Nigeria’s outing at the 2019 African Cup of Nations finals in Egypt ended on an encouraging note as the Super Eagles won the third-place bronze medal trophy. Nigeria played and won the third-place match against Tunisia with a lone goal, after earlier losing to Algeria by a lone goal at the semi-finals stage. While some Nigerians who had expected the country to have won the tournament’s trophy felt disappointed, the actual progress of the Super Eagles in the various matches proved that the results reflected the various capabilities of the participating teams.
For one, soccer on the African continent has over the years transformed into an all comers’ affair that respects no favorite team in any continental tournament. It is instructive that the AFCON 2019 came with unexpected twists and upsets, including the early exit of both the defending champion, Cameroon and the host, Egypt.Both teams are easily among the leading football countries on the continent. Egypt leads the continent by having won the continental trophy seven times, while Cameroon is in second place, having won the trophy five times. Nigeria, on the other hand, has won the African championship trophy on three occasions.The clinching of the tournament’s Golden Boots trophy by Nigeria’s 30-year-oldChina basedstrikerOdion Ighalo was a major consolation for this country.
Seen against the backdrop of Nigeria’s preparations for the tournament, it was clear that the country had no grounds for expecting the extraordinary from the soccer fiesta. From the onset the country did not participate with thebest form it should have mustered for such a highly competitive continental tourney.It is recalled that the Super Eagles entered the contest with a squad of mostly rookies as only three players, namely Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo had participated in previous AFCON tournaments. The team’s coach Gernot Rohr had at the commencement of the tournament even expressed reservations over their chances of making an impressive outing. He based his hopes on the team’s earlier spirited performance at the 2018 World Cup tournament in Russia.
Hence, Rohr would say after the AFCON tournament that to him, winning the bronze medal was as good as clinching the African Cup itself. That from him is instructive. With the outing over it is now time for reviewing the country’s soccer fortunes in general and preparing for the future. It is instructive that in the aftermath of AFCON 2019 there have been calls for various drastic actions by the authorities, with some calling for the sack of the coach and others calling for the disbandment of the team.
However, a more introspective perspective of the challenge facing Nigeria’s soccer still lies in the terrain of preparations. In the absence of any sustained programme for mobilizing talents at the grassroots across the country, Nigeria has had to depend on handpicked players who had broken through to recognition at the national and international levels. This situation hardly provides the country the benefit of tapping from its stock of talents, from whom world beaters can be selected. Already, with the cessation of AFCON 2019, the country stands to lose the services of at least two of the old reliables,namely Mikel Obi and Odion Ighalo. If only we had a robust grassroots development program, the exit of any of such reliables should not create a sense of loss among Nigerians.
Last but not the least is that the terrain of preparations for international tournamentsby Nigeria is yet to be divested of scandalous tales of poor management of athletes’ welfare, as was witnessed in AFCON 2019 when players’ allowances became an issue. Going forward, as the Buhari administration sets its priorities for the next four years, sports development should occupy a position of priority as sports is a major element that unites the country and also boosts our image on the international scene.