Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Beyond Egypt and Nations Cup

One of the things that we now know is that the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) does not learn from history nor does it learn from data. One can only hope that NFF’s attitude towards history and data changes, particularly in an era of the much-vaunted “capacity building.” Perhaps, “capacity building” will include NFF building its own capacity to utilize data and plan with data in mind. Following the defeat in Alexandria and Nigeria’s elimination from the Cup for African Nations (CAN), it is important to point to a few things that make a difference in whether or not the Nigerian national team is often successful.

An explanation for Nigeria’s biggest successes come from long term planning and sustained work by coaches appointed to lead the full national team. While it is clear that some of the nation’s problem transcends coaching or technical management, there is an aspect of that problem that is attributable to the team’s lack of sustainable technical management. These problems are not easily solved by merely appointing a foreign coach as the current noise for appointment of foreign coaches argue. Instead, it comes from the willingness of the NFF to allow the coach, local or foreign, to work independently and with support and not sabotage as was the case during the tail end of Keshi and then Oliseh’s tenure. Further, the NFF has to allow the coach time to build a very competitive team as demonstrated under Westerhoff and then Stephen Keshi when Nigeria not only won the CAN but on each occasion reached the elimination round of the FIFA World Cup.

There is already a growing cry to sack Samson Siasia, whereas the more logical decision is to keep him since the qualification for the 2018 World Cup is around the corner. Siasia has demonstrated his ability with the Olympic team back in 2012 and with the U20 team and there is no major reason to discard him because of Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the 2017 CAN. After all, as you look at the data on Table below the coaches who were appointed just before a major tournament, local or foreign coach, have usually performed poorly for Nigeria at least in the last 10 years. Such appointments are quick trigger actions that explain Nigeria’s inability to perform to potential in major tournaments. The table shows, with two explainable exceptions, that coaches appointment less than 12 months before a tournament are likely to perform poorly. That exception is Eguavoen’s appointment in July 2005. However, Eguavoen, though new as head coach, had already served on the prior coaching crew for over a year. In essence, he knew the players and he knew what to work on. The other exception is Keshi’s failure in the CAN qualifiers for 2015. Again, this can be explained as the NFF was publicly working against the head coach whom they saw as acquiring more power than the NFF. The NFF sabotage of the coach’s efforts included removing his staff, forcing him to pay others from his wages, reportedly renting a protest crowd in one of the games, and firing and then reinstating him, among other measures. In essence they created a disabling environment for the coach that most likely affected the on-field product.

POINTS: World Cup: Winner (22), Finalist (20), Third (18), Fourth (16), Quarterfinalist (14), Second Round (10), Group (2). Note Lagerback earns 0 points as he did not qualify the team for the World Cup. CAN: Winner (12), Finalist (10), Third (8), Fourth (6), quarterfinalist (4), Group (2). CHAN: Winner (8), Finalist (6), Third (5), Fourth (4), quarterfinalist (3), Group (2).

Therefore, I argue that staying with Siasia is more likely to give Nigeria and its current team a better chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup finals. Watching the match in Egypt it is easy to observe how the Egyptian team appeared superior in tactically countering the Nigerian team. This perhaps denotes the fact that the Coach, Samson Siasia, needs more time to apply his tactics and ensure its adoption by his team. He had less than a week to work with the team and that is certainly not enough time to counter a competitive Egyptian team that had months of tutelage under Hector Cuper. Yet, Siasia’s team showed enough signs of competitiveness to promise a better future. The upcoming June international window could be used to play multiple international friendlies in preparation for the World Cup qualifiers that begin early in October. The same can be done during the September window when Nigeria will also play its last and meaningless CAN qualifier against Tanzania.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Alexandria: All or Nothing.....

Nigeria's game against Egypt away in Alexandria on tuesday is now all or nothing. The sudden withdrawal of Chad over the weekend, eliminated the chance for a second placed team qualifying for the 2017 Cup of African Nations (CAN) finals from Group G. Nigeria must NOW WIN in Alexandria to reach the CAN finals. Anything but victory, virtually eliminates Nigeria. Surely,  and mathematically, a draw can still get Nigeria through but it means Nigeria must hope Tanzania beats Egypt and that Nigeria wins big against Tanzania. Those possibilities are slim. The surest route, therefore, is a win in Alexandria.

