Written By: Segun Odegbami
Stephen Kashi is going back to the foundation of his own glorious career to seek an answer to the seeming intractable problem that has bedevilled Nigeria’s national football team for some time. Stephen was a product of the process that gave birth to the Green Eagles. Let me tell you about the Green Eagles.
In the very early days of Nigerian football before Independence in 1960 the country’s national team was called the Red Devils. I do not know how that sobriquet came about and no one also seems to know. The name of the team, changed to Green Eagles after Independence, originated from the country’s coat of arms that has an eagle perched atop a shield. The eagle signifies strength. In 1994 the ‘Green Eagles’ gave way once again to ‘Super Eagles’ after the national team conquered the rest of Africa at the African Cup of Nations and also qualified for the World Cup for the first time. For 8 years after that the team lived up to its new name and reputation by performing creditably in all competitions through the performance of a generation of footballers hewn originally by the Nigerian domestic league and honed later by their new experiences as professionals in Europe.
It was from the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan that the Eagles started to lose their firepower, and their decline began. Since then the Eagles have been struggling to find their feet and people have found it harder and harder to justify the word ‘Super’ in their sobriquet. At one point, Shina Okeleji, ex-BBC correspondent, during 2006 African Cup of Nations, called them ‘Chicken’ Eagles. Before that many had, in disgust, described them as ‘Papa’ a demeaning description of an ageing team that could no longer perform at its best!
So, Nigeria’s national football team, in the years between 1972 and 1993 was called the Green Eagles. Thats when and where Nigeria’s Stephen Okechukwu Keshi was conceived, birthed and nurtured to maturity. He joined the Nigerian national team in 1981 through his sterling performances as a very young central defender playing as a libero in New Nigerian Bank Football Club, Benin. Reading his subtle ‘moves’ since he mounted the mantle of coach of the national team this time around one can easily discern that Keshi wants to return to the system that produced him and make it better, if possible. After observing what befell Amodu Shuaibu, Lars Lagerbeck and Samson Siasia who faltered in their effort to take the Eagles back to winning ways, Stephen is taking no chances in ensuring that he gets it right. The late 1970s and early 1990s were glorious years. They hold the formula to success. Those were the years the Nigerian league developed so well that stadia around the country were filled with spectators that were treated to very entertaining football by exceptionally gifted players that had matured well within Nigerian football before being lured into professional football in Europe. That was the generation of Sylvanus Okpala, Okey Isima, and later Rashidi Yekini, Etim Esin, Daniel Amokachi, Henry Nwosu and so on, all of them extra-ordinarily gifted football artists. No member of that generation left Nigeria as immature teenagers. They had imbibed the local football culture well before they left the country and only added some European technical flavour to make the combination ‘lethal’ as many an opponent would find out. With this knowledge it is now easy to discern where the ‘mistake’ started and what caused the football depression in Nigeria that sustains till this day. The premature mass exodus of Nigerian players to foreign football cultures has been the single most important factor responsible for the fall of the Super Eagles. Keshi would not do what those before him did and failed by relying entirely on the foreign-based players to play and win his matches. He would start building a new team from players in the domestic league that would give him the power, speed and skills as epitomised by the Green Eagles, and only sparingly add to them players from the European leagues for their technical depth and organised team play.
Keshi has brought some excitement, anticipation, and opportunity to the players and the people. At least someone is thinking and attempting to do something different from the failures of the past. Thats why next Wednesday, Nigerians will eagerly await the result of the match in Kigali that would be Keshi’s first official match. The Keshi assembly has been increasingly impressive in all the three friendly matches they have played so far in preparation for this battle in Kigali. The match will not be easy. Most opposing teams now look at Nigeria and have no dread as in the days of the Green Eagles. They now see a country with a tough outlook but a very soft underbelly. They see how ‘ordinary’ teams have even come to Nigeria and dared to win. They have challenged the superiority of more recent Nigerian national teams and have got away with victories here and there that in the past they could never have dreamt of. Now they tell you Nigeria is ‘dead’ as a football nation and that the country can be beaten even at home. Thats how Guinea had the audacity and temerity to come to Abuja and halted the Eagles’ journey to AFCON 2012. Thats why the myth of the invincibility of Nigeria’s Eagles has been shattered and minnows are now making noises. Keshi has gone back to examine how he came about, the opportunities the domestic league gave him to play well, to be tough and to play with speed and power. If it worked then it will work now. So, Keshi returns to the original system that existed when the Eagles were either Green or Super, and to this he is adding other elements that may make the team invincible once again.
He has decided to draw from his own experiences and from the popular clamour amongst football analysts to build a new home-based national team for the country. The Green Eagles were an assembly of entirely home-based players kept together in camp for lengths of time intermittently. Their strength was their team work and cohesion. In the past couple of months Keshi has also assembled a team made up mostly of some of the best players in the domestic league to form a standing national team. He has played three friendly games also, winning them all comfortably. This team will form the core of a new Super Eagles that will begin their journey next Wednesday in Kigali. For that match and for the first time in an official match Keshi has assembled a team made up of equal numbers of home-based and foreign-based players – 11 each! Nigerians cannot wait to observe how well the experiment will fare.
Finally, Keshi can look at the last African Cup of Nations, AFCON, and take a cue. Some of the teams that impressed the most were teams that had a large dose of players that had been playing together in their domestic leagues for some time. The success of the Chipolopolo, speaks volumes. It is an eye-opener. Thats why Keshi is returning to his foundation in order to get Nigerian football back on track and the new Eagles back to winning ways.