Dr. Felix ‘Owoblow’ Owolabi in his playing days.
The Super Eagles, as the senior national football team is called, have come under intense scrutiny following their failure to record a win in the entire calendar year 2020.
The Eagles, under German coach Gernot Rohr, have witnessed stagnation, better put, retrogression, particularly, after failing to stamp their authority in a 2022 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying group that includes the likes of the Republic of Benin, Sierra Leone, and Lesotho, hitherto considered as minnows in African football.
After four rounds of matches, Nigeria has 8 points. Close on the heels of the Eagles are Squirrels of Benin with 7 points. Sierra Leone, with 3 points is third, while Lesotho takes the rear with 2 points.
Sierra Leone got two of their three points off Nigeria as the Eagles failed to beat the Leone Stars over two legs. The biggest football result in Sierra Leone’s history is the intriguing fightback they posted against the Eagles in Benin City, penultimate Friday following their 4-4 draw. That result relegated the 2001 lone goal victory recorded over Nigeria in Freetown to the background. For their crazy fans back home, the 4-4 draw in Benin was as good as a victory for the Leon Stars.
If the Benin result was considered by many Nigerians as an insult, the barren draw the Super Eagles posted in the return leg amounted to nothing but total erosion of whatever little faith the fans had in the Super Eagles. A lot was expected of the Nigerian team made up of young, enterprising players, most of who were born in Europe and passed through the best football traditions.
As it appears now, the leadership of the group has been thrown open and there is everything to fight for. Although the Eagles still enjoy a marginal lead, the return match against Benin sometime next year has become a winner takes all affair.
The performance of the Super Eagles against Sierra Leone has sent tongues wagging in Nigerian football circles. Naturally, stakeholders have been reacting.
Former Nigeria international and 1980 AFCON winner, Dr. Felix Owolabi, in a chat with Sports Vanguard said a lot was wrong with the team. His first take: “individually, we have very good players but we don’t have a good team.”
When pressed further, Owolabi, fondly called ‘Owoblow’ by his teeming admirers said the failure of the technical crew to harness the positives from the two friendly matches the team played made a mess of the whole exercise.
“When you play friendly matches, you must have a target. A coach must target what he is looking for; where did the team perform or underperform? What problems did you identify and want to fix before a competitive match? Players’ character, team character, and the kind of opponents you are up against.
All these make up the whole. It does not matter whether you win a friendly or not – win, draw, or lose you find the areas that need strengthening and areas you need to consolidate gains made from the friendly. These are some of the things a coach looks out for during friendly matches. Not necessarily to win, but to identify problems in a team and fix those problems before the competition proper.”
Owolabi said he expected the coach to have identified those problems, fix them, separate the good from the bad, and field the best legs possible. “That is what we call team to plan, team character and the coach must have a good knowledge of his opponents in order to set his tactical plan before the match.”
He said all these were missing in the current Super Eagles set up as he was not sure if there was any scouting mission to Sierra Leone before the two matches.
He wondered how the Super Eagles collapsed in the second period of the first leg in Benin after leading 4-1 before the break. “Does it mean the Eagles cannot play for 90 minutes?” he asked.
“There can be no plausible excuse for such a monumental collapse. It means there is something fundamentally wrong with the team,” he continued. “You scored four goals in the first half, and in the second half, the other team, from nowhere recovered and scored three goals?”
He said the result was a clear indication of a technical defect in the team. “A winning coach must attempt to increase the tally or at least, stabilize the flow of the game and maintain the scoreline if his team cannot score more. To concede four in reply shows lots of defects in the team.”
In a real football sense, Owolabi said the Super Eagles were grossly lagging behind. “The team lacked character,” he said, adding, “they lacked football discipline. What kind of tactics did the coach adopt in that particular match in Benin?”
Owolabi reasoned that one of Nigeria’s major problems was the penchant for underrating teams from smaller countries. “It is unfortunate that we continue to underrate these teams. It is not right because there are no longer minnows in world football,” he reckoned, adding, “Your millions will not count when it comes to football because it is a game of two equal teams.”