Nigeria will miss the service of starting goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme, on Tuesday. He will be one of a few projected regulars absent from this encounter. However, when Nigeria's skipper Mikel Obi walks into Alexandria Tuesday the focus will not be on those absent but on those present and ready to win the game. Mikel is without a win as captain of Nigeria after losing in his first two captainship -- 1-3 to Argentina in 2011 (Friendly) and the 1-1 draw v Egypt on Friday. He has to win this time or there will be no 2017 Nations Cup dream for Nigeria. Shortly after the friday 1-1 tie with Egypt, Mikel issued what amounted to a battle cry for his players to buckle up and prepare for an Alexandria victory. The Nigerian nation now clings on that hope.

To be certain, tuesday's game will not be for the faint-hearted. The string of flare of hope is that Nigeria goes into this game knowing that its team has often delivered away from home when faced with seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. In 2001, faced with difficulties in its World Cup qualifying group, Nigeria went to Omdurman to trounce its host Sudan 4-0 for a team away record. In 2005, after a 1-1 draw at home against Angola in a World Cup/CAN qualifier, Nigeria fired the coach but went to Algeria to stun their host 5-2 and revive hopes of qualification. In 2009, Nigeria needed an away win in Nairobi to reach the World Cup finals and it produced it with a 3-2 victory. On Tuesday, Nigeria faces such a huge test this time in Alexandria, Egypt.

However, this is Nigeria's stiffest test yet. Nigeria has never won a game in Egypt and has not even earned a tie against Egypt away from home. Yet, Nigeria must win tuesday to keep CAN qualification alive. It will be difficult but Nigeria is capable of doing it for history and posterity. 

Weather in Alexandria: 59-62  degrees Fahrenheit and Sunny.

Game Time: 7:00p.m.

Referee: Daniel Bennett (South Africa).

Friday, March 25, 2016

Nigeria's Chance Narrows………...

A 1-1 tie today in Kaduna is a very disappointing result for Nigeria and puts Egypt firmly in the driver’s seat to reach the 2017 Cup for African Nations (CAN). Though Nigeria still has opportunity to finish first and qualify automatically or accumulate enough points to qualify as a second-placed team, those opportunities narrowed significantly today.

This was a game in which Nigeria launched wave after wave of attacks and led by an all-important one goal until a poor defensive awareness by Amuzie cost Nigeria the three points. Egypt to be sure had a very good tactical plan and perhaps deserved the tie because in spite of Nigeria’s waves of attack, Egypt was largely successful in limiting Nigeria to few clear opportunities in front of goal. Moreover, Egypt was always dangerous in quick counters as had been anticipated. Even with a goal down, Egypt did not appear ready to attack with all it had. That apparently is reserved for Tuesday’s return in Alexandria. Instead, with a goal down, Egypt played cautiously. They did change the point of pressure by setting it up higher than it was previously but still cautiously in defense.

Nigeria’s failure to wrap the game up probably ended up costing Nigeria the all-important win. Particularly sad for Nigeria was Egypt’s superb defensive work in the 83rd minute that prevented Victor Moses’ effort from crossing the line after Moses had sped past the onrushing goalkeeper. Below is the player ratings.


Carl Ikeme (1) – 6.2 – Did not do much but was very assured when he was called upon.

Abdullahi Shehu (13) – 6.0 – Average but did join the attack and had one second half cross that was not up to scratch.

Stanley Amuzie (6) – 6.1 – Did play reasonably well but his error of being inattentive in the crucial dying minutes with only a goal advantage cost Nigeria dearly.

Ambrose Efe (5) – 6.0 – Was average and did not quite dominate the aerial balls as one would have expected.

Godfrey Oboabona (2) – 6.0 – Another average day. Nothing special and was not tasked as Egypt rarely had the numbers in attack.

Mikel Obi (10 – cpt) – 6.1 – Had an average game compared to what is often expected of him. However, he did have the attention of the Egyptians in the midfield. He orchestrated the use of long balls in the opening half but most of those were way ward.

Etebor Oghenekaro (4) – 6.3 – Was ever present doing a lot of work in the midfield and eventually the ball fell to him for Nigeria’s goal. Will surely retain his spot in the Alexandria game.

