NFF, Keshi and the 40 Campers:
It has been a good 18 months for Nigerian football, and among the highpoints of this good run were the African Nation’s Cup Victory last February, and the qualification for the 2014 World Cup, which was secured in November 2013. Central to these key achievements was Super Eagles Coach, Stephen Keshi, and his technical crew.
Keshi has had to overcome internal wranglings, opposition from some Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) members, and the widespread skepticism that greeted his appointment to become one of the more successful and popular managers of the Super Eagles. Determined to shake things up and stamp his authority on the team, Keshi embarked on an extensive scouting of local based players and ended up taking six of them to the 2013 African Nation’s Cup (CAN), where Nigeria earned a first continental title in 19 years. The fact that most of the players on the team were having their first taste of a major senior tournament made the accomplishment all the more impressive.
Despite this good run of National team form, the relationship between the NFF and Keshi has been cagey at the best of times, and has been antagonistic and tended towards confrontation at the worst. From delayed salaries, fired assistants and unrequested offers of foreign assistants, to booked home flights ahead of a key quarter final match. Matters took a bizarre turn as Keshi resigned hours after the Nations cup victory, complaining that the NFF was frustrating and undermining him, referring to various incidents including interviews that were conducted for his ‘replacement’ during the CAN.
As strange as it sounds, the performance of the current NFF board represents a marked improvement over recent boards. In the past, actions that range from sabotage to acts of criminality have been linked to NFF board members in the course of their ‘service’ to the nation. This is no surprise to any keen watcher of government owned or supported agencies as service delivery often takes a backseat to what portion of procurements and contracts can be diverted to private pockets.
The current NFF board has done well with the funding and preparation of national teams for tournaments, and the efforts have yielded positive results at both youth and senior levels over the last 18 months.
Despite these successes, there are signs that the conflict between Coach Keshi and the Football House is only simmering and not extinguished, with the relationship remaining antagonistic. A recent example of this is the NFF’s reported insistence that Keshi must accept a ‘foreign’ technical assistant to his bench. Someone might want to inform the NFF that Stephen Keshi already has a foreign technical assistant and the fact Valerie Hounandinou is black and African makes him no less competent than some European journeyman the NFF may be trying to shove down Keshi’s throat. While the competence of a coach is more important than his race, pointers to corrupt practices in the hiring of European coaches in the past gives the average observer a cause for concern.
Keshi’s recent history with the NFF has probably led him to a place where he views any unsolicited advice or suggestion coming from his employers with some suspicion, even if the suggestion is a good one. The suggestion of a 40 player camp for the World Cup is a case in point. A few days after the NFF went public with the suggestion, Coach Keshi went very public on how just how bad he felt this idea was. It did not help that the NFF’s release mentioned that the camp would open on May 25, 2014, three days before Nigeria’s May 28 friendly with Scotland, but twelve days after the May 13 deadline for a 30 man shortlist for the World Cup Squad should have been submitted to FIFA.
While it will be impossible to have a 40 man camp before the World Cup, a 40 player watchlist between now and May 13 is absolutely essential for the coach to select the strongest possible Nigerian team; A team that can win the World Cup in Brazil in a few months. A few deserving players have not had the opportunity to play recently due to injury and other reasons. A few players not previously considered should also be tracked to possible fill a couple of weak spots which remain in the team.
Keshi’s 40 Campers – Part 2
The suggested 40 man watchlist is broken down into four groups. Three groups with 11 players each, and a final group of 7 players. The groups are as follows:
Current Starters: Players who have been the regular starters when available over the last 18 months. Almost guaranteed to be in Brazil
Bench Regulars: Have been part of the squad for tournaments and matches. Sometimes see action when the starters are not available.
Deserving Outsiders: Have seen zero or limited action under Keshi, but their club form suggests they could be important contributors if given the opportunity.
Wildcats: Making the World Cup Squad might be a stretch for this group, but each player here could be an unorthodox difference maker, or a much needed plug for weak spots or problem areas in the team.
Vincent Enyeama (Lille, France):
The 2013 CAN represented a resurgence in form for Nigeria’s number 1, and he has maintained his good form to become one of the most dependable goalkeepers in Europe this season.
