The Nigerian national team is one of the most respected football teams in Africa. Their rich history, passionate Fan base, and ability to win matches make them an attractive proposition for fans across Africa and the world. However, the team’s recent performances have left a lot to be desired. With the majority of the team made up of internationally-based players, their recent performances have been abysmal. The team has failed to qualify for major tournaments, scoring a meagre five goals in their last five matches. Fans are starting to question the team’s identity and the lack of more local league players on the team’s payroll is not helping.
If the Nigerian national team wants to regain its image, it must first admit that it is in need of a rebrand. The team needs to focus on developing players who play in the local league and not just Foreign-based players. This can be achieved through grassroots initiatives and the investment of local players in the team. Local players are an under-utilized resource, hence the likes of Daniel Amokachi re-emphasized their relevance while speaking with the British Broadcasting Service (BBC).
It would be a good step towards the quality rebranding of the national team if the NFF gave these players the opportunity to participate in various tournaments in order to develop their skills, and, above all, represent their respective local communities.
Since the formation of the Nigeria national team in 1945, the team has been dogged by several issues from within. A lack of consistent talent, a lack of funds, and a lack of sound management have all contributed to the team’s struggles to develop and retain a consistent lineup. In recent years, however, Nigeria’s football team has had a couple of memorable tournaments in the last few years, with the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations title under its belt.
But the fact remains that local professional players have a strategic role to play in the improvement of team spirit and inspiring performances for the national team. Take the 2013 African Cup of Nations, for example. That tournament marked the highest local league embedded players in Nigeria’s football history so that even BBC Sport described it as “the greatest number in more than two decades.” Fortunately, Nigeria ended up winning the tournament with strong and determined professional local league players like Sunday Mba (Enugu Rangers), and Godfrey Oboabona (Sunshine Stars) as well as other key professional local league figures, numbering six in total, that sealed Nigeria’s fate as the champions of the 2013 AFCON, not declining to retrospect our other abroad-based players like Joseph Yobo, Mikel Obi, and Victor Moses, as well as other very important internationally-based players that made it all possible.
Normally, anytime you think of soccer in Nigeria, especially our national team, images of skilled black players in baggy shorts and tucked-in jerseys come to mind. With players like Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, and Taribo West, as well as other key players, they saw to it that Nigeria became the first African team to win gold in football history at the Atlanta Olympics held in Georgia, United States.
The key point in all of this is that all of the players mentioned were all products of the Nigerian Professional League, and they all gave their sweat and blood to see the Nigerian flag raised in honor amongst key football nations around the world, despite the racism and discrimination they faced, and that is what the Nigerian national team needs right now, the Jay Jay Okochas and Kanu Nwankwos of today. We need players who know what it actually means to represent the largest black population on earth and are willing to do all within their strength to bring pride to the national team.
It’s a known fact that the Nigerian national team has lost its way in the past few years since it claimed the AFCON title in 2013, regressing from one of the most rewarded soccer teams in Africa to one of the most embattled in the region. The lack of more domestic league players in the team may be the explanation for the team’s lack of spark.
Let’s take the current squad as an example. Most fans will agree that the team is not performing to expectations and is struggling to qualify for/win major tournaments. The team’s problems have been compounded by external as well as internal factors.
Looking back at recent events, the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon was the first time in a long time that the Nigerian national football fan base had annexed hope and strong aspirations for the national team, only to have their hopes dashed by the team’s poor performance during the Nigeria – Tunisia game, which ended 1-nil.
The team’s overall performance was quite impressive at the start of the tournament, but evaluating the energy and efforts they put in during the knockout stage, anyone who watched would agree that it was less than stellar, with a scoreless loss against Tunisia in the knockout stage. Even in the aftermath of their failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, many felt the team had strayed from the path of tradition by prioritizing speed and skill over strength and experience, with the likes of Victor Ikpeba showing dissatisfaction at the team’s new style of play. As a result, the team’s prospects at the next major footballing competition — the 2023 African Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast — are not looking too bright.
Yet, as one of Africa’s most respected football teams, Nigeria is renowned for having a history of churning out world-class players. Reassessing the team’s identity, emphasis on youth, and greater focus on local talent can help the team regain its focus and compete at the highest levels again, and the NFF has a huge role to play in this regard.
The fact remains, without a true “golden generation” like the kind we experienced with the Nigerian “Dream Team”, Nigeria’s national team might continue in its cycle of declining results and uninspiring performances.
What the national team needs right now are players known for their skills, their strength, and their fighting spirit. Players who, through their determination and team spirit, will help attract more local fans.
To many Nigerians, their national team represents the country, and all that matters to them at this moment is for the nation to have a team they can be proud of again. If the national team can regain its place as one of the continent’s most recognized and respected sides, it will not be an overnight success. However, with a repartee comprised of an active plan to include more local league players into the national team, which will in turn help rebrand the team and give it a new-look that represents the true Nigerian spirit, the team’s fortunes can change for the better.