Kelechi Iheanacho (8) – 5.8 – Below average performance. Lost a few balls and was largely quiet. However, he struck a good ball in the dying minutes of the opening half that looked like it will be Nigeria’s first goal.

Ahmed Musa (7) – 6.3 – Was busy and created uncomfortable moments for Egypt’s defense. It appeared that the decision to substitute him was that he appeared to be tiring reflected in one particularly poor cross just before he was hauled.

Odion Ighalo (9) – 6.0 – Ighalo had his chances. He failed to take them well but he was a point of concern for Egypt in the game. A particularly poor miss came late in the opening half.

Moses Simon (15) – 6.8 – In my opinion, Nigeria’s best player. He created problems throughout his time on the field until he was replaced. However, his set-pieces did not work today.

Umar Aminu (12) – 6.0 – Average and appeared to fade as the half went along.

Victor Moses (11) – 6.1 – He was lively when he came on and was unlucky not to have scored after Egypt cleared his shot from the line.

Alex Iwobi (18) – X – Not enough time to rate.

Coaching Crew – The crew played a high risk game that almost paid off but did create panic for Nigerians when Egypt attacked. The crew will likely face questions on why Nigeria’s must dangerous attackers – Simon and Musa were pulled off with only a 1-0 lead.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

2017 Nations Cup Qualification: Nigeria Confronts Egypt

Nigeria's qualification for the 2017 Cup for African Nations (CAN) hangs in the balance in two games against Egypt scheduled for Nigeria on March 25 and Cairo, Egypt on March 29. Egypt is currently in the driver's seat with two points in front of Nigeria. The team that finishes first qualifies automatically and the second placed team may well be out of contention even before the last phase of the qualifiers in September. Both teams failed to qualify for the finals of the last competition in 2015 and yet it is a competition where both countries are among a few elite teams over the years (see Graph). That underlines the importance of the two matches against Egypt.

Decoding the Graph
The graph below is based on 12 points for winning the CAN, 10 for second place, 8 for third, 6 for 4th, 4 for quarter-finalist, and 2 for group elimination. Zero applies to year of non-qualification.

The head to head result between both teams stand at 6-6-6 (Wins-Ties-Losses). However, eight of those games were played on neutral venues. What then is important is the home-away records between the two. After all, the CAN qualifying contests between the two are based on a home-away format. At home, Nigeria has a 4-3-1 record over Egypt but is 0-0-2 away in Egypt, all time.

In any case, with Egypt's record of earning maximum points in its two games so far in the qualifiers for 2017 CAN, Egypt appears well ahead of Nigeria in preparations. That may be so, but Nigeria definitely can be back in serious contention if it can take four of the six points available against Egypt in the two games. It is a tall order but it is not unrealistic. Egypt has won all its games but two since Argentine Hector Cuper was appointed coach early in 2015. The two losses? away to Chad in a World Cup qualifier and then at home in a friendly against Jordan in January. That certainly are not results that would make any powerful football nation in Africa to shiver in fear. Then, analyzing Egypt's wins so far only two -- a beat down of Zambia in a friendly and a 5-1 away pasting of Chad -- should worry any top team in Africa. In essence, Egypt has not done anything that was unanticipated or monstrous. In fact, one can argue that beyond the Zambian beat down, Egypt has not played against a national team worthy of note in Africa under Cuper's helm.

But the same thing could be said about Nigeria in recent time. Worse still, while Nigeria is still rebuilding its team, Cuper has largely settled on a team built with home-based talent that has had far more hours training together. Cuper has largely depended on four to five foreign-based players -- Mohammed Salah (AS Roma), Mohammed El-Neny (Arsenal), Ahmed "Koka" Hassan (SC Braga), Amr Warda (Panetolikos), and left back from Ahli Jeddah (Mohammed Abdel-Shafy). However, for the Nigerian games, Cuper has dropped Mohammed Abdel-Shafy and invited Mahmoud "Trezeguet" Hassan from Anderlecht. In Cuper's work, he has discovered a young gem that has been described as future of Egyptian football in 21 year-old Mostafa Fathi (AC Zamalek) who's left-footed dribbling skills have been amazing. However, Fathi is also out of the two Nigerian games because of injuries.

