There is a good argument to be made that, over the last decade, there is no more influential Nigerian coach than Manu Garba.
His name entered the mainstream consciousness in 2013 when he led the national under-17 team, the Golden Eaglets, to victory at the Under-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. Before that, he was a part of the coaching crew for the previous success at that level, as an assistant to the late Yemi Tella back in 2007.
That is not, however, an achievement that is particularly unique. Nigeria is historically the most successful country in the world at that age group, and the likes of Fanny Amun and the late Paul Hamilton have also led sides with considerable talent but questionable eligibility to success.
What sets Garba apart, besides recency bias, is the style with which his side beguiled the world, and the sheer output of his group of youngsters. A free-scoring, counter-attacking style saw the team plunder 3.25 goals per game over the course of the competition, a staggering number considering football’s fundamentally low-scoring nature.
Understandably, Garba evinces a great degree of pride at having defied one of football’s fundamental truisms, and in his discussion he gravitates time and again to that 2013 side. So what made them so special, so cohesive, so irresistible as an attacking force?
“That team had an abundance of talent, but not only was the squad talented, we had ample time to stay with the players,” he says.
“Honestly, we had the opportunity to teach them all that you need to teach a player in terms of playing and performing at the highest level. To be fit technically, tactically, physically, psychologically and mentally.
“So we knew what every player could do at any moment. In fact, even in that team, you could close your eyes, pick a starting 11, and everybody would function very well, because there was a synergy. They were used to each other. The team was just like a family.”
The base though, the platform on which it was all built, was talent. The ubiquity of natural footballing ability in Nigeria is now almost anecdotal, but it is easy enough to understand when one considers the mostly unrivalled popularity that the sport enjoys in a country of over 100 million people.
That fact has not always translated perfectly though, as the recent outing of the national under-20 team at the World Cup in Poland attests. However, in terms of identifying and harnessing the talent pool, Garba stands out: both in terms of quality and quantity.
This eye for talent in its primal state, along with his emphasis on creating the right mental and physical environment for his players – for instance, he talks up the underrated benefit of a proper night’s rest both as a key part of player performance and as an excuse to restrict the use of mobile devices – is what has defined a successful coaching career to date.
A midfielder in his playing days, he captained El Kanemi Football Club for over half a decade, winning back-to-back FA Cup (then known as the Challenge Cup) titles in 1991 and 1992, and losing out to Egyptian giants Al Ahly in the semi-final of the old CAF Cup Winners Cup with the Maiduguri side. He describes himself as having been “naturally gifted with an abundance of technique”, and while it is not beyond the realm of possibility that this assessment is slightly massaged, it has certainly informed his preference when it comes to talent identification.
“What I look for in a player is technical ability: if the player is able to control the ball very well, can pass very well. Technique for me is paramount.
“After technique, a little bit of awareness of what to do in particular situations. That too is very important, because they say a good player is oriented all over, including his movement with or without the ball. Even at such young ages, I try to find such players.”
It is that technical excellence, as well as lucidity in decision-making, that so defined his 2013 team, and made them lethal on the break. Set up in a 4-3-3 shape, and with Garba encouraging expressionism and near-total positional freedom, that Nigeria side tore through opponents, scoring 15 goals over four matches against Mexico and Sweden, the competition’s next best teams.
The front three comprised, first, Isaac Success and then Liverpool loanee Taiwo Awoniyi, lightning-quick forward Musa Yahaya – Garba insists he was the best player in that entire tournament, and is “surprised” at the lack of progression of a player with potential to be “one of the best players all over the world” – and a certain Kelechi Iheanacho, whose exclusion from Nigeria’s final squad to this month’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has cause a stir.
The Leicester City forward has struggled to find his feet in the Premier League after an initial promising start at Manchester City. In the season just concluded, Iheanacho played barely over a thousand minutes in all competitions for the Foxes, scoring twice; in March, he was dropped from the national team after coach Gernot Rohr expressed concern over his focus and mentality. His inclusion in the provisional AFCON squad was widely considered a last chance to win back his place in the team.
It is a long way to fall for a player who won the Golden Ball in 2013, and on whom the hopes of a nation had come to rest. It also means that, of the players who passed through Garba’s hands, only Wilfred Ndidi, Francis Uzoho and Moses Simon will be in Egypt.
While the 53-year-old admits it is his “personal joy” to see those players in the final squad, he is rueful about Iheanacho’s promise, which now appears to be ebbing away: he has been “watching from a distance” and directs some of the blame toward the player’s handlers.
“I don’t know whether it has to do with personal problems, psychological problems, or lack of adaptation with the players he plays with.
“We expect their managers to be monitoring their performances and their way of life too, which is very paramount. Even when they’re not at their clubs, even on holidays, they are supposed to be monitoring what their players are doing. But unfortunately most of such managers are just after the money.”
While he is wary of making any definitive judgements on a player who he admits “doesn’t even call to say hi” – the revelation, while devoid of rancour, is tinged with disappointment – he makes some pointed observations about African players in general, and why they fail to fulfil their potential.
“One of the greatest problems is that most African players don’t know how to manage success. The moment a poor boy from a poor family background begins to earn big money, some of them forget the career entirely that brought them into such fame. They lose focus and begin to buy expensive cars, and living expensively instead of concentrating on the game.”
This inability to manage success, in his mind, is down to a deficit in education.
Nigeria has a literacy level under 60 percent, and a lot of its most talented footballers through the years have sprouted in underprivileged areas and the inner cities. With footballers earning increasingly mouth-watering pay packages, that image of success sees a lot of them opt out of school in favour of pursuing a full-time career in football.
Garba, a graduate of the University of Maiduguri who paid his way through school by playing in and earning prize money from sub-regional football tournaments, is acutely aware of his responsibility to steer his young players toward education.
“Education is a great bane to African players, because most of them lack the educational background to take care of themselves personally. So, (a combination of) education, getting huge money suddenly and then failing to manage that success are some of the causes of why African players cannot make it great.
“I tell some of my players that, for us, even when we were playing, we didn’t leave school.
“Life after football is very important. Even apart from regular school, there are some of these schools that they can employ teachers to come and teach them (privately), or part-time. Earn a certificate somewhere. At least they will be able to communicate very well, to know they dos and don’ts wherever they go. This will help to enhance their life after football.”
His passion in this direction is clear, especially when he speaks of his children’s academic achievements, eyes agleam, and he remains an avid learner himself. He holds a CAF A Licence, and admits he has picked up “one or two things in brainstorming sessions with colleagues”, as well as by using coaching resources available on the internet.
While he acknowledges that talent identification is not an exact science – “Players come in different generations,” he says – his desire to find and groom the best continues to burn brightly, even as he prepares another crop for the 2019 Under-17 World Cup in Brazil.