He said the technical department of the Nigeria Football Federation should have done more
He picked holes in the preparatory matches the team was engaged in before the 2022 AFCON qualifiers against Sierra Leone. “You are preparing for a match in Africa and you go to Europe to play friendlies? No. It is not right. The two matches they played were in Europe, which is very cold.
“Our players are used to playing under very cold conditions and yet the match against Sierra Leone was to hold in Benin; a very hot city which suited the visitors more than our own players. Have you forgotten where Sierra Leone is located? It is the hottest part of West Africa. The time and place we played favored them more than our own team.
“I believe the entire Nigeria Football Federation structure needs to be reviewed,” he said unequivocally, adding, “as a coach, apart from knowing the makeup of my team, I make effort to study my opponents.
“If they knew Sierra Leone was one of the hottest countries in West Africa, they would not have fixed the match for 5 pm. They thought they were helping our team, instead, they were helping the visitors as the weather suited them more than our own players.”
He said, “you could see that after the first half, our players became weather-beaten and tired while the visitors became unstoppable. It was only the referee’s final whistle that stopped them from beating us. The weather was to their advantage. The technical department should have found out about that country.
“You cannot say, ah, is it, Sierra Leone, we can beat them. These are things a sound technical department would have known and taken care of before such a crucial encounter. You cannot appoint a carpenter to run the football and you expect results.”
Owoblow would not entertain the excuse that the players do not usually have enough days to blend as a team. Are three days actually enough for a group of players to train and blend into a winning team?
“Of course,” he said. “It’s the same for all the national teams, so it should not be an excuse. These are players he has been working with for years now. I don’t know if the coach actually invites the players because he does not seem to know them well,” he posited, wondering whether there was someone somewhere who invites the players for Rohr. “I believe there is more to it than meets the eye.”
The former Nigeria international observed that the manner the coach fields the players, their positioning, and even the changes he affects during matches, calls to question his knowledge of the players. “When you see this go on, you then begin to wonder if it is Gernot Rohr that invites these players.”
Another major problem Owolabi has noticed in the team is the level of discipline and commitment among the players. “You see, after talking about the coach, let us look at the players,” he began.
“There must be discipline. How much is the level of their commitment?” he asked. He said the players must be told that the Nigerian national team is an identity. It represents souls. The players need a psychologist who will tell them that the Super Eagles is a brand representing millions of souls.
“The jersey they are putting on is not a piece of apparel for fashion but represents the Nigerian spirit. It calls for patriotism. In our day, a player would want to do anything to wear it. Nigeria is made up of over 200 million people and if the coach selects you to play then you have to put in your all, in order to justify your selection.
“Just think about it because out of millions of people you find yourself among a privileged few, chosen to represent the country, it speaks volumes and you must show commitment and patriotism. These are some of the things they must let the players know. Everything is not about money. They must tell themselves that they want to do it for the nation… then they must do it well.”
In the course of our chat, you said the NFF needs restructuring. Can you throw more light on that?
“Yes, the technical department needs improvement. For instance, you need the biodata of your players, how old they are, their statistics et al. Based on that, you will be able to plan. For instance, if you want to play a country you must find out about that country, whether it is a small country or big.
“You must study so that you have an idea about their strengths and weaknesses. You don’t dismiss a country based on their size or what you knew in the past about them. You must have a department for that. Planning and strategy. Like in your profession(journalism), you want to go to a war-torn zone to report, you don’t just jump into it. You must do some groundwork to avoid risking your life. You must first get the necessary information before you start your work.
“In football that is what we call match plan. Not when a match is about to be played you take 15 officials to accompany the team. What are they going to do there? Officials are needed before the match because a lot is expected of them in terms of planning for the team to perform very well and succeed at the end of the day.”
On whether Gernot Rohr should be sacked, Owolabi said those who hired him should decide his fate. “My interest is in areas they can improve as a team. I pointed out what they can do to improve the team. As for coach Rohr, I did not employ him. Let his employers decide.”