For Nigeria, it remains unclear whether or not it has solved several holes in its team. Nigeria now has a reliable striker at its disposal in Jude Ighalo (Watford) and its team's conversion of set-piece opportunities is also notable. The challenge will be in controlling the midfield where Egypt is likely to be massed, at least in the first leg in Nigeria. Nigeria's penchant for playing a 4-3-3 may well be nulled via a 4-5-1 that Egypt may use particularly in the Kaduna game. Further, the speed advantage that Nigeria has wide with Simon and Musa will be tactically nullified by Cuper's team.

Thus, Nigeria must seek other ways to get around the Egyptians, particularly at home where Nigeria must win to keep hope alive for qualification. It is easy to look at recent results achieved by both teams and conclude that Egypt has an edge. However, Nigeria is a team capable of standing up to any of the top African teams and there is nothing in Egypt's recent results to indicate that it can be considered, without doubt, a top African team. It is far more likely that Nigeria will dictate the pace of the Kaduna game and use the weather and  home support to its advantage. Getting an early lead should do wonders for Nigeria and a good start in Kaduna will put the team in the right psychological frame to take four points from the two fixtures.

Game day weather: 33 degrees C (91 degrees F/hot) but chance of precipitation is 43% just before game time. See weather forecast for Kaduna.

Match Officials: Referee Janny Sikazwe (Zambia) with linesmen from Zambia and Mozambique.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Can Pinnick take the Proverbial "Bull by the Horns"?

In recent weeks it has become clear that the real story for Nigeria's football is not about the resignation of the national team coach Sunday Oliseh nor the fact that the country's legislative house announced its intentions to open a hearing on football. 

In reality, the story is about the opportunity for Nigeria's football to bid for its independence from government stranglehold. What remains is whether in fact the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), led by its President Amaju Pinnick, is able to come to that realization and take the "Bull by its horns."

I had the opportunity, with several colleagues from the Nigerian Soccer League (NSL) in the Washington, DC Metro, to meet Mr. Pinnick in person a few weeks ago. One thing he said was remarkable. It was that with sponsorship, Nigeria's football can gain its independence from government control. Yet, now he is faced with the opportunity to seek that independence. If he does not know yet, here are just a few of the signs:

*Pinnick laments about approval of N1.2 billion from a proposed budget of N7.3 billion.

*National team coaches and players owed wages and bonuses.

*The national team can no longer fly by charter plane.

No Longer Business as Usual

It is clear from the NFF's budget and the pronouncements from Nigeria's ruling regime, that business is no longer as usual. The NFF must now realize that it must cut its budget to a size that it can afford under the new situation. It must make the difficult choices. Should it continue to participate in all possible tournaments like Beach football and even the CHAN? That is up to Amaju Pinnick. The fact is that he needs to make DIFFICULT CHOICES. The point is that not all those footballing competitions are massively supported by Nigerians. To participate in them, he should seek that such participation is based on 100% sponsorship by those who really care and not spend the limited government funding on some of those competitions. If he can find sponsors for what he promotes as "capacity building," then surely he may be able to find sponsorship for some of the sports.

Then he must ask: "Why can't the Super Eagles pay for its own competitions and activities?" The Super Eagles earn funds from several competitions including the World Cup and the Super Eagles represent the leader of the Nigerian brand. If the Super Eagles cannot attract major sponsors, which other Nigerian team can? The point here is that Super Eagles can certainly be marketed to raise its own funds and no longer depend on government budget. Its activities must be fully commodified.

Women and Youth Football

What should be left to government budget should be women and youth football. The government, particularly, must budget for youth football if its expressed goal remains youth development. A key part of that development is football through NFF's organization.

NFF Must Dream and Imagine

If it is a dream, then NFF needs dreamers. 

I was heartened by a recent ESPN article by Colin Udoh that analyzed the finances of the local league. I was impressed. Perhaps, the achievement of that league is a road map for the larger NFF. Mr. Udoh noted that a club like Enyimba earned N80 million from the league alone in an environment where the league administrator, Mr. Shehu Dikko, has claimed that at least N200 million is required to financially manage a club annually. In Udoh's analysis, he does not include initiatives by the club such as shirt sponsorship, merchandise sponsorship, and then earned player transfer fees! The point is clear, a club like Enyimba can depend largely on its own funds and not that of the government. Now, the NFF must begin to think along those lines as well.

