Today, at the World Cup, Nigeria will probably not beat Iceland. In fact, the most likely result to my mind is our Super Eagles falling to the team from the smallest nation ever to compete here. Coming on the heels of our loss to Croatia in our first match, this probable defeat would spell our third first round elimination from the Mundial in six attempts (the other three times, we were eliminated in the second round). An early exit should therefore be no shock to a normal person. Nigerians, however, are not normal. They will be shocked and disappointed. They will be especially shocked by the identity and pedigree of our eliminator. Iceland! This is because, to the mind of Nigerians, we are not Iceland’s mates, and should reasonably expect to beat them. The truth, of course is that we are indeed not Iceland’s mates.
Iceland na our senior.
Iceland are giant killers, and Nigeria are no giants. On the same day that we found ourselves pulled apart by Croatia, Iceland held Argentina to a draw. They worked hard together like their Viking ancestors crewing Longships, and contained the World’s best player, Lionel Messi. Two years ago, they did the same thing to the World’s other best player, and got a draw out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal at the European Championship, after which they knocked out England in the Round of 16. Somewhere in there, they also beat the Netherlands, 2010 World Cup runners-up, home and away. Compared to the Goliaths Iceland has brought down, Nigeria is a grasshopper. We are regularly beaten or held at the World Stage by middling teams like Croatia, Bosnia, and Greece.
We are simply not good enough. This is a difficult truth for most Nigerians to grasp, because we once were good enough. We once were World beaters too. Nigerians remember us winning our World Cup group in our first two appearances, in 1994 and 1998. We still sing “When Nigeria Win Brazil”, about our greatest victory on our march to Olympic Gold. We still remember Sunday Oliseh’s cruise missile of a goal against Spain to kill the favourites at the 1998 World Cup.
They don’t remember that this was 20 years ago.
Over those two decades, the quality of our football has been in steady decline. And by that, I don’t just mean the skill level and tactical discipline of the 23 boys we send to the World Cup every 4 years to get beaten has dropped. That is just the most visible symptom. How your national team plays is a by-product of how football in your country is organized, from the grassroots all the way to the League. Those boys who lost to Croatia on Monday were doomed to lose before the team was put together over a year ago. They were doomed to lose by the poor and late training they received as children. They were doomed by the lack of a good local league, which forced them to move to different countries at a young age to ply their trade, before they imbibed a national playing style, or philosophy. They were doomed by the need to shop for a foreign coach in the first place.
Most of the reasons why the Super Eagles lost to Croatia, and will probably lose to Iceland, are not their fault. They are systemic. But Nigerians do not recognize systems. We only recognize what we can see. This is why we think elected officials are “working in education” if we see schools being built, without asking if systems are being put in place to recruit, train, and pay new teachers, or if the curriculum is up to date. So we see those players in their very fashionable jerseys playing the way we expect Iceland to play, and decide that they are just choosing not to be good enough. We don’t see it for what it is: proof of how Nigerians neglected our football industry for 20 years, and how Icelanders consciously invested in theirs.
So I will show you.
In the mid 1990s, at the precise moment Nigerians were enjoying the Super Eagles’ golden age without wondering where it came from, the people who ran Iceland’s football sat down to plot a series of reforms and programs that directly led to their current success. At the time we were eating our harvest, Iceland was planting their own meager seeds.
There are five big factors that turned Iceland from football nobodies to kingslayers in 20 years. Nigeria ignored or wasted all five, and went in the opposite direction.
Factor 1: COACHES
When Iceland’s football association, the KSI, decided in the mid 1990s that it wanted to become a football powerhouse, it realized that the earlier young kids were exposed to quality coaching, the better the footballers they would become. The KSI therefore embarked on a massive coach-training program. It started funding coaches to go abroad to acquire UEFA coaching licences. Eventually, the KSI worked to set up a UEFA coach training centre at its headquarters in Reykjavic. Icelanders, freed from the expense of foreign travel and accommodation, trooped there to get UEFA coaching licences. Today in Iceland, there is a UEFA licensed coach for every 500 citizens. There are so many of them, that the KSI has now made the UEFA coaching badge a requirement for training children! A UEFA B licence is needed to coach kids over 10 years old, but with half of a B licence, one may coach under-8s. It is expected that the qualification for the latter will also be raised once there are more trained coaches.
