By Nneka Ikem
There have been many unverified allegations of coaches asking players to pay if they wished to be in the National or World Cup teams.
There were also allegations of board members imposing players on the coaching crew. Coaches have also been accused of inviting players who were of no value to the national team just to appease an agent or just to showcase the player to international scouts.
These are part of an unverified but syndicated game playing allegedly playing out at the national teams level and even at the U-17 cadre.
In July 2018, video footage of the then Super Eagles Coach Salisu Yusuf, allegedly collecting a cash gift of $1000 from investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who posed as a representative of Tiger Eye Agency to influence the selection of two Nigerian players Osas Okoro and Rabiu Ali was published.
Yusuf, according to the undercover, had collected the money as a bribe to get the players selected for the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations.
He was tried and found guilty by the Nigeria Football Federation’s Committee on Ethics and Fair Play after pictorial evidence was presented and banned for one year with a fine of $5,000.
Four years earlier, the Super Eagle technical crew of homegrown coaches had qualified Nigeria for the 2014 World Cup In Brazil. The formidable crew of Stephen Okechukwu Keshi popularly known as the ‘Big Boss’ led Daniel Amokachi also known as ‘The Bull’, Sylvanus Okpala aka ‘Quick Silver’ in his hay days and goalkeeper trainer Ike Shorunmu.
The Big Boss is late but a former Super Eagles player will not let the Big Boss rest in peace. Four years after the most successful Nigerian coach passed on, Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi has called out the coach who won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013, accusing him and his crew of asking him for money before putting him in the 2014 Brazil World Cup-bound team.
Sylvanus Okpala, retired Nigerian football midfielder, ex International and former Super Eagles assistant trainer has quickly rebuffed Obasi’s damaging accusations on the dead and queried why it took him six years to speak out.
“After the Africa Cup of Nations, I was asked to leave the national team so I wasn’t at the World Cup but Obasi wasn’t even part of our plan. Even when we went to the Nations Cup, he was not there and he never trained with us.
“When we were there, we picked players based on merit. If you were not performing, we had no business with you and trust me, I don’t bend anyhow. So all we did was the right thing and I think Keshi performed well. If Obasi was truthful and confident that somebody demanded money, he should have said it when Keshi was alive.
“What stopped him from saying this since 2014? Was he dreaming of coming back to the national team? You have to check your age then you can damn the consequences and come out to say the truth. I’m not trying to defend anyone or say that it’s not happening, but I didn’t experience this in the squad that went to the Nations Cup and while I was there, there was no such thing.
“Everything we did was based on merit. If you’re good, you’re good but if you weren’t good, sorry, we picked players based on merit. We did not look at the faces.”
“Obasi said he played in Europe and in the Champions League when he was dropped. What does that mean? That you’re playing in the champions league doesn’t mean that a player who is not playing in the Champions League cannot be better than you. Football performance is not measured that way.
“The only difference is that your team is playing the Champions League and you’re fortunate to be in the team, but it doesn’t make you better than a player whose team is not playing in the Champions League. That is not the yardstick for measuring a good player.
“These are some of the parameters we use that are wrong because football is not mathematics where two plus two gives you four.
Obasi mentioned failure to bribe their way to the World Cup which was why players like Brown Ideye and Taiye Taiwo didn’t make Keshi’s team to the 2014 edition but Okpala pulled his hair as he explained what transpired in the team at the time.
“Brown Ideye helped the team a lot. He was instrumental to the team winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013 and made a lot of sacrifices. However, I wasn’t there during the World Cup but playing very well in the Nations Cup doesn’t mean that your form will be intact for the World Cup. You must continue to be in form to make the next competition.
“In 1980 when we won the Nations Cup. Nigeria overwhelmed the Algerians here but the following year during the World Cup qualifiers, they defeated us both home and away. It was the same Algerian team with almost the same Nigerian team.
So, in football, you have to maintain your form and not rely on your previous performance because other players are trying to break into the team and the coach wants to take the best to the competition.
“However, if you ask me, I know that not all the 23 players will play in the World Cup. If you’re lucky without injury, you may play the World Cup with only 18 players. Based on his contributions during AFCON, maybe I would have asked Coach Keshi if we could add Ideye’s name for his contributions in the past.
“He was one player then that if you said you didn’t have a player on the left, Brown would go and perform creditably well. But that didn’t mean he had to relax because he won the Nations Cup. You must be in form for a coach to pick you. So, I’m still waiting for those who want to say rubbish about Keshi.
I was not surprised that Ikechukwu Uche did not make it to the World Cup because I knew what we went through with him during the 2013 AFCON. In our first game, we were playing 1-1 but were reduced to ten men and he was asked to come in. The coach told him what to do. When he got onto the pitch, he refused to do those things.
“We had to change another player to fortify our defence. When that player was going in, Stephen Keshi told him what to tell Uche but he still refused to play to instruction. We were one man down and Uche was not falling back to defend. It was mass attack and mass defence but he refused to do all that and he was not in form too.
“He was dropped from the team because he was disobedient. He kept on telling us that in his club, this was how they used to play and this is what our coach used to tell us. Then at a point in time, I called him and said IKE Uche, there is a way we want you to play here. This is the Nigerian National team and not your club, so this is how we want you to play. Don’t come and tell us about your club.
He said well it will help me but I told him that if he played for Villarreal and Liverpool bought him, will he go to Liverpool and start telling them that this is how they play in Villarreal? You don’t tell the coach how to play you in Liverpool.
