How bad are things for Nigeria right now? They’re so bad that the possibility that Jay-Jay Okocha, aged 37 and having played nothing but squash since leaving Hull City, might be brought back into the squad for the World Cup is being given serious consideration by at least certain sections of the Nigerian press.
Roger Milla may have been able to do something similar (aged 38) for Cameroon in 1990, but even he was playing third-division football in Réunion. Yet the desire for a central midfield creator is understandable, for that is what Nigeria desperately lack. Against Egypt yesterday, their three central midfielders were Yusuf Ayila, Dickson Etuhu and Mikel John Obi, all of whom would normally be considered holders.
Etuhu sat out training today with a knee injury. “I picked it up in the first half yesterday and probably shouldn’t have played on,” he said. “I hope to be back tomorrow.” He didn’t sound optimistic, though. Peter Odemwingie should return for Saturday’s game against Benin after recovering from a virus, while Obafemi Martins has left Angola to see the surgeon who operated on his right leg after he suffered a recurrence of pains in his shin.
“What can you do? You have to play with what you’ve got,” Etuhu said of the midfield combination, but that places the creative burden squarely on Mikel. When he made his competitive debut for Nigeria in Egypt four years ago, coming off the bench and turning the game against Zimbabwe, he played just behind the front two and was highly effective in the role. He appeared to have great vision and poise, and it was a little surprising when Daniel Amokachi, one of Nigeria’s assistant coaches, said he was even better in a deeper role.
That, of course, is where he has always played for Chelsea, and the lack of practice in the more advanced role seems to have affected him. At one point yesterday, having played a sharp one-two with Chinedu Obasi, he advanced into the Egypt penalty area and dithered and dithered, eventually allowing Wael Gomaa to make a challenge. Somebody more used to being in the position would surely have been more decisive.
Yet for all that, Nigeria’s tactics seemed to be working in the opening half-hour. They sat deep – naturally given their three central midfielders – allowed Egypt to pass the ball in front of them, and worked on hitting long diagonals behind the Egyptian wing-backs for their wide midfielders to chase. Obasi, in particular, prospered on the right, getting behind Emad Moteab and having acceleration room to run at Mahmoud Fathallah.
The problem was that, having dozed off and conceded an equaliser so soft it was hard to pinpoint any player who wasn’t to blame, as their captain, Joseph Yobo, later said, they lost shape and discipline. Egypt, with Ahmed Hassan as classy as ever at 34, picked them off. The issue, as always with Nigeria, is as much mental as anything else.
What a nervous patient almost certainly doesn’t need is 150 million people shouting at him, but that’s what Nigeria got this morning, with a series of what were described as “hard, tough meetings” with the president of the football federation and the Nigerian sports minister, delaying training by 45 minutes.
The coach, Shaibu Amodu, is a man under pressure; and it can only be made worse by the knowledge that he’s been here before. Eight years ago he led Nigeria to the World Cup, only to be dismissed after a disappointing Africa Cup of Nations campaign, and he has as good as been told that he must get to the semi-finals if he is to hold on to his job until the summer.
The consensus, at least among the Nigerian press, is that he has to go and be replaced by a foreigner. There is a sense that Nigerian coaches aren’t good enough, that they haven’t the technical skills of Europeans, but perhaps even more damagingly that players based in Europe don’t respect local coaches. Perhaps significantly, of the African sides who have qualified for the World Cup, only two – Nigeria and Algeria – have local coaches, and both are under pressure.
But then whoever is Nigeria coach will be under pressure; that’s simply the way things are. When Augustine Eguavoen led them to the semi-finals in Egypt four years ago, he was constantly berated for not playing Nwankwo Kanu from the start, even though he proved a highly effective substitute. Eventually he backed down, picked Kanu for the semi against Ivory Coast, and saw him marked out of the game by Yaya Touré.
The lust for success itself seems to make it harder to achieve.