These coaches are paid. Many educated Icelanders see coaching as a great way to supplement their income, so they study for the UEFA Licence. While coaching is not free, every child in Iceland receives a voucher from their municipality to be spent on after school activities. From their vouchers, they can pay the 300 Euro for coaching.
A coach of one of the country’s semi-professional clubs once said: “Nowhere in the world do as many kids get to practise as much per week for as long with a qualified coach in such good conditions.”
What are the credentials of the people coaching Nigerian 8-year-olds today? How many of them have coaches of any sort at all? When Oghenekaro Etebo and was a boy, from whom did he learn the fundamentals of football? Throughout primary school, the only “coaching” I got was from older boys, imparting such tactical gems as “if you miss the ball, don’t miss the leg”. That’s one big difference between Nigeria and Iceland. After our last World Cup exit four years ago, JJ Okocha, one of our heroes from 94 and 96, said the average European teenage footballer has learned more fundamental skills than a Nigerian footballer in his late twenties, because of the quality of youth coaching.
Factor 2: INFRASTRUCTURE AND GRASSROOTS FOOTBALL
God did not want Icelanders to play football. He gave them the type of winter that the Starks have been warning us about. Even in fall and spring, the land is cold and windy. There is simply not enough good weather in Iceland during the year to play enough football to become good at it.
So Iceland built a Wall.
Actually a dome. And not one. Many. In the mid 1990s, the KSI came up with the idea of “Football Halls”: football fields protected from the White Walkers by large, heated domes. These Football Halls allow Icelanders to play the beautiful game all year round, regardless of how much ice and snow Odin is hurling at them.
The halls are centres of footballing activity in Iceland’s towns and villages. Remember all those UEFA trained coaches? Many of them work at the halls, to train children, who pay with the vouchers from their local government. The mass involvement of children and teens at the football halls and other facilities has allowed the KSI to create a very rich and deep grassroots football architecture. There are leagues and tournaments for all age groups, with, of course, excellent coaching. One in fourteen Icelanders is a footballer at some level. This is a vast talent pool to choose from at all age levels, the dream of every serious football administrator. And since they are playing in KSI-affiliated competitions, under KSI-affiliated coaches, in KSI-affiliated facilities, it is very easy for the KSI to track and develop budding talent for the national team, from a very young age.
The halls are not just pitches with roofs. They often have physiotherapy rooms, gyms, and all the other facilities and staff needed to keep footballers functional while developing them. Along with the halls, the KSI has also invested in putting football pitches in every school in the land. Some are merely five-a-side lawns, while others are full-sized fields.
Nigeria does not have winter, so year-round football was not a problem we needed to solve. Yet, how many of our children and teens play football in structured competitions year-round? Principals’ Cups that last for a month, and in which the kids representing their school play at most seven matches do not count. How many of our primary and secondary school-aged footballers are being tracked by the Nigerian Football Federation, or by scouts or coaches associated with them? What percentage of the youth and child talent pool does the NFF have any information about? One of the reasons why Nigeria and other African nations often resort to fraudulently selecting over-aged players for FIFA age-grade tournaments is that it is much easier to go pick some allegedly young looking players from the professional league, than to go find actual talent in schools, because the NFF no longer has the tentacles for it. Many of the players in the glorious Super Eagles of the mid-90s were teenagers in the 1980s, before organized secondary school football died. They were products of teenage competitions where talent was spotted and developed. In short, they were from a time when Nigeria’s production line for footballers extended all the way to secondary school. Iceland did not have that yet. The hope would have been that we would have built on that head start and by now, twenty years later, we would have extended the production line to primary schools, so we end up developing each player for a longer time. But no. We let the production line rot, like Ajaokuta Steel Mills.
