The non-invititation of established players by the Nigeria coach is seen as a decision to groom younger, hungrier players for the Super Eagles as they enter a crucial phase
By Akinbode Oguntuyi
Nigeria national team coach, Stephen Keshi, finally gave the clearest indication of how upset he was with the majority of the old guard Super Eagles when he made known the players he wanted in the team for the crucial June qualifiers.
Gone was Peter Odemwingie, missing was John Obi Mikel, Taye Taiwo was not invited, and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, 17 goals and best season ever in the English Premiership, was also locked out of the party. The Stephen Keshi experiment has now come more sharply into focus; after events in Kigali threw up a dust storm that threatened to obliterate all the hard work the group of lads known as home-based Eagles had put in.
Before that game in Kigali, what will come to be known as the Stephen Keshi experiment had started. Newly appointed coach Stephen Keshi had pledged to freshen the Super Eagles team that had failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations by giving a fair chance to the players plying their trade in the Nigerian Premier League.
That experiment had begun well. The former captain opened a camp for the home-based players in an effort to get the best out of the lot. They played friendly matches and won, even in unfriendly places.
But all the preparations seemed to mean nothing when the time came for Keshi to name his team for the first official game against Rwanda in Kigali. The new coach picked only three players from the group he had been training for three months, choosing to trust the "sure" skills of the Europe-based stars. It proved a costly mistake: the Eagles almost lost, and the best players on display in Kigali were the three-home based boys that started the game, and the new generation lads that came on as substitutes - Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa.
After the game, a furious Keshi openly vowed to trust his instincts, and never to let emotion and fear rule his judgement on team selection again. He also not-so-openly declared that the days of certain players strolling into camp and picking automatic starting shirts were over. He would later re-state that stance on the automatic starting shirts, and widen it to include every player invited to the Super Eagles under his watch.
| THE NEW FACE OF STEPHEN KESHI'S TEAM
Meanwhile, the debate on the sanity of the coach following through on the Keshi experiment, and the possibility of a calamity ahead kept raging following the near-disaster in Kigali. While some fans and journalists argued that the home based players are not yet good enough, some were insisting that all the coach needs to do, is simply train them enough and trust them.
The coach himself refused to be drawn into making any more open or rash comments. He simply continued with working the process.
Then, the high class friendly with multiple African champions Egypt in Dubai, came. It was the first 'real' game for the students of the 'Keshi Academy' and although they lost via a late goal, they did enough to convince everyone that just maybe, the experiment is working. But then stiffer test was still ahead: will Keshi lose his nerve again, and go for the tried and tested when the crucial June qualifiers come along, or will he stick his neck out, and trust the lads whose stocks keep rising with every game they play?
Last wee Keshi provided the answer: He will do it his own way.
Several of the 11 foreign-based players invited proved as controversial as the policy of grooming home based stars to prosecute "serious" qualification ties. Elderson Echiejile has acquitted himself well when he has spotted for Taye Taiwo in the left full back position, but those who had seen the former AC Milan star's recent resurgence with Queens Park Rangers in the English Premiership, were wishing Taiwo got the nod.
That is not all. Fengor Ogude might have dazzled when he was with Warri Wolves, and while his 13 yellow cards in two and half seasons with Valerenga is a testimony to the stellar work he does as a holding midfielder for the Norwegian side, but Mikel Obi is a bigger player with a bigger team. Yet, Ogude got the nod, Mikel was left out.
John Utaka and Sone Aluko were the other surprises. Why did Keshi look towards Utaka, but chose to dismiss Aiyegbeni? Utaka is older on paper, and has scored far less goals than the red hot Blackburn striker. So, what were the parameters? If a case can be made for Sone Aluko - he is a left sided attacker, a rarity around here - why did Keshi chose right sided Utaka over natural scorer Aiyegbeni, when Ahmed Musa, Ejike Uzoenyi, and Victor Moses are clear wing options?
However, apologists for the dropped players have come up with the reasons why some of these stars are absent: Osaze is getting married and needs to focus on the preparations and Mikel was until Saturday still involved in the Uefa Champions League. The coach himself has said that the door is not closed to any player, and he will keep looking to replace anyone who fails to pull his weight, especially graduates of the "Keshi experiment"
What cannot be denied however is the sequence of events that led to this point: the failure of the Super Eagles to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations on the back of tepid performances; the failure of the team to again make a good impression in Kigali; the constantly improving performance of the home based players; and the rising cry from the fans and stake holders to freshen the Super Eagles.
Now that Keshi has taken the bold step, maybe finally a new Super Eagles, one without super stars with over bloated egos, will rise from the ashes of the Nigerian national team, once upon a time giants of African football.