The applause has died off. The 2013 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) Nigeria team have played themselves into the annals of history. However, there are timeless lessons to be gleaned from the performance and attitudes of the Super Eagles coach and players. Here are ten of the most pertinent lessons.
1. Stand your ground. When Keshi submitted his list of players, he was roundly lampooned for the list of players he came up with. The big name, perennial stalwarts were absent. Six of the players he selected played in the lackluster local league. Keshi and his team were written off even before the games began. It is easier to swim in the direction in which a stream flows – but sometimes, true progress can only come by taking a stand that goes against the common grain. Stand your ground, when you believe your reasoning is sound, and your cause is right.
2. Focus on your weakness. Your strengths are already solid. It is your weakness that makes victory elusive. Nigeria’s problem at the nation’s cup has never been a lack of individual skills. It has been the inability to forge team unity and cohesion, and the lack of a genuine hunger for greatness. Keshi’s team had cohesion in abundance, and it is not accidental that this is the first Nigerian team in decades that did not implode with infighting and conflict at AFCON. It probably helped that the team was written off before the games even began, which forced them to bond ever more tightly. It also helped that players with outsized egos were not called up. The scorned team’s desire to prove themselves spurred them on to greatness.
3. Stay the course. At the start of the tournament, the Nigerian team conceded a last minute goal to Burkina Faso, struggled against Zambia, and needed penalties to overcome Ethiopia. By the fourth game against Cote D’Ivoire, it all started to come together. They started to click at just the right time. It was not accidental. The errors of the early games were important learning opportunities for the later games. The pre-tournament training in Portugal had helped bring the team together. Being written off gave them a hunger to succeed. It took some time for all the elements to come together. Heated metal in a blacksmith’s forge first appears to be untouched by the searing flames – and then suddenly, it yields, and starts to flow. Stay the course. Don’t give up before your situation yields – like metal in the forge.
4. Have a Plan, but be ready to modify it as needed. Nigeria played free flowing, attacking football throughout the tournament. That basic strategy never changed. Against Mali, there was a slight modification. Keshi asked the team to speed the game up further. Why? Because the Mali defenders lacked pace. The plan had worked up to that game, but to succeed, even good plans might need to be changed or modified. Plans are not developed in a vacuum, and he best plans are adaptable, taking cues from the field of play, and responding to them.
5. Solutions lie around us. The Yoruba often say that “what you are looking for in Sokoto (a City) is in your Sokoto (your pants)”. Mba, Oboabona, Uzoenyi, Gabriel, Agbim and Egwueke play in the Nigerian league. Fittingly, it was Mba’s goal that won the trophy for Nigeria. Look around you. What you need to succeed might be closer than you think.
6. Adversity can be turned to strength. Adversity can break you or make you. The choice for how to respond to adversity is entirely yours. In 2002, Victor Moses was an 11 year old boy mourning the killing of his parents in religious riots in Kaduna. In 2013, he was helping his native country win a trophy that had been elusive for 19 years. The experience of seeing one’s parents murdered will break even the strongest amongst us. The idea that the boy so grieved would ever agree to lace up boots for the nation that failed him, is incredible. Moses believes his parents “look down on him” when he plays. Moses has turned his personal tragedy into great strength. He can play anywhere in the world, and be sure that he has loved ones looking on, applauding his every move. Has your personal tragedy or failing kept you down? Look for the silver lining in your cloud!
7. No vision, No progress. You must want it to have it. Those who have outstanding success have the ability to picture exactly what they hope for, and to hold on to that vision – even if no one else believes in their dream. Here are Keshi’s words: “I told the Togolese people we would qualify for the World Cup and they didn’t believe. I told my captain (Joseph Yobo) that we were coming to South Africa to win the cup, but he also didn’t believe.” Everything starts with the vision. When your goal is to win, it makes you get the right players in place, it makes you emphasize training and hard work. Have you determined what success looks like to you? It doesn’t matter whether others buy into it at first.
8. Acknowledge God’s Grace. Yes the Nigerian team practiced hard, but so did many others before them who failed. Yes, the team was full of talent. But there have been more talented teams that failed to win the ultimate prize. Ultimately, there is an element of God’s grace and providence in every triumph. That knowledge keeps us grounded, and stops us from getting swollen headed.
9. Meritocracy pays dividends. Once upon a time, the composition of the Nigerian football team could be predicted a full year in advance. The players that were called up – the big boys, as they were called – felt entitled. It didn’t matter if they had sat on the bench all season at their clubs. The result of that approach speaks for itself – 19 years of failure at the continental level. In Nigeria’s political life, ethnic balancing and strident nepotism has eroded a once stellar culture of achievement. Where merit is not allowed to reign, failure inevitably follows. Allowing merit to prevail might mean every player comes from the same village. It might mean having 6 local players in the team. It might mean dropping some “big-boys”. One thing is certain – failure is a stranger where merit reigns.
10. Don’t change your friends too quickly. Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. When you are successful, the whole world suddenly wants a piece of you. Always remember though, that those who now hail and acclaim you as a “Super Eagle” in your moment of success will be the same ones who will rail at you and call you “Super Chicken” when failure comes knocking. Appreciate those who stood by you when the going was tough. They are your true friends.