Sure, the African Nations Championship (CHAN) does not have the profile of the Cup of African Nations (CAN) but the reality is that the former has remained elusive to Nigeria since the competition began in 2009. The Confederation for African Football (CAF) had introduced the CHAN and restricted it to only players playing for clubs in their respective home countries. It was a response to the increasing use of oversea-professional players in the CAN and the need to increase interest in the locally-based players.
Nigeria, in spite of its rich pool of oversea-based players in the national team and the significant migration of its players oversea was still expected to qualify for the CHAN on a regular basis. After all, Nigerian clubs have continued to do reasonably well in continental competitions without most of those oversea-based players. Unfortunately, Nigeria never has reached the finals of the CHAN and had lost, in one year, to the lowly regarded Niger Republic Menas. It was a source of concern.
For the 2014 CHAN, however, Nigeria has radically changed its approach to the competition and it appears that the change would see the country reach its first CHAN finals. There are three key changes to Nigeria's strategy and I list them as follows: 1) use of longterm camping of the team, 2) providing opportunities for locally-based players to play with the A squad of the national team, and 3) ensuring that one coach is responsible for both the A squad and the CHAN squad.
There is no effective substitute to long term planning, that much is clear. Nigeria's two previous failed attempts to reach the CHAN finals could be attributed to short term planning where players were hastily assembled just before the qualifiers. Result was failure even against the likes of Niger Republic. The difference this time around is a long term plan where the coaches have consistently camped the locally based players and developed them by building chemistry via several exhibition games and training with the A squad. The returns include building team chemistry and building player confidence.
The second key point is that opportunities have been provided to locally based players to play for the A squad. That has also provided results with some of those players moving into the A squad including Godfrey Oboabona, Sunday Mba, and Azubike Egwuekwe. Additionally, two players who began as locally based players -- Reuben Gabriel and Ejike Uzoenyi -- broke into the A squad before leaving to join foreign clubs. This is a far cry from years ago when no player was seen as good enough to train with the A squad, let alone make the squad. This in turn has been responsible for building the confidence of the locally based players and enhanced Nigeria's chancing of qualifying for the CHAN finals.
Finally, this is the first time that the National Team A coach has been given the responsibility of managing the CHAN squad. This has appeared successful as it is much easier to move the local players to opportunities with the A squad under a single national coach than to hope that an A squad coach would be willing to select some of his players from a local squad coached by another coach. More important, under a single coach the team tactics and teaching is more likely to be the same than under two different coaches that may have different ideas of how the team should play.
While it is true that we cannot confirm Nigeria's qualification to the CHAN until Nigeria plays away against Ivory Coast, we are reasonably confident that Nigeria should qualify. Qualification ultimately will confirm that the rethinking in the way to build a CHAN squad has been bold and successful.