While some may think that the above is a mere dream, one hopes that Mr. Pinnick and his team are willing to be dreamers, they must be able to imagine that day of independence because it is here and now. They must grab that bull by its horns.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Quandary: Kaduna as host city and the Nigerian Record

In the last few weeks, the tumult within Nigeria's football was enough to force out Coach Sunday Oliseh and bring back Samson Siasia to a position that he last held in 2011. One of the issues that triggered Oliseh's clash with Nigeria's Football Federation was the issue of a host city for the all important Cup for African Nations (CAN) qualifier against Egypt. While Oliseh preferred Port Harcourt, the NFF decided on Kaduna.

There is belief that hosting games in Nigeria's Northern cities, such as Kaduna, has not produced good results for Nigeria's Super Eagles. Most Nigerians would not prefer Port Harcourt either but in relative terms, they will likely select Port Harcourt over Kaduna. Ultimately, Nigerians believe that the best host city is Lagos and that a return to Lagos will be a return to winning home games. But is this really true? Is it just a myth or is there data to support such claims? Answers to those questions are provided here.

To be clear, Nigeria's home game against Egypt in late March is critical as Nigeria trails Egypt by two points in a group where only the group winner is assured of a place at the 2017 Cup of African Nations (CAN). In this blog, we look at the records to assess how Nigeria has done hosting games in Kaduna and find out if perceived performance in Lagos just a myth?

First, we compare efficiency scores from all games hosted by each city in Nigeria across all times and then in the last decade (2005 and after). Only cities with atleast three games are used in this calculation.  Efficiency scores are calculated from total points obtained in such games (a win has 3 points, a draw 1 point, and 0 for a loss) divided by maximum possible points from such games.

First, we note that Nigeria has hosted games in 13 cities across the country but three of such cities (Abeokuta, Bauchi, and Warri) have hosted less than three games each and are not used in our calculations of efficiency scores (see Table 1). Note also that we do not include Lagos for calculations in the last 10 years since Lagos has hosted just one game during that period!

Across All Times
Across all times, Port Harcourt has the best efficiency score of 1.00 in 8 games. Though Enugu also has an efficiency score of 1.00, it has hosted just three games (see Graph 1). The surprise result is comparing Lagos and Abuja, two cities that have hosted the most games. Abuja, it turns out, has a better efficiency score (0.88) compared to Lagos (0.77). This definitely flies in the face of the general belief in Nigeria where Lagos is largely believed to bring better results than Abuja. Though Ibadan has an efficiency score (0.82), compared to both Abuja and Lagos, it has not hosted a game that Nigeria lost at home in spite of the fact that Nigeria has played 11 games there. Also, Nigeria has neither drawn or lost in Port Harcourt and Enugu.

In the Last Decade
Graph 2 shows efficiency scores for the last 10 years i.e. since 2005. Port Harcourt and Kaduna have 1.00 Efficiency scores each to lead all host cities. Uyo's record is the poorest at 0.56 Efficiency score. In essence, this points to Kaduna as being a favorable home ground for Nigeria in recent time.

Competitive Games Only
Here, we use all time efficiency scores only because very few cities would be eligible if we are to use results from the last ten years. In fact, only Abuja, Calabar, and Port-Harcourt qualify if we are to use efficiency scores in the last 10 years. Please see Graph 3 for the data. Port Harcourt has the best efficiency scores (1.00) in competitive games. Enugu has same efficiency scores but in less games. Surprisingly, Abuja follows with 0.91. Nigeria is unbeaten in a competitive game in Abuja. The only loss was 0-3 in an international friendly against Brazil. The efficiency scores for competitive games in Lagos ranks fifth (0.81) behind, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Abuja, and Ibadan (0.85). Again, this raises doubt about the myth of Lagos as best home ground for Nigeria.

So What About Kaduna?
The game against Egypt in March is a competitive game but it will be the third such game ever hosted by Kaduna. Currently, Kaduna is 1-1-0 (Won-Drew-Lost) in hosting competitive games but has provided a winning venue for the only competitive game played there by Nigeria in the last ten years. It seems clearly that Kaduna has not done significantly worse than other Nigerian cities serving as host for Nigeria's game. It certainly is much better than cities like Benin and Uyo in hosting Nigeria's games.