World Cup. Since then, the results have not gone their way for one simple reason: they have not worked for it and hence, not earned it. And even though they qualified for the 2010 World Cup gala where the biggest players of them all converge, they may head to South Africa as a team that will be adding to the numbers, unless things improve. And how soon should the improvement be.

At least a semi-final berth will almost certainly guarantee out-of-favour coach, Shaibu Amodu, his position in the World Cup coaching bench. But with such a morale-thumping performance against the Pharaoh's, it will be tough enough for the Nigerians to go beyond the group stages, especially with a slick-passing Mozambique and a capable Benin able and it seems, willing, to stage an upset.

Hence it's obvious that Shaibu Amodu's reign as the Nigerian national team coach hangs with a small thread. The nation's football aficionados have no confidence in him or his ability, the players' notwithstanding. He may have led them qualify to the World Cup, but is he the right man to see them through the mundial? Time will tell.

Win or lose, Nigerian football has taken a deep tumble and the state of football in the nation can only be described as uninspirational, embarrassing, shoddy, lethargic and calamitous, going by the standard expected of the Eagles and of course their ability to meet such standards.

A stakeholder in Nigerian football and Team Manager of Nasarawa United, Mr Anthony Yamusa once said, "Most coaches in Nigeria are lazy. They don’t want to develop local players; they only rely on foreign players for their assignments. Even players that are not counted in the country, once they are abroad playing for one moribund team, our national team coaches will begin to scamper for them to come and play for Nigeria. All they want to make the national team is somebody who is playing outside the country. They forget that developing local players is what we need to develop football in the country."

May be it's time Nigeria chopped off the current crop of flops and injected some home-grown, fresh blood, fresh feet and fresh hunger into the squad, if they want to go beyond the round of 16 for the first time in the nation's world cup history. And may be this way, the Eagles may fly high enough and save itself from being a disgrace in the mundial.

Tunisia (2004 winners) -  Nicknamed Les Aigles de Carthage (The Carthage Eagles), Tunisia's football is also taking a dive down the pecking order, more or less at the same pace as the Super Eagles. Although they have qualified for four World Cup events (winning only one game with a 3-1 mauling of Mexico in 1978 in Argentina), they failed to qualify for this year's event to be held for the first time in Mama Africa's soil. With Kenya, Mozambique and a fast-fading Nigeria in their World Cup cum Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers group, it was a relatively easy group by The Carthage Eagle's standards. Of course it was going to be tough leaping ahead of the Nigerians in this group. But Tunisia had everything in control after beating Kenya home and away, drawing with Nigeria 0-0 and 2-2, beating Mozambique 2-0 before failing to attack and crumbling in the last match against The Mamba, losing by a 83' Monteiro solitary goal and failing to qualify for the World Cup at the expense of the less-deserving Nigerians.

Their Cup of Nations hunt has not started any better. Tipped as favourites to win their opening match with a fast-improving Zambian side, Tunisia were in the backfoot and played in their own half for most part of the first half, going down 1-0 in the 18th minute courtesy of Jacob Mulenga who fired a low shot past Tunisia goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi. The 2004 Champions however managed to grab a goal in the 40th minute when Zouheir Dhaouadi fired into the roof of the net to level matters against the run of play. This raised the tempo of the game and the Tunisians grew in confidence and game more in the second half, but escaped a late scare from the Copper Bullets of Zambia. At the end of 90 minutes, one would not shy away from saying Tunisians held the Zambians to a 1-1 draw. The 1-1 scoreline leaves the group open, but a draw against a side which has not gone past the group stages in their last five tournaments further proves the Carthage Eagles are no longer a force to reckon with in African football. Having squandered an opportunity to join the football elite in South Africa in their last World Cup qualifier game, Tunisia's progress in the group  highly depends on whether they can beat group favourites, Cameroon. And they can.

Morocco (1976 Champions, 2004 runners up)  -  The Atlas Lions of Morocco failed to qualify for this year's tournament. They finished as runners-up in 2004, were bundled out in Round 1 in 2006 and 2008, and finished last in their qualifiers group which had Cameroon, Gabon and Togo. It was a tough and tricky group but a Moroccan team boasting of a talent and hot property like Marouane Chamakh could and should have done better. They are a fine example of fallen giants in African soccer show.

Cameroon  (4-time winners, 2-time runners-up) -  The Indomitable Lions have simply not lived up to their fans' expectations of late. Gone are the dominant Lions who roared to two successive Nations Cup (2000 and 2002) titles at the opening of the 21st century. Although they qualified for the 2010 World Cup in an aptitude and perhaps convincing fashion, their deepening and fickle form can only be witnessed by their latest fall to Gabon, a team they beat home and away in the qualifiers. A major upset may be imminent in their group and Cameroon are not cushioned to an early shower. They were beaten hands down by Togo who qualified for the 2006 World Cup at their expense. But going into this tournament, and despite going down to Gabon, they still hold the tag as one of the favourites to lift Africa's premier football accolade.

If the Samuel Eto'o-captained side win the tournament, it will not be a major upset. But if they fail to pass the group stages and perhaps reach the semi-finals, it would be.

Cote D'Ivoire, winners in 1992 and Ghana, winners in '63, '65, '78 and '82 are the other favourites to lift the trophy. But with the way the results have swang so far, it will not be a rocket science scenario if any of the lowly-seeded teams win the tourney. Thus, no one should belittle the capabilities of Angola and Mali, who served the African continent with a rain of goals in the first match, or the fighting spirit of other low sides like Gabon and Mozambique.

And one can forget the defending Champions, Egypt, at their own risk.

And that's the Steifmastertake!!