The 2023 edition of Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), has just been concluded in Ivory Coast. As was expected, it lived up the glamour such football events attract not only in Africa but elsewhere in the world. Football analysts are of the opinion that, in terms of organisation and quality of play, there is growing evidence that African football has come of age.
As far as it goes, in football as in any other sporting event, there will always be a winner and a loser. For Nigeria, the expectations were high but it ended as another heartbreak for the Super Eagles of Nigeria. The hopes and dreams of 200 million Nigerians were shattered on Sunday night as the Ivorians stunned the beloved Eagles 2-1 in the finals.
As the final whistle blew, dejection and despair swept across the nation. Tears flowed freely and shoulders slumped in disappointment. But more than the lose, what hurt the most was the manner of defeat.
In our opinion, the Eagles never turned up for the biggest match of their lives. There was no fight, no hunger, no desire. They had just one shot on target in the game. It was clear the occasion got to them and they crumbled under the weight of expectations. There was palpable evidence of over confidence and an inexplicable downplaying of the quality of opposition.
The defence was ponderous, the midfield overrun and the attack blunt and toothless. Had the Ivory Coast been more clinical, it could have been an embarrassing rout. Simply put, the Eagles choked on the big stage and let the nation down. The outpouring of anger and criticism from fans is understandable.
However, perspective is important. Reaching the finals was a remarkable achievement. They overachieved by getting this far. Only a select few expected the Super Eagles to be in the title decider ahead of tournament favorites like Senegal, Algeria, Egypt and hosts Ivory Coast.
In that light, coach Jose Peseiro deserves immense credit for galvanising the squad and instilling a disciplined, organised approach. The pragmatic tactics got results and the team improved steadily through the tournament. Peseiro built a solid foundation.
But in the considered opinion of this newspaper, while coach Jose Peseiro performed beyond expectations, we don’t think he is the right man to take the Super Eagles to the next level. His defensive formation limits the team and makes it not play to the strength it was capable of.
No doubt, there is work to be done if the Eagles are to get over the hump and win a 4th African crown. The pain of losing two finals now hangs like an albatross around this team’s neck. The next Nations Cup in Morocco is just next year and preparations must start now.
Needless to say, mentally the team needs to develop an edge, a ruthless winning mindset. Physically, more power and dynamism are required, especially in the midfield. Structural flaws also need addressing. It is pertinent to point out that the local league is substandard and ill-prepares players for the AFCON level. This, in our opinion, is partly because, football management in the country is, to put it mildly, underdeveloped. Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) is in perpetual crisis and lacks vision. Grassroots infrastructure and development programs are non-existent. It is, therefore, not possible for the nation to keep hoping to compete with better organised football nations without addressing these endemic issues.
The road ahead will not be easy. World Cup qualifiers resume in March and anything less than qualification for the World Cup in 2026 will be seen as an abject failure. The pain of missing the last World Cup still haunts Nigerian football and must not be repeated. This talented Eagles squad must now focus, work harder and be willing to suffer to get results. With the right mindset adjustment and tactical enhancements, they can yet achieve greatness.
The loss to Ivory Coast must become the catalyst that propels them to new heights rather than plunge them into another abyss. Rather than vent and cast blame, we suggest that Nigerians must rally behind the team. Constructive criticism is fine but wholesale condemnation, in our view, is counterproductive.
The players need love and support, not more pressure and abuse. Together we must heal the pain of this defeat and work towards creating a successful future.
For now, the party is over, the lights are off and the music has died. But the hope still remains that one-day Nigeria will climb the mountaintop again. The Eagles can still soar. They have only dipped, not dropped. With faith and patience, their day in the African sun will come again. Slow and steady wins the race.
Consequently, while AFCON 2023 ended in disappointment, it also contained enough promise to suggest brighter days lie ahead. With the right investments, hard work and belief, this rising Nigerian squad can still achieve greatness. They have proven they belong on the big stage. Now they must take that next step to be able to win when it matters most. The mission to conquer Africa continues.