Nigerian football: An unfortunate lack of imagination

The Championship of African Nations (CHAN), concluded at the start of February, has opened up a can of worms, by way of vituperative opinion. What that reaction, polarized as it is, seems to be making light of is arguably the most important lesson: there is a silent, creeping fungus eating into the fabric of Nigerian football.

Football is an essentially simple thing, and not just in the apocryphal sense that the Germans always win. That has proven only occasionally true. But it is simple in the way that math is simple; in the sense that their complexity comes from the same place: the human mind.

Math is, at its most basic, a study of the relationship between physical quantities. Its laws are fixed and rigidly defined. It is the same with football: two teams of 11 players apiece, contending to move one ball into one of two fixed points.

Its allure is in the complexity that is infused by the intellect. In much the same way that Isaac Newton invented calculus and got us thinking of math in abstract terms, great thinkers have sought to create new ways by which football’s fixed principles can be applied.

It’s why coaches are paid so handsomely.

Yet, as a microcosm of the problem with coaching in Nigeria, that CHAN final was a perfect representation. There are plenty who have pointed out, quite rightly, that Morocco was by far the superior team, both individually and collectively. This was manifest enough. What I find disagreeable is the notion that, when faced with stronger opposition, it is enough to show up and get spanked.

History, recent and ancient, is replete with examples of underdogs triumphing in one-off games. It is why tournament football is such a precarious thing; unlike a league format, where the sheer consistency required means greater quality will assert itself over a longer period, it is relatively easier to execute a plan to take each game as it comes.

Greece’s remarkable journey in the European Championship in 2004 comes quite readily to mind, as does Porto’s triumph the same year in the UEFA Champions League, Liverpool’s the year after, and more recently, Chelsea’s in 2012.

With the runs of all of these sides, it is often difficult to pick out any one moment as the definitive highlight of the respective campaigns. What underpins them all is the readiness of their managers to conceptualize answers to various peculiar challenges by forensically stripping away the strengths of superior opposition. To do this requires almost constant engagement, on a theoretical level, with the very nature of football.

Isaac Newton’s apple drop may be apocryphal, same as Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment, but to dwell on the specificity of the stories is to miss the wider point: there is a certain level of absorption with one’s craft which births genius, whether it be in science or football. Being a biomechanical process, sport can find inspiration even in nature, provided there is an impassioned, unconventional thinker.

It is in this that the average Nigerian coach is lacking. In an increasingly white-collar society, innovation is sacrificed to banal safety, and certification is viewed in terms of the security and status it bequeaths, rather than the thirst for knowledge it ought to foster.

Combine this with the failure of an academic system that prioritizes passing exams, and it is clear just why Nigerian coaches often seem completely devoid of imagination.

It is all well and good pointing out Morocco were better on the night and deserved to win on their showing. It is, however, the place of the underdog to divine a scenario in which the might of the strong is less evident, to level the playing field in some way. It is what famous Italian journalist Gianni Brera termed the “right of the weak”, in reference to the historical defensiveness of Italian football.

Whether it be an aggressive man-marking scheme, “parking the bus”, counter-attacking, or reliance on set-pieces, there is also a way to limit the favorites. All it takes is a keen mind for strategy and a capacity for learning and adaptation.

There seems little, at this time, to suggest things will get better.

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