Monday, July 16, 2018

Swag vs Everything Else My reflection on Nigeria vs Argentina.

By Aham Onyike (GUEST)

From Russia --- Crazy, but somehow by pure random chance, Nigeria and Argentina are in the same World Cup opening round group five times including the last four World Cups. The group seeding is by public lottery so there’s no easy collusion. It is more likely that it is divine intervention, particularly considering that one of our main attributes has become prayer warrior-ing. Along those suggestions of celestial influence, the question arises. Why even with prayers asking for blessings we keep getting Argentina in our group? Which kin blessing be dat? Maybe it’s because we have had belief in praying to win the World Cup since our 1985 U-17 World Cup triumph in China. That victory made us believers , which is the first step in the response from the Almighty. Those boys were supposed to graduate to the senior team and repeat their accomplishments at subsequent levels. Heaven is maybe telling us that we should focus on beating Argentina. And when we can overtake Argentina, hey. It’s wide open from there. We have had five chances to study them and defeat them. But we have lost all five times. I have been at four of the games. Hung out and kicked it with Argentinian fans, journalists, aspiring players, former players, among others. It provides insight on how they do it. Of course, same insight with our own Naija FA peeps and how we don't. 


So Swag vs Everything else?

Of course the Swag is Nigeria.
Among other attributes, Nigerians are self believers, love to be entertained and are aggressive. Mostly good qualities when properly harnessed as has been done at youth level. The best Nigerian junior teams have showcased a brand of football that is dazzling. Both bold and audacious, athletic, fast attacking football. Multiple players with tremendous flair. Reflective of the believed potential. Even with the understanding that age limit tournaments inherently cast questions about credibility, there is a capability in the Nigerian player to display those skills on a football pitch. So why are they not doing it at the senior level? The answer to that question is fleeting, for now but to me is the holy grail of Nigerian football. The talent is there. Consider that West African genes produced three of the four most expensive transfers of all time as of the end of the 2018 season. Those are Paul Pobgba, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. And Nigeria is the most populous country in the region by far. 

           The best Nigerian junior teams have
           showcased a brand of football that is 
           dazzling. Both bold and audacious, 
           athletic, fast attacking football.




The most positive attributes of the Nigerian persona that one will imagine will translate on the football pitch particularly flair are often displayed in abundance at the younger levels. Our senior teams on the other hand tend to lack that. Our players start off in Nigeria and finish in Europe. They have it at the junior level but by the time they spend time in Europe and return for the senior team they develop the earliest stages of rigor mortis. Obvious conclusion is that Europe is ascribed the blame and Mikel Obi is a prime example of the phenomena.

Argentina is the Everything else.
From what I can gather, Argentina develops talent from the lowest youth levels. Systems are in place to discover talent as young as five years old. They encourage their players from that age in an Argentine philosophy to develop skill but also to compete. There’s a passion, a drive. They do what they need to do on the pitch. But they start with off the pitch preparations. 
I remember, our "African world cup", 2010 in South Africa. As usual we were in the same group with Argentina. Prior to the tournament, the word from the Nigeria FA was that Johannesburg was like a second home to Nigerians. We expected the stadium to be like a game in Lagos. There was a shock walking to the stadium and seeing more Argentinians by far than Nigerians. We started assuring ourselves that we had somehow ended up on the Argentinian entrance and that once we got inside we will see brown faces in green. To our pure astonishment, we entered and saw even more non browns in their signature light blue and white. In our own backyard, hanging banners, flags, etc. As expected, it was even worse in Brazil because the game was in Porto Alegre which is close to the Argentina border allowing them to crossover like biblical locusts. But then Russia and we had de ja vu. An obvious hint at a disparity in football organization and a gap that shows levels of preparation, tradition, passion, middle class. You name it. We got swag and they got etcetera. Argentinians had sometimes three generations of fans including grandfathers that had not missed an Argentinian World Cup game since 1978. A fan told me that his dad brought him when he was a boy and now he was obligated to bring his sons. It means so much to them.

          Argentinians had sometimes three 
          generations of fans including grandfathers 
         that had not missed an Argentinian World 
         Cup game since 1978. 

Often times players embody their people. When I watch the NBA, I see Manu Ginobli as the epitome of the Argentine player. He just lays it down. Competitive, tough, combative, skillful. On the West African side the epitome currently is Joel Embiid confident, athletic, graceful, smart and potentially transcendent. Potentially. 


I recall being in St. Petersburg to watch the latest version of Nigeria vs Argentina. We were horribly outnumbered so much so that even Stevie Wonder would have seen it. Once again the stadium was like a home game for them. Intimidating. Also humorous that we bought three million jerseys while the Argentinians bought tickets. I proudly bought both. The stadium atmosphere was fervent. Qualification for the second round on the line. The Argentina fans were so intense they impacted the game with their passion, cheering or jeering as needed. The vigor lifted their players and probably affected the referees and to some extent our players just enough. It did not help that the NFF could not get the loud music making Nigerian supporters club into the stadium. Of course it also is a repeat failure because they were not there in Brazil or South Africa.

        Once again the stadium was like a home 
        game for them. Intimidating. Also humorous 
        that we bought three million jerseys while 
        the Argentinians bought tickets. I proudly 
        bought both. The stadium atmosphere was 
       fervent.



Our team played well. Certainly better organized than some of the previous Nigerian teams. So, Nigerians somehow assume that this experience will yield benefits in four years. But so did Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana after elimination in 2014. The real planning hopefully has started already. Though one wonders if it is realistic to expect all the other government system struggles and lack of planning we see in numerous other sectors and somehow have it different and better in sports, which matters less. So the answer to this problem once again comes down to fixing our government. Na wa. I tire. But if we no fix am, our pikins go dey also discuss potential, potential. In the meantime let’s start planning for 4 years both for world cup and elections. And if we can learn from Argentina and figure out how to beat them on and off the pitch, we will likely find the answers to those prayers.