The delayed 33rd Africa Cup of Nations, tagged ‘AFCON 2021,’ organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will kick off tomorrow, January 9, 2022, at the newly built 60,000-capacity Olembe Stadium in Yaoundé, Cameroon, when the host country, Cameroon, takes on Burkina Faso in the opening match.
Three-time African champions, the Super Eagles, are among the 24 participants at the biannual championship originally scheduled to start in June 2021 but was brought forward to January this year to avoid the rainy season and due to the coronavirus pandemic.
CAF has faced criticism over the timing of its continental showpiece, and last month had to address rumours that the tournament would be further delayed or cancelled following the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The Super Eagles won the tournament in Nigeria in 1980, Tunisia in 1994 and South Africa in 2013. Those triumphs were recorded in three different regions of Africa – West Africa, North Africa, and Southern Africa with three different coaches. While the Eagles won the first two under the tutelage of expatriate coaches, Otto Gloria and Clemence Westerhof, the third was masterminded by former Super Eagles captain, the late Stephen Keshi.
The Eagles who are in the hunt for a fourth title will open their campaign in Group D on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, against seven-time champions, Egypt, which boast arguably the best player in the world right now in Mohamed Salah, who has shone for Liverpool this season.
Though the Super Eagles squad in Cameroon does not inspire much confidence in many Nigerian fans, ex-international and former captain of the team, Austin Okocha, believes the team has all it takes to silence Egypt and her dreaded Mohamed Salah.
Unfortunately, the Super Eagles build-up to the 2021 AFCON in Cameroon was not without hitches, ranging from the sack of their long-term coach, Gernot Rohr, to injuries and non-release of some key players by their clubs.
Rohr, despite qualifying Nigeria for 2021 AFCON and Qatar 2022 World Cup play-offs, was fired as the Super Eagles under him had become insipid in their displays of late.
In the considered opinion of this newspaper, Nigeria deserves a better national team given the abundance of talents at the coach’s disposal, but with Super Eagles preparing for the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations, NFF’s decision on Rohr was an invitation to failure.
The football authorities appointed former Nigeria international and two-time handler of the team, Austin Eguavoen, as Rohr’s replacement, on an interim basis. Eguavoen who, before his new appointment, was the technical director of the NFF is, perhaps, the best man for the job under the present circumstances. The former Super Eagles defender is no stranger to the job, the team and the tournament. He was head coach of the Super Eagles when they won a bronze medal in 2006 AFCON in Egypt. Moreover, as head of the technical department, he has been working closely with the former coach and the players.
However, announcing a new substantive coach for the Eagles, Portuguese Jose Peseiro, in the run-up to the African championship is unwise and could cause distraction and disaffection. Nigerian football has continued to be the victim of NFF’s administrative ineptitude. The football house could have allowed Rohr to lead the team to AFCON and remove him afterwards, or wait until after the tournament to announce his successor.
Indeed, the mission to Cameroon 2021 AFCON appears tricky. The Eagles have not had the best of preparations, with no friendly games and a merry-go-round involving three different coaches. Eguavoen has said he and his group of coaches would do their best under the circumstances.
Good luck to them.
Before the Eagles’ departure to Cameroon on Wednesday, their captain, Ahmed Musa, revealed that the NFF still owed them outstanding stipends.
Musa, while disclosing this at a press conference on Tuesday, was, however, quick to assure that bonuses and allowances would not be a big issue at the AFCON tournament in Cameroon. We hope so.
Sadly, this is not the best way to motivate players for a major championship like Africa’s football showpiece, especially as, in the past, friction between players and the federation had turned ugly and caused a national embarrassment after the disgruntled players refused to play ball until there were paid.
Therefore, all the teams eye the top prize in Cameroon, Nigerian football fans would do well to trim their expectations of the Super Eagles. If, however, they surpass all expectations and surprise the nation with the AFCON crown like Keshi’s squad did in 2013, then they are sure to meet a grateful nation on their return.