Sunday 9 June 2024

Segun Odegbami: The baptism of Finidi George!


By the time you are reading this on Saturday morning, Nigeria would have played the match that would mark Finidi George’s real baptism into the world of Nigerian football.

The long-awaited confrontation between Bafana Bafana of South Africa and the Super Eagles of Nigeria after AFCON 2023 would have been settled on the Uyo Township Stadium ground last night. I hope that the Super Eagles won because no explanation would be acceptable for not winning. That is the lot of coaches – the moment they are hired, their records of success and of failure start to count. Finidi George’s cannot be an exception. No excuses for failure are acceptable.

This morning, the outcome of the match would be front-page, setting the foundation for the relationship between Finidi George and the Nigerian sports media. I am still baffled that in this 21st Century, drawing from history, developments in the world, and the place of the African on earth, there could still be many Nigerian sportswriters that think that indigenous coaches lack the capacity to manage the country’s senior national team despite the abysmal showings of the third-rated, unknown, overrated and overpaid foreign coaches that come and fail to deliver or add any substance to the country’s football.

So, Finidi carries a new banner with responsibility to justify the confidence many of us have reposed in qualified, knowledgeable and experienced Nigerian coaches drawn from amongst ex-internationals (as is the practice everywhere else in the world outside Africa) to take charge of Nigeria’s senior national football team.

This first match is a litmus test and provides an early indication of how rough or smooth Finidi’s romance with the Super Eagles will be for the next few years.

I sincerely hope that as you are reading this, the Super Eagles have managed to secure a win in Uyo and eased the difficult passage to the 2026 World Cup.

I do not envy Finidi at all. He is sitting on a time bomb even if I firmly believe that he deserves his new position and should be given the chance to garner the needed experience, by winning and losing matches whilst becoming a better coach, and kick-start an era when Nigerians will accept to sink or swim with their indigenous coaches.

For some unfathomable reason, for the first time, on the eve of yesterday’s crucially important football match that will determine Nigeria’s as well as Finidi’s fate, my crystal ball is blank. I saw nothing! I could not foretell how the pendulum of fate would swing.

So, I get into the mode of prayer. I pray that the Eagles win, somehow, anyhow.

I pray that Finidi finds a way, somehow, to defeat the South Africans with a ‘new’ team that should provide an indication of the new Super Eagles under him.

I listened to Finidi in several interviews. He talked glowingly about his time under Jose Paseiro, and gives the man plenty of credit. I hope he is only being diplomatic. My humble advice is that he leaves Paseiro completely alone. He should not make Paseiro’s era and ‘success’ at AFCON the barometer, or model, or foundation for his own team. The truth is that,  Paseiro, even during his best moments at AFCON 2023, was never convincing.


The Super Eagles were not brilliant. They were lucky. Their performance left 6 Nigerians dead, from anxiety and tension generated by the hypertension-laden style of the team.

Nigeria was fortunate, riding on the back of, with plenty of luck. She survived and got away with it till the final match.

Finidi should approach this assignment with a slate full of his own ideas born of his knowledge, vast experience and deep understanding of Nigerian football and Nigerian footballers. Their effective deployment will make defeating African teams more routine.

The return of Ndidi – a stronger Eagles!

The good news is that Nigeria’s midfield ‘giant’ is back in the ‘new’ team. I believe that his absence was badly felt and could have made a big difference to the Eagles’ final game at AFCON 2023, Wilfred Ndidi, is back.

In Finidi’s ‘new’ team, I believe that Ndidi will close up some of the weakness and porosity in Nigeria’s defence, by providing an additional layer of cover for towering Semiu, a very vulnerable player in the centre of Nigeria’s defense line. Semiu is only very effective in aerial battles. On the ball he often looks lost, not knowing what to do with it.

In the absence of team leader, William Troost Ekong, Ndidi must rise to the occasion to strengthen the Nigerian defence, link the defence and attack, and also launch fresh attacks.

Eagles attack…. without Osimhen

Nigeria parades a formidable frontline led by ‘born-again’ Ademola Lookman.

This strength on paper must translate into action on the field of play. In the absence of Osimhen, Finidi may have been presented with the opportunity to adopt a new strategy for scoring goals outside of the long balls hauled upfront to a lone Victor Osimhen scrummaging for a goal.

The front line of Nigeria is made up of players who do best when they have the freedom to express themselves on the ball, dribbling past opponents with speed and panache, and creating goal-scoring chances all the time.

Hauling all balls to Victor Osimhen up front did not work well during AFCON and must be changed to allow for front runners run at the South African defence all night, and create ceaseless wahala for them

So, I hope the Eagles won last night.

I also wish the team and Finidi George the best of luck going forward.

Bereavement in the Green Eagles

The past week was littered with sad news.

Two of our colleagues in the Green Eagles of the mid-1970s passed on, days apart.

‘Hard man’ and supreme left-back for Vasco Dagama, Rangers International and the Green Eagles, Harrison Mecha died.

A few days later, stylish player, tall, handsome and elegant mid-field player for Rangers International and the Green Eagles, Stanley Okoronkwo, embarked on the inevitable journey of no-return.

Both news were numbing, sad reminders again of the briefness of life, and our mortality.

Meanwhile, writing tributes has become more painful and difficult for me with the deaths of an increasing number of players of my generation and even younger.

I am drawn again to dust up my intention many years ago to sue the federal government and demand a welfare policy for retired athletes as well as some ‘reparation’ for retired athletes who pay with a life of poor health, poverty and early death for the ‘sacrifices’ they made in ignorance whilst representing Nigeria in their youth. We played without fully grasping the health and social implications and consequences, until at the evening of life, we are confronted with the devastating reality.

The statistics are frightening.

Almost two thirds of the football players that represented Nigeria and won the Gold medal at the Second All-Africa Games in 1973, are dead. Most of them before turning 60!

Almost half of the team that won the Africa Cup of Nations for Nigeria in 1980 are also dead, most before turning 60.

With the recent deaths of Mecha and Stanley, I am reminded that more than half of the players that won the Africa Cup Winners Cup with Rangers International FC in 1977 have passed on. And that those still alive are mostly suffering the pain of debilitating arthritis, and other ailments directly related to health conditions that derived from their playing football without proper guidance and information by experts in the field, to enable them be prepared for the consequences in the evening of their lives. Something must be done.

Death is turn-by-turn, and inevitable.

Yet, we mourn the exit of Harrison Mecha and Stanley Okoronkwo from the earthly theatre. I wish them peace on their journey back home to Our Creator.


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