Just as expected in a World Cup year, Nigerian football has once again gone into overdrive, leaving the very obvious decision to make till the last minute with everyone running around like headless chickens. The Nigerian Football Association (NFA), Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), a Presidential Task Force and a coterie of pundits from the national football community are on the prowl, looking for that superman – a foreign manager that will bring the glory days back to our football, having now concluded overwhelmingly, it seems, that the best of our local coaches unfortunately lack what it takes to take Nigerian football to the next level, despite the vast potential.
It is difficult to quarrel with the supporters of the foreign option after the ill-disguised fiascos that were the World Cup qualification campaign and the African Nations’ Cup in Angola. Long-suffering Nigerians watched our hapless Eagles gave the poor bird a bad name by merely going through the motions. In the end, we were actually out of the picture until Tunisia committed inexplicable suicide in Maputo on the last day of qualifying matches. When we staggered into Angola, we were only expected to simply avoid picking up the wooden spoon; so, in the end, the bronze flattered us.
But all that is history now. What matters is that the Super Eagles, in less than four months, will walk out the tunnel of Ellis Park Stadium Johannesburg into the field of play at the first World Cup on African soil. But who is taking us there? Who is likely to prepare us better for a respectable outing and bring back discipline and belief to the national team? Who would commit to building a solid base for a brighter future for Nigerian football?
Of late, the Egyptian coach, Hassan Shehata has dominated the speculation pages, but from very knowledgeable sources, things have moved farther afield. Three candidates are reported to have now made the shortlist – the itinerant Frenchman, Bruno Metsu; the not-so-impressive Serbian, Ratomir Dujkovic and the solid Swede, Lars Lagerback. If this indeed is the list of possible appointees, I make bold to say that the obvious choice would be Lars Lagerback.
Of course, the other two are very familiar with Africa. Bruno Metsu who first took charge of the Guinea national team in 2000 was the French coach of the Senegalese Lions when they had that amazing World Cup quarter-finals run in Japan/Korea in 2002 after getting to the final of the 2002 African Cup of Nations. Metsu was lucky to have come along when Senegal produced its golden generation of footballers – Lamine Diatta, Aliou Cisse, Salif Diao, El Hadji Diouf, Ferdinand Coly, Tony Sylva, Khalilou Fadiga, amongst others.
Ratomir Dujkovic was the Serbian who in 2004 took Rwanda to the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. However, his more high-profile job in Africa was taking charge of the Ghana Black Stars and taking them to their first World Cup in Germany in 2006. Like Metsu, he was also lucky to inherit a crop of very good players in the Ghanaian national team who were keen on the revival of the fortunes of the national team – players such as Michael Essien, Sule Muntari, Sammy Kuffour, Stephen Appiah, etc. They made the last 16 in Germany before being totally outclassed by Brazil in a 3-0 win.
The key problem with Metsu and Dujkovic is ironically their history in Africa. Both of them left Senegal and Ghana respectively in murky circumstances. Metsu wanted to go take another job at Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates and do the Senegal job part-time, which clearly showed his lack of respect for what he achieved with the Dakar Lions and his essential lack of vision for the promising team’s future. Of course, the Senegalese Football Federation refused such an insulting proposition and he left in a huff to the Middle East where he’s been coaching a number of clubs and national teams, the latest being Qatar.
While Metsu’s talent as a coach may not be in doubt, it’s worth pointing out that coaching in the Middle East is hardly a step up from Senegal. He had hoped to get a call from some big European club, but that call never came. In the meantime, he has garnered a reputation, perhaps unfairly, as someone who is in football just for the money. And, frankly, when you consider that he has breezed through five coaching jobs since leaving Senegal, it is difficult to see him as someone who believes in a project and sees it through.
Dujkovic left Rwanda in acrimonious circumstances and Ghana in even more acrimonious circumstances when he, like Metsu, was angling to take up another job when he was still at the Ghana job. When the Ghana Football Association, the press and the public questioned this, he resigned for “health” reasons only to run into another job in China a few weeks later. Basically, these two guys have not given people reasons not to believe that they were in African football just for the money. The relative success they achieved was in spite of them. We simply have to err on the side of caution. Nigeria should not make herself another victim.
Lars Lagerback is the kind of coach/manager Nigeria needs now. Lagerback is Scandinavia’s most successful national coach in history. He was with the Swedish Football Association for 19 years up till October last year. But even after resigning his post following Sweden’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, which marked the end of one of the most remarkable major championships qualifications streak in history, the Swedish FA still would not let him go, as they continue to engage him in some football-elder-statesman capacity at the national level.
Lagerback changed the narrow, one-dimensional nature of Swedish Football by adopting exactly the kind of tactics that Nigerian football used to be renowned for and looking for players far and near to do the job. He developed an unconventional wing play and fast attack system that depended on moving the ball very quickly from the back. Lagerback’s team are big on strength and athleticism, height at the back and players’ capacity to read matches. As a teacher of the game, he trained players not only on what they have to do when they have the ball, but also what they have to do without the ball. The Swedish teams under him were reputed to be some with the best team spirit in Europe. Though he always had a rash of star names to call on, some of whom he groomed from very early – Henrik Larsson, Fredrik Ljungberg, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Olof Melberg and Johan Elmander and so on, the vast majority of his teams were made up of journeymen who punched above their weight as a team, because of the belief he instilled in them. Discipline has always been the cornerstone of his success and he has been known not to hesitate to bring some big names down a peg or two, even though most of them regard him not only as their coach, but as a father figure.
At 61, Lagerback sees the Super Eagles as a challenge worth taking. Both parties will certainly gain from each other. Our problem is not that we lack the football talent; our problem is that we lack a figure that can instil discipline in these players and make them look up to him as someone they can respect and play for. Lagerback’s unassuming, firm and quiet nobility will suit the Eagles fine. As an accomplished teacher of the game, he would be the ideal candidate to bank on to rebuild Nigerian football root and branch. South Africa is a short-term project. The main thing is to have someone there who can scout for new talents, teach them the game and build a vibrant national team to replace the aging one there now. Lagerback who has been a player, scout, coach, trainer and manager of a stable and dynamic national team for many years is the ideal candidate for the job. He is a proven team player who had no problem being a co-national coach with Tommy Soderberg with whom he has a great relationship. His ego has never been in the way in his relationship with football administrators in Sweden or at UEFA where he remains one of the most consulted coaches. The man who with little resources brought life back into Swedish Football can always be trusted to do better with resource-rich Nigeria. He is our man.
PS: Just before going to press, I heard the rumour that Glen Hoddle, the former England manager is throwing his hat in the ring. If we are interested in fortune-tellers choosing our national team, disabled supporters being told that their disability is a result of some sins in a previous life or a totally dysfunctional national team that would need round the clock psychiatrists’ attention, then he is our man.