Coaches at work
Where should I start from? Should I disappoint my dear readers by not talking about how the Eagles lost to Ghana on Wednesday night in South Africa? Is it the story of a fumbling goalkeeper or the agony of watching players who our coaches picked as our best kick the ball from the penalty spot over the bar? Or is it the pain associated with watching the Ghanaians holding their own against a complete Super Eagles team? Or should I just shelve this column having written a lot about the inadequacies of this Eagles side in South Africa for the CHAN competition?
Should I tell the story of how the team’s coach walked out on his players when they were trailing 3-0 to the Moroccans? Of what use would it be when many said that was his style of psyching up his wards. It worked.
If the coaches restricted their search for players to the four teams representing Nigeria at this year’s continental competitions, we would be playing in today’s final game against Libya, not Ghana’s Black Stars, given the array of teams at this CHAN edition.
Those who followed the pre-season Globacom Premier League Super Four tournament organised by the Nduka Irabor-led LMC would agree that the two goalkeepers that Enyimba FC of Aba paraded were better than Agbim. Even the two fielded by Kano Pillars and Warri Wolves.
I saw several players marshal the defence of their teams with gusto. They played intelligently and displayed skills that our CHAN Eagles lack. I saw players with initiative, a trait which was missing in the CHAN Eagles. Some of the goals scored at the pre-season tournament underlined the fact that talents are still at the grassroots, provided the coaches can recognise good players if they see them.
Simply put, this CHAN Eagles aren’t a good. They lack quality players who could stand up and be counted in big competitions. Chrisantus Uzoenyi stood out from the pack that had as many as six domestic league players who have been travelling with the Africa Cup of Nations- winning Super Eagles. So, what happened to Egwuekwe, Chigozie Agbim, Benjamin Francis et al, who had been training with our foreign legion? Did they not learn anything from playing with the big boys?
Uzoenyi was a lone ranger. He didn’t find anyone to complement his yeoman efforts. And it said a lot about the selection process. Shehu, Ali, both Kano Pillars midfielders did their bit along with Abubakar. Yet, four good players couldn’t make the team click. They were in the minority and it showed in our matches. Imenger and Eseme can be better, with many matches.
We were awful against Mali. Agbim was the biggest culprit. Good coaches would have benched him for the next game. But ours gambled on Agbim against Mozambique and they were embarrassed with the shot taken from almost half of the pitch, which cruised into the net. Sticking with Agbim until the semi-finals loss shows our coaches’ inability to take risks by trying others. Would Alampasu have done worse than Agbim? Maybe Alampasu would have panicked in the first half of the first game. Thereafter, he would have gotten used to the setting and serve as the team’s pivot while defending and in its attack. Agbim was clueless. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t control his defenders. He didn’t have the presence of mind of Vincent Enyeama or the confidence of Peter Rufai or the calmness of Emmanuel Okala.
Little wonder the Ghanaians just lifted the ball over him to score their penalty kicks. I hope we have seen the last of Agbim in the national team. One is not trying to mock Agbim, after all the late Peter Fregene, aka Akpo (short man) was described severally as a cat in his goalkeeping days for Green Eagles and Stationery Stores of Lagos. Spain’s Ike Casillas isn’t taller than Agbim. He used to be the best goalkeeper in the world, until this season. Chijioke Ejiogu of Enyimba cannot be taller than Agbim, yet, he is without any doubt the best goalkeeper in Nigeria, in spite of his antics, according to managers of clubs where he has played. We can count the number of stars who are not brats?
Ambrose Vansekin. Does anyone remember him? He was the goalkeeper in the U-20 side that lost narrowly to Argentina in Holland in 2005, with Samson Siasia as the coach. He was famous with the Rosary around his neck. He is still around; he manned the goalpost for Warri Wolves at the just concluded Super Four tournament held in Abuja. He is better than Agbim and wouldn’t have panicked if he made the squad. The coaches wouldn’t have hesitated in replacing Agbim, if Vanzekin was his assistant.
