It was the best of all times, it was the worst of all times, it was the dawn of despair, it was the season of hope, it was the age of sackings, it was an era of promotions…It’s no longer news that Nigeria won the 2013 African Cup of Nations held in South Africa, our first victory since 1994 exactly 19 years on, it’s no coincidence that the man wearing the number 19 jersey Sunday Mba, scored the 2 most important goals of the tournament on 2 different Sundays, the goal that knocked out Ivory Coast the continent’s strongest team on paper, and the goal that won the trophy for Nigeria in the tournament’s final game. What stood Sunday Mba out was he was and presently is a home based player.
Not much was expected from the Nigerian Super Eagles at the tournament for many reasons like we did not qualify for the last tournament, something that had not occurred since 1986 (26 years before), Nigeria did not have many players plying their trade in Europes top clubs, and of the few in the other clubs not many were regulars and the few regulars were out of favour with the coach Stephen Keshi, Odemwingie and Taiwo come to mind. Coach Keshi’s final tournament list and Odemwingie’s rant dismissed the little hope many had for the team to make any impact, as the list included 17 debutants and 6 home based players. This was quite a departure from former Coach Samson Siasia who made a name by blooding home based players but failed to qualify Nigeria for the last tournament when he relied on big name foreign based players who disappointed him and the nation. Both Keshi and Siasia had almost the same kind of footballing education and otherwise, both attended the famed St. Finbarrs College, Akoka that produced about 10 Nigerian internationals. Father Dennis Slattery was the principal, both represented the school team in the Principal’s Cup completion for secondary schools, and both were junior internationals representing Nigeria and later became full internationals. Stephen Keshi was the pioneer that opened up Belgium for African footballers after he, Henry Nwosu (another St. Finbarrs allumni) and some NNB FC of Benin players were unjustly banned for a year, Siasia was one of the first players to join him there. Both were first team players at the beginning of the Clemens Westahof era, so both of them knew the secret of his success was getting the right blend of foreign and home based players in the national team and that merit mattered more than big names as both of them were later dropped from first team roles even though Keshi was team captain. Siasia took after Westahof by developing the home based players and he was successful winning Silver in the 2005 junior world cup and in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On the back of his achievements he was appointed Head Coach of the Super Eagles and he focused more on foreign based players and there was no sense of competition in the team again, this culminated in failure to qualify for the Cup of Nation competition and he was promptly sacked. Keshi on the other hand had moderate success In Togo and Mali, and was appointed to take over from Siasia. He promptly started grooming the best home based players in the land, he had seen from the examples of Westahof and Siasia that a competitive spirit must be fostered on the team and home based players deserve a chance also. Keshi’s all conquering Nations Cup team had six home based players, 2 of them were regulars; Godfrey Oboabona played in central defence while the hero of the hour Sunday Mba played in the Midfield.
Keshi would do well to build on his success by giving more home based players opportunities and his teams should all be merit based, if he can do that, who says the Super Eagles can’t win the next World Cup?