Tuesday, June 26, 2018

World Cup 2018: What We Learned As the Curtain Closed

NIGERIA 1 ARGENTINA 2

When Argentina's Rojo rifled an 86th minute shot off a cross and beyond Nigeria to signal Nigeria's elimination from the 2018 World Cup, it forced a lot of thinking. Nigeria was less than 10 minutes away from an appearance in the Round of 16 and the boys had fought so hard for hope to evaporate at that very moment. That many Nigerian players sunk to the turf, after the inevitable final whistle to their World Cup, underlined how much they had wanted to do for their country. In the end, I cannot fault any one of those boys who fought for glory in that important game against Argentina.

For the first time in our regular meetings with Argentina in the World Cup, Nigeria held its own and was denied at the last moment and would also relive the fact that two penalty appeals against Argentina went to nought. There are those who would analyze the game ad infinitum and claim that tactical superiority decided this game. I certainly resist that thinking and ask you to read this. Games aren't always determined by tactics. This was a game of inches and chances and it was decided by variables beyond mere tactics.

Nevertheless, there will be those who point accusing fingers at Gernot Rohr, those who criticize Omeruo for Messi's goal, those who will call for Victor Moses to be axed over the Rojo goal, those who think that Uzoho should have saved both goals, and inevitably those that feel one flew over the cuckoo's nest in the believe that those who were not there (The Onyekurus, Aina, and others) would have saved the day. The reality is that all that demonstrate mere frustration and nothing more. The fact is Nigeria lost the game that it could have won if things had fallen a bit differently in this game of chances and inches. For me, it underlines the difficulty of getting past the barriers at the World Cup and against the traditional big teams. Ask Sweden after its loss to Germany, ask Costa Rica after the Brazil come back, and there will be additional teams to ask before this World Cup is over. It is a tough mountain to climb.

Although it was the third elimination for Nigeria at the group phase of a World Cup, there are several important things that we learned from this particular appearance. Here they are:

1. That Nigeria Can Compete At this Level: While we saw the 1994 team turn heads in Nigeria's inaugural at a World Cup, the 2018 version showed a team that could compete with the best. It may appear ridiculous to make this statement after the team failed to progress beyond the group phase. However, this team was indeed capable of doing more if it only had overcome a determined Argentine team. It had a squad that was built to be strong across the list of positions and players and these were the players who appear regularly in the elite leagues of Europe. Yet they had the heart and belief. That is always important.

2.  Time to Rethink Coaching Tenure: For years, my view has been to avoid the firing of coaches at every slip in competition. Surely, there will be demands for the coaching crew to be let go and this will be the song as the federation election approaches. However, I continue to believe that Nigeria will do much better by granting our coaches longer tenure to blood talents rather than the current tendency to fire at every loss. Yes, this coaching crew has been quite conservative but it has also shown that it can make drastic changes to move the team forward. All it has to change is to act quicker that it currently does.

3.  Nigeria Can Build A Stronger Team Going Forward: There are several youngsters waiting to break into this team. They include Taiwo Awoniyi and Sadiq Umar. Then we have those who barely missed the cut to this World Cup including Ola Aina and Henry Onyekuru. These youngsters are likely to play bigger roles in the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). They  represent the future and one hopes that the coach can begin to blend them into the team with the likes of Echiejile headed for the exit after a long and fruitful career. The status of skipper Mikel Obi is unknown at this point but his future replacement should be in the pipeline if Iwobi isn't that guy.

4.  Musa's Pace Matters: For months and even years, Ahmed Musa has borne the height of criticism on this team. However, Musa's pace is excruciating that it provides great advantages to the team when space is available. He was unplayable in the Iceland game and he gave Argentina fits as he did four years ago. This guy is an asset and maybe Nigeria's most dangerous forward when he comes to play. That should now be recognized by those, in the Nigerian media, who had resolutely denied Musa's impact.

5.  Uzoho Arrives: For months, we had all wondered about Nigeria's goalkeeping with Ikeme ailing in the hospital. That the coaching crew made the point to use Francis Uzoho was shocking at some level. However, the coaching crew provided Uzoho with coaching support that paid off at the World Cup. Uzoho is definitely a major piece of the team going forward. His control in the air is a major welcome.

6.  Administrative Organization is Possible: This was a peaceful preparation to the World Cup. The international friendlies came off as planned, the players were paid, and the team had good media publicity about its preparation going into the World Cup. That is definitely alien to a Nigerian team before a World Cup. No fights between players and administrators! So, such efficient and effective organization is possible? One hopes that this marks the beginning of such organization going forward.