I am an Olympian to the core. I went to two Olympics. The first was boycotted at the last minute by African countries. At the second, I was Nigeria’s flag bearer, overall captain of the contingent as well as captain of the national football team, the Green Eagles. I served as Vice-President of the apex body for Nigerian Olympians for several years, and as an athlete-representative for two athletes that won Silver and Gold at the Olympics games. So, I write this with some authority in the field of measuring success in sport. That’s why the motto of the international sports academy that I set up some 12 years ago is ‘to be the best that I can be’. I was never told throughout my career, and I have not heard it said by successful athletes or countries or teams that success can come from aiming lower than the top of the pyramid.
In the process of aiming for Gold, you could end up with a Silver or a Bronze medal, and celebrate it knowing that you have given your very best. That makes sporting sense. It is a reflection of the Olympic spirit captured in these everlasting words: ‘at the Olympics, you do not have to come first to be a winner’. Yes, you can be a ‘winner’ even when you come last in a race, it depends on how well you run the race.
The story of the 4 Nigerian girls that ran the 4 X 100 metres race in Barcelona in 1992 easily comes to mind. They ran in the finals. They came third. They ran the race of their lives but in a manner that captured the imagination of the world – with grit, guts, supreme determination and endurance till the very end. Their effort, captured on film, is still being shown everywhere in the world as representing the true essence of sport. The celebration in sports lies more in the effort than in the result, such that even when they came third they were celebrated more than the country that came first, for their sheer effort, watched by billions of people around the world. In coming in at Third-place they achieved what Nigeria had never achieved before – Bronze in the sprints relay in athletics. That’s why an individual, or team, or country that has never achieved a feat before can celebrate that feat even when they come last in the competition.
How that applies to the Super Eagles that went to Egypt is what I find impossible to justify. At the African Cup of Nations, getting to the semi-finals has become second nature for Nigeria – 15 or so times in our history. We have won the competition 3 times, played and won the Silver medal several times. Local and foreign coaches have taken us to these different levels, competition after competition, so often that to set a target of anything less than winning the African Cup of Nations for any coach, at any time, is ‘criminal’. How can we pay a foreign coach the stupendous sums we pay Gernot Rohr, and set for him a target in a competition in Africa that we have won and can win with commitment and genuine effort and some added luck? It is preposterous. If the Eagles had played very well, put up great performances and failed to win, or secure only a Third-Place as they did in Egypt, celebrating them would come naturally.
But surely not this. Egypt was not reflective of our best performances. The Eagles played well, but not enough to throw parties and keep a coach that has obviously failed the country more times than once, and that hides behind a ridiculous so-called target to colonise us again. It was a hollow success story. Last Wednesday night, inside the magnificent Cairo International Stadium, I watched on television how the great Super Eagles of Nigeria celebrated their victory against the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia. The Super Eagles left their best match till the last. They strolled through the match, their superiority obvious. Hardly tested throughout the 95 minutes that the match lasted, Nigeria scored a goal and then put up an impregnable wall of defense that the Tunisians could not break down. It was not a brilliant match, by any standard, but the Super Eagles did well enough to earn their Bronze medals. They hugged, danced and kissed to the music of the members of the Nigerian Football Supporters Club led by their President-General, Worldwide, Dr Rafiu Ladipo, belted out to the small crowd of supporters and friendly Egyptians that were there to cheer them. All of that is good.
The Eagles demonstrated their true capability against Cameroon and South Africa, two of the strongest teams in Africa. Even when they played poorly against Algeria and were not anywhere near their dangerous best, Algeria needed the ‘help’ of the Nigerian goalkeeper to win in the 95th minute. Everyone knew they could have done better than they did. There was room to have done much more and better. They underplayed and did not represent the best version of the traditions of Nigerian football and of a nation blessed with exceptionally gifted footballers. Their first two matches against weak oppositions were won narrowly, but without much difficulty. Their third match was a self-inflicted disaster. Their fourth and fifth matches were nail-biters, very difficult and the hardest of the championship. Those are pieces of evidence of how strong every Nigerian national football team can be, particularly in Africa. Nigerian teams must never prepare to underachieve. That is exactly what the Nigerian football authorities did going to AFCON 2019. Any coach, Nigerian or foreign, worth a Kobo, will take the Eagles to a semi-finals berth in any competition in Africa in any sport. That’s my grouse with the NFF after AFCON 2019. That’s why my own celebration of the Third-place of the Super Eagles will be for reasons other than what the NFF and Gernot Rohr adduced. So, as the team arrives in Nigeria, I am groping seriously to justify why I should join the celebrations:
- the retirement of Mikel Obi and Odion Ighalo from the national team. Both of them have served the country long and well, and deserve every honour, reward and appreciation they can get.
- the narrow escape of Nigeria following the misadventure against Madagascar. We could very easily have lost against Cameroon and that would have been the end in AFCON 2019.
- the discovery of one or two new young players in the squad to kick-start the onset of a new era in the national team.
- the compulsory search for new goalkeepers for the national team as a consequence of the abysmal showing of two of those we took to Egypt
We can have a few other things to celebrate, surely out of Egypt, but please, I beg, and I repeat, I beg, not for the reason adduced by the NFF and Gernot Rohr that the German coach and the team achieved the goals of Third-place set for them. No, please!
As a sportsman and an Olympian, one that believes only in celebrating the best that one can be, I shall not celebrate this Bronze Medal. I am sorry folks.