The exit of the Super Eagles from AFCON 2021 has surely been painful.
But the pain is definitely not deep enough to warrant Ayo Odumade’s reaction in an SMS message he sent to me: “Still very raw and hard to take. That was a Black Sunday”.
Ayo, is a journalist-friend based in the UK. I was shocked at his reaction and particularly his choice of the word ‘Black’ to describe the day the Super Eagles lost to Tunisia. It is a racial slur. It does not fit comfortably into my spirit.
So, I immediately express my total exception and send my own response: ‘It is a Turning-Point Sunday”.
Indeed, it is. It is the day Nigeria turned her back on a failed past that must be forgotten quickly, and began a new future based on the glimpses of hope that every Nigerian saw and celebrated in the first three matches the Super Eagles played at AFCON, matches that have become reminders of previous great times in Nigeria’s history, and pointers to a brighter and better future just ahead.
True, last Sunday, the Super Eagles stumbled.
They needed to stumble. To stumble is to be woken up from premature celebrations, from the complacency that would have set in, and the forgetfulness of where the country’s football was coming from these past few years that would have halted the country during the bigger challenge ahead – qualifying for the World Cup..
The truth may be hurtful to colleagues and friends in charge of Nigerian football, but the evidence is very clear that Nigerian football had been on a downward spiral these past many years, and is manifested in the national team.
You do not recover from such depths without passing through the crucible of fire. You don’t just wake up one day and everything is back to the good old days. Nothing in life happens that way. There must be a price to pay for the decadence of the past.
I have chosen to see the whole of AFCON 2021 as that price that must be paid, and that hurdle that must be crossed without which a brighter future cannot be achieved.
This is my present understanding that brings me comfort and dissolves the pain of my AFCON 2021 experience. This is also a balm for Ayo Odumade’s raw pain.
With the ‘failure’ at AFCON 2021, the future of the Super Eagles has never been more certain than now. Nigeria has turned back from the precipice of disaster.
Two days ago, I read a report that the Minister of Sports, Chief Sunday Dare, feted the Super Eagles to a sumptuous breakfast meeting where he delivered a speech that lifted the dampened spirit and gloom of the players.
It was the best piece of news for me in the aftermath of the loss to Tunisia, a match everyone, except the Tunisians, had taken for granted as a Nigerian victory because of the transformation of the Eagles from no-hopers to potential champions in three short weeks
Also Read – Odegbami: AFCON 2021 – The Shame And The Pride!
The action and speech of the Minister reminded me of some events and times in my past.
My team painfully lost the semi-finals of the African Cup Winners Cup.
To every one’s shock and surprise the players were welcomed back home like heroes, feted by the Governor of the State and rewarded with a car each. That was in appreciation of the team’s effort and the happiness they had brought to the people of the State up till the match that they lost. The government’s gesture was to lift our spirits to fight even harder for a better future.
It worked. That gesture created the most productive years in the history of Shooting Stars International Football Club of Ibadan.
I am also reminded of another episode, a similar loss, but a different reaction by government.
My team had worked extremely hard and got to the finals of the African Club Championship. We then lost the match rather painfully even though the elements were not in our favour and the opposition were better on the night.
Rather than be appreciated for previous work already done, and encouraged to do better next time, the team was slammed. The players were abandoned and the entire team sacked. That act became the beginning of the end of one of the greatest clubs in the history of Nigerian football up to that point. Almost 40 years after, the team is yet to fully recover from the negative reaction of the government.
Those are experiences and lessons from the past that are not taught in the classroom or sold in the market place. Yet, they serve as invaluable guides into how to deal with seeming ‘failures’ at critical times in sports (as in life).
So, I am relieved by the action of Chief Sunday Dare who continues to impress me with his handling of several difficult and, sometimes, seemingly intractable issues in Nigerian sports.
I read the speech he delivered during his breakfast meeting with the players. It is a masterpiece on how to lift a waning spirit.
I am told that that speech did the magic on the ‘new’ Super Eagles and their consortium of Nigerian coaches.
I reproduce some of it here so that Nigerians can also be soothed by his words, and can go ahead confidently along the new path revealed by the Super Eagles at a time when even their former German coach who could not do much with the team, acknowledged their new form, praised them as the most complete team in Cameroon, and predicted they would win AFCON 2021.
Nigerians are on the correct path now. This stumble must not derail them.
Here are excerpts from his speech that speak for me and for most Nigerians about what is next for the Super Eagles.
1. The Super Eagles’ exit from AFCON was, indeed, painful.
2. Although we did not reach our goal, as a nation we have reason to be proud and optimistic about the future of our team.
3. Nigeria has every reason to be proud of this fine group of young men. I am immensely proud of how they performed as players and how they comported themselves as ambassadors of our nation.They have put Africa and the rest of the world on notice. Nigerian football will be characterized by greater team work, effort and cohesion. This team will improve and become a solid and fierce contender in any competition we enter.
4. Austin Eguavoen and the coaching staff gave a strong performance. They faced the challenge bravely and gave a good account of themselves. They did their very best and that is all we can ask of them.
5. We, as a nation win together, and we lose together. Sport is a unifying factor.
6. We will lift the spirit of our boys and as professionals they will look beyond AFCON and continue to work with their technical team to ensure continuous improvement.
The overall performance of the team during this tournament shows we have regained our better footing and are heading in the proper direction.
Our football, once again was fluid, purposeful and beautiful to watch. We have a good team and Nigeria will help them to get better.
7. The Super Eagles distinguished themselves with brilliant soccer displays leading to CAF Technical men voting Austin Eguavoen as the best coach in the first round. He and his team will be given all the support they need to ensure nothing in terms of their capacity development is overlooked.
8. I also want to use this opportunity to thank soccer-loving Nigerians who followed the team’s participation at the competition. We will emerge from this better, stronger, more aware of what we need to improve on to make this team satisfy the aspirations of an eager and hopeful football loving nation.
9. The lessons from AFCON abide. Our eyes are set on greater glory. The fighting spirit and sense of what we can do are strong. As long as we remain committed to teamwork and a common goal, the Super Eagles will become more and more formidable.
10. They will be encouraged and supported to qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup finals later this year and the 2023 African Cup of Nations Tournament in Cote’d Voire next year.
This Super Eagles team will show the world the great heights to which truly they can soar.
Honorable Minister, Youth and Sports Development. Abuja. Nigeria.
January 25, 2022