FACTOR 3: PHILOSOPHY
Every successful football nation has a playing style. You know the Spaniards will try to hold on to the ball for most of the game with quick passes and intricate advances. You know the Italians will press bumper to bumper when they don’t have the ball, and choke the life out of the game. You know the Brazilians will, well, do jazz.
Having a national playing style – a philosophy – is no accident. It comes from players being made to play a particular way, year round, for years. Philosophy is not taught primarily in the national team. It is the academies and club sides that have a player long enough to shape his style, and teach him what he is expected to do on and off the ball. There are two reasons why nations with philosophies are more successful than nations without:
- 10,000 hours. A footballer who has played his particular position in the same formation and in the same style for ten years would master it better than one who has played it in various positions and various styles.
- Spare Parts. If each age group of footballers in a country is playing the exact same style, then every member of the starting eleven of the national team has thousands of replacements for his specific position queuing up behind him, waiting for the day he loses a step. They do not need to be taught from scratch how to play for the national team. They have been learning from primary school.
Iceland has a playing philosophy. The KSI decided on it in the mid-1990s, when it was laying the groundwork for today’s success. They reasoned, understandably, that even with improvements in infrastructure, organization, and training, they probably still would not be churning out many Messis or Ronaldos. They decided to adopt a playing style that relied on teamwork, hard work, discipline, and fitness, all things Icelandic culture naturally instils. The Icelandic football philosophy is aggressively defensive. They rely, essentially on 8 defenders, in two rows of four. It would be cliché to refer to them as two banks of Viking oarsmen, but I will do so anyway because it is too apt to resist.
Their tight, disciplined, relentless defending wears out more skilful, individualistic teams, allowing them to score on counter-attacks, and with set pieces like corners, free kicks, and penalties. Yes they are quite good at those. One in fifteen Icelanders has been trained to play like this. If the current team were turned into White Walkers, or lost beyond the Wall, another group would be raised in a day to play like them.
Twenty years later, Nigeria is still trying to replace Rashidi Yekini.
Nigeria no longer has a philosophy. We had one in the 1980s and 1990s. Like many others, we usually played a 4-4-2, with a strong emphasis on wingplay. We played a fast, flowing football that was a bit dangerous, since it often left us exposed at the back. However, to quote Victor Ikpeba, one of our greatest strikers, “if you score us nine, we will score you ten.” That was our philosophy. The Nigerian team that made it to the final of the Nations Cup in 1990 played the same system as the one that won it in 1994, and the one that won Olympic Gold in 1996. They learnt to play like that in our schools and our league. All that changed was the personnel, and the skill level. The two dutch coaches who led us to glory, Clemens Westerhof and Johannes Bonfrere, did not make us play Dutch football. They refined the Nigerian football they met.
But ironically, as we were celebrating our successes, the ecosystem for the philosophy on which they were built was dying. The local league was suffering from neglect. Reduced fan interest due to foreign leagues on TV led to lower revenues and wages, right at the time a big investment was needed to keep players. The best players moved to Europe. Then the very good players. Then the good players. Then the OK players. And, as we said earlier, secondary school football was also dying at this time. Where was a Nigerian player supposed to learn how to play like a Nigerian player? They were now learning how to be Belgian fullbacks, and Italian center-forwards. The national team coaches we have had for two decades have each come with their own thoughts on how the team should play, and have used the precious little time they have with the boys to try to teach this to them. The results have been predictably poor.
FACTOR 4: GOLDEN GENERATION
When a football association does the right thing for years, something magical eventually happens. When there is a perfect storm of good grassroots football, coaching, talent-spotting, and nurturing of a football philosophy over years, there is eventually one age group that benefits from these things long enough, and also has enough innate talent, to become far better than any that came before it. We call this a Golden Generation. The Brazilians had one in the 1950s, the Dutch in the 1970s, the Portuguese in the 2000s. Iceland’s Golden Generation is playing in the 2018 World Cup.
The current players on the Iceland team have been together for about ten years at senior level. They are the products of the football halls. The best of them, like Gylfi Sigurdsson, moved from Iceland’s academies to academies and clubs in Europe, mostly England and Scotland. This is their time to break national records.