“I also read about Taiye Taiwo’s outburst in the papers. After our experience with him, we never invited him again.
“During our AFCON qualifier against Rwanda, Taiye didn’t play well in that game. Keshi complained after the game but the players went back to their rooms and started plotting how to remove Keshi. They never knew that Keshi’s room was the next to Taiye’s room.
“Taiye was telling other players that Keshi was shouting at him and that he will do to Keshi what he did to other coaches and that they would ensure that Keshi was sacked.
“Keshi was in his room listening to all their conversations. Now, most of them are now coming to talk about money. It wasn’t about money because I knew about these two issues involving Taiye and Uche.
“Which coach will like to invite a player who wants him sacked in his team? It’s not possible. I am telling you what happened as an insider.
“One of the problems we had then in the National team was that some NFF officials had too much contact with the players. They called them on the phone, became too familiar with the players, gossiped about this and that. You don’t do that with players.
“I had an experience during one of the days in camp. I was in charge of training the players. Sometime in 2012 before our qualifying match against Rwanda. I took a decision to do a little ball work instead of strenuous training since we would be playing a match and it would help them get used to the game early.
“So, I introduced the ball work but some of the so-called big players went and complained to Keshi that he should see what I had introduced and that they didn’t want that. Keshi now called me and said that I should change and that the players didn’t want that, and that I should use the other warm-up plan.
“Do you know what is happening today? Almost all the teams in Europe and around the world have adopted what I did so many years ago. I never saw anyone doing it back then but that is what is in vogue now. They use ball work to warm up now. The players rejected it many years ago. Is it because I’m not a white man? Is it only the Europeans who can develop tactics? Today, some of those players are coaches and they’re doing what Okpala initiated some years ago.
“We must have to find players who want to play for the national team.”
Why coaches run from home-based players
The issue of including home-based players in the national teams is a sad story. We have many good players. What is making the coaches to run away from the home-based players is the work. You need to train and coach them and you also need to teach them. This takes a lot of energy.
“I know what we suffered to painstakingly get those home-based players that we took to the Nations Cup and the 2014 World Cup. It was because we wanted to prove a point. It’s not because the players are not good. You can polish them to a standard but it takes a lot of hard work.
Remember it was even the home-based players who helped us to qualify for the 2013 Cup of Nations. During the qualifiers, we used about five players from the domestic league to execute the matches because most of them coming from Europe were not fit. We went to the Nations Cup with about three or four of home-based who also played and won the cup!
Which one is now better? A coach who took home-based players and about three or four of them played and won a Nations Cup or a coach who never took home-based players and never won the Nations Cup?
Even in that Nations Cup, there’s no team that you’d say that overwhelmed the Super Eagles.
“We played the Zambians, we played Burkina Faso twice..in the group stage and in the final. We played Mali and the Ivorians that everybody was afraid of playing. When we mention Cote D’Ivoire, it’s not the Ivorians of the last two or four years. I’m talking about the Ivorians of then… Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba.
These were top players and our team dealt with them. We used the home-based to win convincingly. They were taken to the World Cup and about four of them played while the rest were in the reserve team. They went to the 2014 World Cup and qualified for the second round of the Mundial only to be defeated by France 2-1 and you all knew what happened.
“The game was very tight but France later won 2-1. How can you compare this performance with a coach who said home-based players have nothing to offer? He went to the World Cup with all the professionals he’s talking about in Europe and he couldn’t get to the second round. These are the questions we need to ask.”
During Okpala’s stint with the Super Eagles, he recalled how the late Stephen Keshi invited the players in the domestic league to the national camp and released them for their club matches at weekends.
“When Keshi was the Super Eagles Coach, he gave me the responsibility of inviting home based players to the national camp. He gave me the assignment and I remember encouraging him to keep the players because we could make something out of them.
I remember telling him that by the time we start coaching these domestic players, he could tell them to go after two weeks, but if we are patient and keep them beyond two weeks, he would see the best of them.
“It did happen that after the first one week, Keshi said no… no… these people have to go. I reminded him of my earlier warning. I told him to be patient and we were able to get about six home-based players who won the Nations Cup and although some were dropped in the team to the World Cup when I wasn’t there.
“Now, there are more talented players than before because I watch the league but the stress of bringing them to be at par in performance with those coming from Europe takes a lot of time and energy and that is what coaches are running away from.
“Stephen Keshi went to the Nations Cup and won it. He went to the World Cup and qualified for the second round. He was not offered a contract rather they criticized him every day in the media for nothing. Then, we had an assembly of good coaches. We had Stephen Keshi, Amokachi, Ike Shorunmu and myself and we knew where the direction we were going.
“Suddenly, they came and disintegrated and destroyed the team. They removed me and caused a lot of trouble in the team because we won the Nations Cup or for whatever reason. I don’t know. We had a very formidable coaching crew. We set a goal and said this is where we were going.
“Westerhof is being regarded as the best coach that ever tinkered the Nigerian team but it took Westerhof 5 years and 6 months … let’s say six years to achieve the same thing that Stephen Keshi and his crew achieved in one year and six months! So who is better? Is it because we are Nigerians?
“I needed to reply them because I was an insider and nobody can say I’ve taken money from him to do this or that, Okpala said.
He probably forgot that Westerhof took almost all home-based players to the 1990 Nations Cup and won silver. That was just about one year after he resumed. Only Ademola Adeahina and Andrew Uwe were the foreign-based players in the team.
From then till he left Westerhof used home players in matches. But this does not take anything away from the valid and brilliant points Okpala made.
▪ By Vanguard