By Solace Chukwu
Nostalgia is a powerful thing.
It enables us to remember incidents in the past with longing. Most of the time, however, it is simply a refusal to acknowledge the rapid passage of time, or the reality of present events.
It is a widely held view, for example, that defending was much better back in the 70s and 80s. While this may be true, it does not take into account the increased (almost chaotic) pace of the modern game, and the onus on modern defenders to adapt to this as well as changes in the offside rule and quality of the actual footballers themselves.
Nigeria remembers with fondness the golden generation of 1994, helmed by Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof, which brought the country its finest hour on the world stage. They played with a swagger that was uncommon among African sides, especially considering the manner in which Senegal and Ghana would achieve acclaim in later World Cups. The Teranga Lions were solid and physical at the back, getting to the Quarter Finals of the 2002 World Cup on the back of organisation and spirit.
In 2010, Ghana were professional and similarly disciplined.
The template for African sides at the World Cup seems clear: defend en masse, be physical in midfield and strike on the counter attack.
Perhaps this is why the USA ‘94 team was so loved and feted. They actually sought to dominate games, and played with a carefree spirit allied to cohesion.
While this is true, it does not quite tell the whole story.
Team of '94 | They played with swagger
It is easy to remember the masterful performance in the group opener against Bulgaria, complete with the iconic net-clutching celebration by Rashidi Yekini. That game showcased all that team did superbly: Daniel Amokachi’s drift into a wide area, allowing Finidi George to ‘underlap’ into the space between centre-back and full-back to assist the first goal was a distinctive feature.
This scheme was repeated in the third group game against Greece, where both Yekini and Amokachi opened up oodles of space in the heart of the Greek defence by dragging markers away.
Emmanuel Amuneke and Finidi combined in a central area to open the scoring that time around; both were the team’s nominal wingers.
The major weakness of a flat 4-4-2 is its inability to compete in central areas. While the team was by no means flat, it did not possess a great deal of defensive nous in the wide areas. Amuneke, while a brilliant winger in his own right, was not the most disciplined defensively. Perhaps this was an indication as to why he played such a sparing part at the Nations Cup in Tunisia earlier in the year. When he did get his chance in the final against Zambia, he responded with a tournament-winning brace.
From then on it was going to be hard for Westerhof to leave him out.
Finidi did his bit on the other flank, but basically the team ensured it wasn’t caught out through the middle not by being narrow, but by being extremely cynical. They broke up play so often, and with such blatant intent, it was a wonder that team never had a man sent off during the tournament.
Going forward, however, the team played the 4-4-2 expertly, with tremendous width and constant switches of the ball to the flanks, as well as hitting the forwards early in the channels. Physically, Yekini and Amokachi as a duo were a nightmare to mark. Amokachi brought the power and speed, while Yekini was the quintessential poacher.
In spite of all these qualities, the team had something of a mental block against elite opposition.
Some of this may be placed squarely at the doorstep of Westerhof, whose assertion that he was only worried by tournament favourites Brazil belied the way he set his stall out against Argentina and Italy. The contrast between these games and the ones against Bulgaria and Greece were incredibly stark. It makes sense to alter your strategy to contain a superior opponent, but save for a few flashes of adventure, it looked like two different teams altogether.
Westerhof | Lost his way against the bigger teams
This was an indictment of the Dutchman’s reign: he handily trounced the minnows, but against teams with comparable or greater quality, his side played below their potential. In the Nations Cup win in Tunisia, they easily dispatched minnows Gabon and Zaire, but were a shambles defensively against the defending champions Ivory Coast in the semi finals and exerted no control in the final win over Zambia.
This theme carried on to the World Cup, a fluid win over Bulgaria was followed by a meek 2-1 loss to Argentina. Both Albiceleste goals came from set pieces, which were a result of the cynical, negative play that would resurface against Italy two games later.
In between? Another confident win over minnows Greece.
This Jekyll and Hyde performance came to a head in the ill-fated loss to Italy. The thought of what might have been had Roberto Baggio not hauled the Azzurri back from the brink is a tormenting imagination in Nigerian hearts.
The truth is that if he hadn’t, the Super Eagles would have been extremely lucky in progressing. Amuneke’s instinctive flick from a corner on 25 minutes was patently against the run of play. Nigeria had been starved of the ball by the organised, integrated movement and pressing of Arrigo Sacchi’s charges, and was on the ropes for the rest of the game.
Westerhof realized this, and when Amokachi got injured 35 minutes in, he opted for an extra midfielder instead of an actual striker, bringing on Mutiu Adepoju and going to 4-5-1.
In theory, it was the right thing to do, but instead of gaining a foothold in midfield through numerical superiority, the team sat even deeper. Jay-Jay Okocha, playing in front of Adepoju and Sunday Oliseh, had a tremendously poor game in part because he was unsure of his role in the team’s approach. He was at the stage in his career where he lacked real physical prowess, and he wasn’t a runner either, so connecting the midfield to Yekini was too big a charge. He ended up contributing little.
By the time Baggio fired in two minutes before the end, there was only going to be one winner. Having been so unusually defensive all game, even after Gianfranco Zola’s red card, it was impossible to switch back to an attacking mindset. The pony-tailed magician won it for Italy in extra time from the spot.
In the end, this team earned plaudits for its flair, but it is easy to forget they were not always pleasing to watch, especially in the big games. Westerhof, for all his charisma and good work, failed the team in his inability to strike a balance between strategies.
Ultimately, it cost the Super Eagles a Quarter Final place.