We take a look back on the Super Eagles' friendly draw with Mexico, and examine what the next month might bring for Stephen Keshi and his boys
By Ed Dove
In the prelude to the Aeneid, in my old, battered copy of Virgil’s epic, the translator writes that it took the Romans five centuries of near-continuous warfare to fully construct the foundations of their empire.
Built on new ideals, on aggressive expansion and on military tactics that devastated all that came before them, the systems and culture of the Empire had widespread influence and played an enormous role in developing European progress and modes of thinking.
But I bet those first 500 years were a real pain.
It comes as no surprise though, if you want the extended glory, the irrepressible dominance, and the historical recognition, you need to endure the strife and uncertainty that comes with the formation and establishment of a dynasty.
Rome…it appears…wasn’t built in a day.*
Stephen Keshi is learning the hard way that dynasty-building doesn’t happen overnight. He could have been forgiven, perhaps, for thinking that coaching the Nigerian team was an absolute doddle following the Cup of Nations victory back in South Africa. Indeed, while I wish to take nothing away from this momentous and unforgettable triumph, the subsequent fortunes of the side have been underwhelming, to say the least.
The immediate glow of victory was diluted by Keshi’s own disputes with the federation, and the poorly-handled issue of his proposed resignation and subsequent continuation in the role. The whole incident damaged the reputations of both the manager and the NFF.
Then came the very public spat with Joseph Yobo. Gracious during his ignominious relegation in duties for the Cup of Nations, our record cap holder’s patience clearly ran dry as the Big Boss tried to usher in the nation’s new dawn.
Finally, there was the disappointing outing against Kenya in Calabar. What should have been a triumphant homecoming and a bona fide love-in for Africa’s newly-crowned champions instead became an ugly (and ultimately torrid) toil against significantly inferior opposition.
And so to the present…
The month of June provides us with a perfect gateway to the future—both long and short term—of Stephen Keshi and this exciting young generation of Nigerians. While the Confederations Cup will be a major test, and could provide an invaluable opportunity ahead of next summer, the really decisive fixtures are the two World Cup qualifiers against Namibia, and first, the return against Kenya.
Win both, and Nigeria would be in pole position to advance from Group F of CAF’s World Cup qualifying system, failure to win, and, depending on Malawi’s results, it could all be over.
This month—and its five crucial fixtures—may determine what kind of legacy this talented generation leaves. Will they be remembered primarily, if not solely, for that initial, glorious Afcon triumph, or will they progress to be considered among Africa’s finest?
The ragged, faded displays of Zambia since their own Afcon triumph only serve to demonstrate how quickly past glories are forgotten in the furious maelstrom of international competition.
Onazi battles against the Ivory Coast
The recent contest with Mexico gave us a few clues as to how the coming month might pan out for this Super Eagles selection. Initially overwhelmed, Nigeria made the most of the fortune that came their way, and ended the first half in the ascendency—a goal and a man to the good.
After the pause, they struggled to break down the ten men of Mexico, and eventually succumbed to a sucker punch from Manchester United forward Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez.
To draw with an impressive Mexico, in front of a partisan 62,107 at the Reliant Stadium, Houston is not a result to be sniffed at, but considering the red card to Pablo Barrera—with an hour still to play—and the fact Nigeria led at the break, Keshi is probably right to bemoan his side’s lack of cutting edge and worrying absences of concentration.
At times I wondered whether a few more experienced heads would have made a major difference to Nigeria’s approach in a contest that was, at times, tempestuous.
While Ogenyi Onazi and Sunday Mba are both bright young players, who performed manfully against the initially swamping flow of Mexican midfielders, both remain inexperienced at this level. Indeed, during my coverage of the game, I commented that had someone suggested, a year ago, that the pair would be holding fort in the Super Eagles midfield ahead of the Confederations Cup, I would have struggled to believe them.
John Obi Mikel, naturally, will return to the heart of the team, and will doubtless have an impact on the team’s composure and tempo. I will be quietly confident to see the team heading to Brazil with Mikel pulling the strings alongside the terrier Onazi, the side’s engine and enforcer.
With Keshi’s attacking approach and formation leaving the defence somewhat isolated against Mexico, the weaknesses of Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo were exposed. I hope that the decision to omit Yobo won’t cost us dear in the testing times ahead.
Joseph Yobo lifts the Cup of Nations
The veteran defender was hugely effective in the Cup of Nations, where, brought on as a regular late substitute by Keshi, he would calm those around him, marshall the backline and organise the inexperienced heads that populated the Naija team. I hope that the absence of such a player doesn’t cost the team during the trials of June.
Vincent Enyeama worked well to settle his defence, and patrol his own area during Friday’s friendly, and has been, recently, a very vivid example of how a more experienced figure can be a vital component of a relatively inexperienced squad.
In the history of Rome, the Ides of March was the day that changed history, the date that marked a turning point in the development of an era, and sparked the progress from Republic to Empire. I believe that this month of June represents Keshi’s own dynastic watershed, a period that may break the promise of his reign, or may well herald a new epoch for the Super Eagles.
* Unless, of course, Mr. Brian Howard Clough is on the job!