Saturday, January 25, 2014, was a day that put all Nigerians on edge. That evening, Nigeria’s home-based Super Eagles had taken on their Moroccan counterpart in the third edition of CAF African Nations Championships quarter-final football match at Cape Town Stadium in South Africa. The game witnessed a shower of goals. It was exactly 40 minutes on the clock when a Moroccan attacker put the third goal in Nigeria’s net. Chigozie Agbim, the Nigerian goalkeeper, like the rest of his team, seemed to be flailing in vain, inexorably towards an ignominious exit from the tournament. A thrashing, whitewash, spanking or mauling, if you will, as they say in sporting parlance, was firmly on the cards in this encounter.
But how did things come to this sorry pass? There were several questions, and there seemed to be few more logical answers than to admit that the Eagles had been shambolic while the North Africans had been clinical in those frenetic seven first half minutes. As the horror show unfolded, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, the coach of the Nigerian side, largely remained his usual inscrutable self, giving little away emotionally. But how dare he remain so stoic, so calm amidst the debris that his team was quickly becoming in this game? Perhaps, he was convinced, like many followers of football know too-well, that even the most one-sided football matches can rapidly become a game of two halves. In this case, a team which seems to be struggling badly in one half suddenly finds enough verve to turn the table in every sense in another half.
At the very top level of organised football, it only happens once in a long while that a team is able to come back and level the scores in a match where it is already losing by three goals or more after the first 45 minutes. Arguably, the most famous contemporary example of such three-goal comebacks by a top-level football team and one of the most referenced ones was recorded by the English club, Liverpool, when they came back to beat Italian outfit AC Milan on penalties in the final of the UEFA Champions League in Istanbul, Turkey in 2005.
Whatever the interpretation, the victory of the Super Eagles certainly boils down to team character and the will to fight, even against seemingly insurmountable odds. It is much like the Nigerian spirit which enables the people to always weather all storms, man-made or natural. Although it had seemed – pretty much like many aspects of our national life – as though the players would once again, throw away an opportunity after doing the hard part of getting through a tricky qualifying group, in the end, a sheer force of character and togetherness saw them safely through. It was indeed a performance with a lot of ‘Nigerianness’ in it. Players of different religious persuasion, socio-cultural backgrounds and ethnic identity came together to serenade the spectators with Skelewu, Azonto, Etigi or Kukere in the joy of a football match. It makes one wonder why the rest of the Nigerian society keeps ignoring the lessons of sport, especially football, in acts of unity and togetherness for the ultimate peace and prosperity of the country.
As the game wore on, the legs were gone from under the Moroccans even though they still managed a few flitting chances. The equaliser may have been too long in coming after which the match went into extra time, but there was no stopping the Eagles from soaring. The raw strength of the Nigerians, their never-say-die attitude and extra class both on the bench especially with ex-internationals as the coaching crew, as well as the finesse, purpose and vision of Uzoenyi, saw them to victory.
‘Whatever the interpretation, the victory of the Super Eagles certainly boils down to team character and the will to fight, even against seemingly insurmountable odds’
Here were Nigeria’s hopefuls starring at an even more embarrassing defeat at the tournament designed for the participation of only those players who ply their trade in their countries. In fairness, the Eagles had started the match well enough. There wasn’t really that much difference between them and the Moroccans before the Moroccans first goal in the 33rd minute. And in truth, anybody who saw how naively, especially defensively, the team handled that crazy seven-minute period between the 33rd minute and the 40th minute, would have been well-justified to feel sorry for Nigeria for what was still to come.
And for the trick with Uzoenyi to work, he was further instructed to stay on the right side of attack, of course with some licence to roam, even though he is more comfortably left footed. This position gave him a similar role to that being increasingly given to naturally-gifted left footed players like Lionel Messi who can frequently cut in from the right to devastating effect. This, coupled with the faster movement of the ball by the Nigerians in attack as well as better organisation across the pitch, gave the Moroccans too many different questions to answer, completely different from what they faced in the first 45 minutes.
I tried to apply my best body-language reading skills to interpret the scenes that followed between Keshi and his coaching staff as well as some of the players after the match. Following the final whistle, the coaching staff all, together with the players on the substitutes’ bench, first made a bee-line towards the pitch and then as if by prodding, all, one after the other, turned back to Keshi. The triumphant coach was still calm on the bench whereas other coaches would have been beside themselves with joy after such a hard-fought victory. They all then seemed to whisper words that seemed to say to the coach that he was spot on with certain decisions or conclusions he had come to even when his team were losing. I guess Keshi, in his characteristic confident manner, had calmly told the players and coaches that even at 3-0 down, Nigeria would still win the match if they approached it with certain catalysts. Those catalysts, it appears, were duly applied and the rest is history.
Again, bear in mind that the current renaissance in Nigerian national football, especially at the senior national team level, has come mostly because the coaching of the teams has been handed over to ex-football players who have played at the highest level of the game. Now, why can’t we always try and put people who have the know-how in other public positions in our national life rather than dead woods and spent bullets? Remember, when you ask a carpenter to do the job of a tailor, you are likely to get an upholstering at the very best!
Nigeria, of course, had a couple of similar ‘previouses’ in this regard. There was the gutsy come-from-behind 4-3 victory against Brazil in the semi-final at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics during which the Kanu Nwankwo-led “Dream Team” rallied from 3-1 down to prevail. But by far the most remarkable of such feats by a Nigerian team was the match against the then-USSR, where Mutiu Adepoju, Christopher Ohenhen and Samson Siasia and co won on penalties after a 4-4 draw having been 4-0 down (2-0 down in the first half) at a point during the match. That match is romantically referred to as the Miracle of Darman in Nigerian sports speak. So the onus was on this selection of players to perform their 21st Century version of the Darman Miracle. Fittingly, what followed was not the Miracle of Darman. It was simply the Miracle of Cape Town.
After trailing behind by three goals to nil, the Eagles simply had to get back to reckoning, meaning that something had to give tactically and personnel-wise. The Eagles’ first goal came four minutes into the second half, a minute before the first Nigerian substitution was made. It was evident that ‘The Big Boss’, as Keshi is fondly called, gave two or so key instructions to his boys during the half-time rest: “press harder and higher up the pitch and; get the ball to the feet of Ejike Uzoenyi, an artist of a footballer, who, barring some rotten luck, should be packing his luggage to board the plane to the Brazil 2014 World Cup. Such has been the manner the young man has held this tournament by the scruff of its neck.
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