In truth, we bluffed our way to ANC bronze!

By: Deacon Ayo Ositelu

THE odds against our determined ambition to win the just concluded African Nations Cup title were mightily daunting, even if we did not realise it. For ages, we have always been told by our elders that “a house divided against itself can never stand”. But we were determined to make nonsense of the age-tested saying of the wise.

It always appeared foolhardy to me that, for once, unity of purpose, one of the necessary ingredients of success, meant nothing to those men and women whose duty it is to run our football and take the image of our dear country sky-high in the committee of footballing nations. Yet, it is a common saying that football is the only thing left which unites Nigerians, through tribes and tongues may differ.

What did it matter if the ministry of sports and one of the sports associations under its management did not see eye-to-eye? Did it matter to them whether or not the Nigeria Football Association, the body directly in charge of taking our national team (Super Eagles) to Egypt was in place or in tatters? If financial assistance was not going to come from a snubbed ministry of sports, and there was no evidence of adequate self funding or any kind of funding from any quarters, was a measure of unnecessary pomposity and stubbornness not in play?

At the end of the day, when such elephants (or is it an elephant versus an eagle?) fought, who was likely to suffer? Elderly folklore says it is the grass, which suffers. This time the “grass” was Nigeria, which has to suffer collectively and individually.

Unwisely, each combatant (NFA and sport ministry) flaunted its power, but needless to say, power can have its limit. Apparently, Galadima’s NFA board’s power ended with the conduct of a General Election in Kano, which Honourable Nduka Irabor affirmed was “a free and fair election”. Unfortunately for the man of honour (Irabor), and the man whom his “flawless” election threw up as winner (Galadima), that was the limit of their powers.

But do we have to look too far back in Nigeria’s political history to realise that in Nigeria, the freest and the fairest election does not necessarily translate to the most acceptable? In other words, since when did the electoral vote of the people become the last word? If an election supervised all over the country by a revered academic professor some 13 years ago (apologies to those who associate that number with terrible happenings a la the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed) was not considered acceptable, why must the same country honour the results of the one conducted in Kano by one brilliant journalist and former member of the federal house of representatives?

And as we found our ultimately, it was where the power of the product of the Kano election ended that the monstrous power of Sambara (minister of Sports) began. Some call it “Government Power” which many have learnt (the hardest way possible at times) was never to be messed with.

Galadima tried to mess with it, and he became a persona-non-grata in Egypt where he was supposed to be one of the chief celebrants. It was like being locked out of a party one was hosting. His own “Babes”, the Super Eagles, in whom he is well pleased, were being taken care of by other people, Sambawa’s men. Money talks, doesn’t it? Power pervades the air, and Galadima and his election victors could not even have a look-in, talkless of having any kind of control. If Galadima wished the Super Eagles well in their determination to conquer Egypt, it was in his mind. He was not close enough to pass on the message.

Clearly, those young boys who had the hopes of an entire nation placed on their slim shoulders, and whose task it was to achieve a feat Nigeria has achieved only twice before (1980 in Lagos, and 1994 in Tunisia) were left to serve two masters. One master had loads of money, the other could hardly take care of himself, and the likes of him.

The power game was on but the show must go on. And indeed, it went on, even if some cracks in the Nigerian camp could be traced to the fact that it was the Nigerian squad who were the last to arrive Egypt, and without the normal custodians of football power in Nigeria.

To be sure, all was not well with Nigeria’s football even if we pretended that it was alive and sound. To some, particularly in government circles, all that mattered was for money to be made available to the boys, as at when due, and the battle was won, and the

Cup well on its way to Nigeria.

But the truth, as our elders insist, is that no country or village goes to war leaving a divided house behind.

For the first time in the twenty-five editions of Africa’s “World Cup” Africa Nations Cup to be more precise, Nigeria went to “war” leaving a divided house behind. Let us not deceive ourselves. It was not everybody who wanted the Super Eagles to come back with the Cup. To some, the NFA is dead and buried if the Eagles won with little or no involvement from the game’s supervisory body, the NFA. As it turned out, money, lots of it, was available. For the first time perhaps, there were no grumblings whatsoever about unpaid player allowances, winning, and even losing bonuses. Everything was paid, and you can say that the players benefitted from government’s willingness to show the “infidels” who actually owns the cash. Did I hear Sunny Okosuns wail “we want to know who owns the cash?”.

Money is not everything, however. There was already a lot wrong, well before we left our shores for Faro, Portugal, rumoured to be one of the world’s best training camps. But of what use are the best training facilities and the best of organised training sessions when there were no real matches – genuine international friendlies, which Nigeria appears allergic to. In reality, no preparation beats experiments in match situations. I am not talking about matches to be played in the tournament’s fixtures.

Nigeria is a big name in world football even if our last moments of glory were as far back as the Tunisia 94 Africa Nations Cup and the Atlanta 96 Olympic Games soccer event, in each of which we carted away the Gold.

It is a pity that it is not in our character to use our fame to our advantage. I do not know any country, which would not jump on an opportunity to trade tackles with the Super Eagles. Even the United States team, where football still takes a back seat to more popular disciplines like NFL (American) Football, Baseball, Basketball, Ice Hockey and Athletics, but is firmly ranked in the world top ten football countries, and has never failed to qualify for the World Cup since she hosted it in 1994, would be glad to test her strength against our Super Eagles.

But as if to show that self-preservation is indeed the most important law in nature, the embattled Galadima, who had become arguably the nation’s most unpopular sports administrator on account of our inability to qualify for the Germany 2006 World Cup finals, which in any case “is not Nigeria’s birthright” in his own estimation, appeared to be more concerned about his return to the NFA chairmanship seat than care about Nigeria’s aspirations at the Egypt 2006 Africa Nations Cup finals.

On the other side of the coin, the government’s obsession to “ban” Galadima from the controversial seat took the better part of its actions, no matter what FIFA, the world governing body, thought. NFA or no NFA, FIFA or no FIFA, soccer life must go on in Nigeria, and the first forum to test the sports ministry ultimate power was Egypt, where money was enough to win us the Cup. Or so some people in high places thought.

Now, Egypt 2006 has ended, with the title going, not necessarily to the best team, but more like to the best organised team, with a unity of purpose, backed by a Football Association not at war with government, or vice versa.

Perhaps we have learnt our lesson. Perhaps not. But what I saw in Egypt 2006 convinces me that our football has a bright future, all things concerned. And let me say here that I have implicit confidence in coach Augustine Eguavoen, and his ability to choose whom ever he pleases as assistants. I particularly commend his firmness on indisciplineed players like Yakubu Aiyegbeni, ‚elestine Babayaro, Victor Agali etc.

Let him (Eguavoen) not be bothered by the continuing verbal jabs from Middleborough’s (not Nigeria’s) Aiyegbeni, who unwisely and rudely has used his one match “star-quality performance” against a complacent Chelsea last Saturday as evidence that he deserved a starting shirt guarantee from the national coach. No coach, worth his salt, would succcumb to such arrogance and disrespect to fellow players.

Perhaps Aiyegbeni has a short memory. Was he not in the Middleborough team which lost 7-0 to Arsenal while his compatriots were doing their nation proud in Egypt? Does he know that unlike his over publicised ambition to raise Middleborough to the top echelon of the English Premiership, his darling club is still fighting for its life to stay above relegation waters?

Nigeria is bigger than anyone, and FIFA must take a decision which will move Nigeria forward.