Where Eagles dare to fly

Leonard Lawal

Victory in the African Cup of Nations in Soweto in February brought glory and riches to Nigeria’s Super Eagles and their coach Stephen Keshi, who will now have a stadium named after him.

If there is a nation crazy about football it is Nigeria. It can be taken as a certainty that the English Premier League side, Chelsea FC, has more fans in Lagos than it does in Chelsea – even if most of them can’t spell the word Chelsea and can manage to live on less than US$2 a day.

Here in Nigeria, foreign-made goods are favoured over any home-grown variety, and so it is with our football. Much was expected of two Chelsea players, John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, in bolstering the Nigerian national squad, the Super Eagles, as they played their way to victory over Burkina Faso in the recent African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament in South Africa.

But the scorer of the crucial winning goal in the 10 February final in Soweto was Sunday Mba, who normally plays for the little-known and little-favoured Warri Wolves FC.

Regaining the African championship for the first time since 1994, the Super Eagles are now instant superstars, with millions of naira raining down on them from every possible source. Coach Stephen Keshi, who was previously derided by the Nigerian media for choosing too many “local boys” for his team, has emerged as a national hero.

“Winning this tournament is mainly for my nation. I want to dedicate this to all Nigerian coaches,” Keshi told journalists in Soweto after the match. And the next day, following a meeting with Nigeria’s sports minister Bolaji Abdullahi, the coach withdrew his resignation (which had been prompted by a series of disagreements with the Nigerian Football Federation).

Keshi – who will now have a stadium named after him in Asaba, the capital of his home state, Delta – can now set about boosting the profile of the game in Nigeria at all levels.

“Often talents playing at home have been under-appreciated,” said Samuel Elumelu, a Lagos-based sports writer with Daily Newswatch. “It is because we run one of the worst leagues anywhere. How do you explain a league that plays 32 matches in 14 months and [whose] winners have emerged from the boardroom rather than from the points amassed?”

“Nigerian national coaches, because of such complications, prefer the ease of a foreign-based player who plays [in a] regular league and trains with the best training facilities available,” Elumelu added. “But even with that, there are pockets of Sunday Mbas here and there, at home… I guess what Keshi is clamouring for is to look deeper and give true potentials a chance.”

Akin Ajanaku, a sports consultant and manager, said: “Nigerian local players are getting bolder and ready for the world, thanks to Stephen Keshi’s doggedness.”

Foreign clubs may have wasted no time in bidding to sign up Sunday Mba, but there will certainly be other players well able to take his place. Nigeria is not lacking in talent but the management of the abundant talent has usually turned out to be both inadequate and corrupt.

The prospect of brighter times for local teams should at least enhance football’s appeal for young Nigerians, who in recent years may have found themselves drawn more readily into the music scene, if not the booming Nollywood film business or even its emerging software industry.

Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola, himself a football enthusiast, has urged sports administrators to sustain the momentum and to upgrade both the national league and the game at the grassroots level.

After Nigeria’s unexpected triumph at the AFCON final, he approved the distribution of N59 million ($380,000) to be divided among the coaches, the captain, Joseph Yobo, and the rest of the team.

And the money has not stopped flowing since. Delta State governor Emmanuel Uduaghan gave Keshi a house in the state capital, Asaba, as well as a cheque for NGN8 million ($51,000), and he promised each Eagles player NGN2.5 million ($16,000). Other benefactors have included leading businessmen such as Aliko Dangote and Mike Adenuga.

About the author:

Leonard Lawal is a Lagos-based writer


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