So, what do our coaches teach the players? Nothing – with the way they played. Otherwise, how come nobody taught our players how to take penalty kicks? Is it because one of the coaches said he hates penalty kicks? With the way our boys took their kicks against Ghana on Wednesday night, it was clear we did not practise session taking penalty kicks from 12 yards. What a pity. Coaches indeed! In contrast, the Ghanaians told us that they trained thrice for penalties, knowing that they were pitched against Nigeria. In fact, with three minutes left to the extra time, Ghana’s coach brought in a player, who eventually scored the opening goal of the penalty shootout. Can’t you see why they Ghanaians beat us? I no know book o!
We revel in fickle things. We thrive in blowing our trumpets, one of such being the talk before the game against Ghana that we had be best attacking machine which was expected to run over an also water-tight Black Stars’ defence.
At the editorial conference on Wednesday evening before the game, I told my colleagues that if the game drags into extra time that the Eagles would be beaten. Deep inside me, I knew that the Ghanaians would try to outmuscle us with crunchy tackles to shake our players’ confidence. I also knew that the Ghanaians would play for penalties, having rehearsed. And so, when we lost our kicks, a few of my colleagues were stunned by the accuracy of my prediction. I’m not a seer but I know the Nigerian coach like the back of my palm. They are not adventurous. They are quick in asking Nigerians to pray for their team as if others don’t pray to God like we do. They also seek luck without knowing that 90 per cent of what we call luck in soccer should come with hard work.
Another poser: what do our coaches tell our players before, during and after matches? At a stage in Wednesday’s game, a 10-man Black Stars dominated our team, with our players lacking in stamina. One would have thought that the Ghanaians would have struggled, given our numerical strength. No.
It is about time our coaches looked for a professional fitness trainer to knock our boys into tip-top shape. Elsewhere, the team is broken into compartments, with specialists assigned to key areas. If our coaches want to succeed in Brazil in June, they must insist on picking players based on current form, not loyalty to them. They shouldn’t hide under the guise of instilling discipline to drop good players, especially those of them who have the effrontery to speak their minds about the team’s tactics and training methods. No one knows it all. Learning, they say, is a continuum.
I don’t share in the sentiments that the NFF should have picked local league coaches for the CHAN job. They did so in the past and we never qualified for the competition. What the new order in the Eagles should do is to watch the Globacom Premier League matches religiously. This idea of our national team coaches doing analysis on television is meaningless, if we cannot pick our best players for competitions.
It is a pity that we have lost the best chance to raise our points haul on FIFA rankings. We would have been in the finals if we didn’t lose our first game, no thanks to Agbim’s howlers.
Those who have attributed our loss to Ghana to ill-luck didn’t watch the game. If they did, they would have seen that losing one man at the time the Ghanaian did gave us the leeway to nail the Black Stars, only if the coaches told our boys what to do. Good tacticians would have introduced more strikers to swoop on the Ghanaians, who were playing for time by frustrating our boys with delay tactics and rough tackles. The exit of Ghana’s jersey number three weakened their defence. Besides, his exit meant that Uzoenyi would be free since he was mandated to stop Uzoenyi at all cost. Our coaches may have been overwhelmed by the nervy setting at the stadium on Wednesday night.
With the Black Stars one man short, the Eagles would have concentrated their game plan to keeping possession of the ball, tossing it among themselves to wear down their opponents. That way, mistakes would be made and the game would have been ours. Sadly, the Eagles fell into the Ghanaians’ trap of tossing high balls towards petit strikers, who virtually lost all the aerial balls. This mundane long balls style helped the Ghanaians to keep our players viciously, such that it took divine intervention for Uzoenyi to be alive today.
Most good tacticians would have responded to the match situation when it looked like the game was heading for penalty kicks. Most coaches introduce substitutes, who are specialists in kicking the ball into the net from the 12-yard spot. It is true that penalty kicks are subjects for luck, yet many are known specialists. The way our boys kicked theirs on Wednesday night showed that they didn’t rehearse the act of taking penalty kicks.
The first lesson from participating in the CHAN tournament for our coaches is the need to take every detail in preparing their teams seriously. Need I remind them to pick players based on form, not advice from agents and club scouts?