Nigeria’s Golden Generation played from 1989 until about 2000 or 2002. Keshi. Okwaraji. Rufai. Iroha. Egoavoen. Siasia. Nwosu. Yekini. Amokachi. Finidi. Amunike. Kanu. Okocha. They were the best we ever produced. When you get a Golden Generation, you are supposed to sit back, and let them loose on the world. You let them build up their strength from tournament to tournament. What did we do with our Golden Generation? Midway through their rise, at the peak of their powers, we got them banned from TWO nations Cups, in 1996 and 1998. Missing those two tournaments went a long way to their failure in the 1998 World Cup. The politics and meddlesomeness of the NFA after the 2000 nations cup cost that generation their last few outings.
FACTOR 5: WINDFALL
Iceland built those football halls and trained all those coaches with the money the Government made from the mortgage, real estate, and banking boom of the late 90s and early and mid 2000s. The market crash and financial crisis Iceland plunged into afterwards could not erase the infrastructure and human capital development they had already put into football.
Nigeria has had several oil booms of various sizes. How much public money has been invested in local football?
Windfalls are not always money. In many ways, a Golden Generation is also a windfall. You can’t predict, or plan for, when one will come along. You just have to be ready to use it well. The same is true for star players. The tale of what happened to Iceland’s and Nigeria’s two stars in many ways illustrates the diverging fortunes of both nations’ football.
In 2005, two young players of very different fortunes, were contemplating an uncertain future. One, Nigeria’s John Michael Obi, was playing for a club in Norway, Iceland’s neighbour. He was also the captain of Nigeria’s under-20 team at the World Cup, and was being spoken of in the same breath as the tournament’s other star, Lionel Messi of Argentina. They met in the final, which Argentina won, but Obi was hailed as a future conqueror of the World. Two of the biggest clubs on Earth, Manchester United and Chelsea, were fighting in a dispute over his services. He eventually left Oslo for Chelsea, taking with him the Norwegian version of his name, Mikel. That was not the only part of his identity he lost. His new coach in England, Jose Mourinho, did not really need an attacking midfielder, so converted him into a defensive midfielder. This was not the position in which Nigeria needed him, but this is the one he played for his club week in and week out. So needless to say, whenever he put on the Green and White for the Super Eagles, John Michael Obi, who once terrorized defences, was now Jon Obi Mikel, who could not build an attack to save his life.
In that same 2005, Iceland’s Gylfi Sigurdsson was a fifteen year old student at Reading Academy, in England. The coach, Steve Coppell, also wanted to switch him from attacking midfield to defensive midfield. But something happened. Coppell left, and his replacement, Brendan Rodgers, decided to keep the kid where he was. Today, Sigurdsson is the lynchpin of Iceland’s counterattacks
The gods of Football, it would seem, reward hard work, not prayers and past glory, with a little luck now and then.
The Super Eagles are merely the rusty, blunt tip of a rotten spear. Nigerians, both administrators and fans, have allowed the entire assembly line that is meant to produce world-beating teams for us to grind to a halt, and its machinery to be vandalized. We spent the last twenty years expecting results from set after set of players who have had less and less of the Right Stuff put into them throughout their careers. World Cups last a month, but take ten to twenty years to prepare for, long before the players we are so quick to ridicule ever put on a green jersey. Until the NFF puts more work into developing child and youth football organization, increasing the capacity and number of coaches at the grassroots, and developing and disseminating a unified playing style, all disappointment about our World Cup outings are based on delusion. And the NFF, if we are honest, will not do any of this, because it does not need to. Not enough Nigerian football fans are interested in the day-to-day of football administration at any level to be a source of pressure on the NFF. Not enough of true fans are getting involved in the NFF itself. Just like with governance, we have become content in leaving the work to people we can later snidely condemn for their selfish incompetence. The result is the results. We can’t complain about losses at the World Cup Group Stage. We should do no more than watch the matches with no expectations, and thank the boys for giving it their best, knowing it never had a chance of being good enough.