Efe Ambrose (Celtic, Scotland):
Continues to separate himself from the chasing pack at the Rightback position. Sometime fails to track back quickly after overlapping, but should start in Brazil.
Eldersen Echiejile (Monaco, France)
Has matured and seems to be growing in confidence at the Leftback position. Lack of regular playing time in Monaco and the tendency to get injured means that sufficient cover is needed at his position.
Kenneth Omeruo (Middleborough, England)
Continues his impressive development as a professional under former Aitor Karanka in the British Championship while on loan from Chelsea. Should be a mainstay at the back for the Eagles in Brazil
Godfrey Oboabona (Rizespor, Turkey)
Recent lack of playing time in Turkey is worrisome, and seemed to struggle in the latter stages in a recent Mexico friendly. No major threat to his starting position though, and will benefit from the extensive camping and friendlies before the World Cup.
Mikel Obi (Chelsea, England)
Mikel is most effective when playing in the limited role of protecting the backline and cleaning up after more dynamic and offensive minded midfielders. Attempts to play him in an advanced role amounts to shouldering him with responsibilities he neither has the tools nor lungs to deliver.
Ogenyi Onazi (Lazio, Italy):
Has developed into one of the most important members of the Eagles. Provides energy and creativity in the middle and is a threat from outside the box with his shots. Lazio recently sold his midfield partner, Hernanes to Inter, and Onazi himself has been the speculation of bids from Everton and other clubs. The unstable club situation should not affect him much, and we should see him at his best in Brazil.
Victor Moses (Liverpool, England)
Immensely talented, but hopefully learning some discipline and the concept of being a team player on the Liverpool bench. Has selfishly tried to go alone several times when a pass to an open teammate would have resulted in a certain goal. Might be better playing on the right than on the left for the eagles.
Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow, Russia)
His speed can be an asset and game changer for the team, but is decision making can be suspect and costly over 90 minutes against a top team. Substitute appearances in the last 30 minutes, especially when chasing a game would be ideal for him.
Brown Ideye (Dynamo Kyiv, Ukraine)
Hard worker, good header of the ball and comfortable with both feet, Brown Ideye has all the tools to be a top class player, but has struggled to make the impact his talent and effort deserve. Plays well with Emenike, but needs to score more for the Eagles.
Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbahce, Turkey)
Full of running and a handful for any defence. Has become better at taking the chances presented to him, and has the pace and guile to create for himself when necessary. Expected to lead the line for the Eagles in Brazil.
Keshi’s 40 Campers – Part 3
Austin Ejide (Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel)
Has been a competent backup to Enyeama for most of the past 12 years and saw a limited run as the starter under Vogts. Set a worrying trend of getting injured in his limited appearances against Cape Verde and Italy, but had a good 45 minutes in the recent Mexico friendly.
Solomon Kwambe (Sunshine Stars, Nigeria):
Has failed to take advantage of his long run with the team, and his poor displays extended to the recent CHAN tournament. His failure to get a deal from his recent trial in the MLS suggests that this is a player that is not yet ready to be a full fledged Nigerian International.
Benjamin Francis (Heartland, Nigeria):
In the same boat as Kwambe, and his underwhelming performances for the Eagles will create a crisis at the Leftback position if Eldersen gets injured. The 18 year Erhun Obanor put in a much more steady and assured performance when substituting for Francis in the recent CHAN tournament.
Azubuike Egwueke (Warri Wolves, Nigeria):
Undue mention is made about his supposed lack of pace, as he moves comfortably and has good footwork for a bigman. Excellent in the air, he has put in steady performances in his appearances for the National team. Deserves to be in Brazil.
John Ogu (Académica Coimbra, Portugal)
Has put in good shifts for the Eagles in friendlies against South Africa, Mexico (11 months ago), and Italy. Would be a good replacement for a constantly fading Mikel in the 2nd half of matches. Lack of regular playing time in Portugal a worry, but like Oboabona, should benefit from extensive camping before the World Cup.
Sunday Mba (Bastia, France):
Scored crucial goals in big games at the 2013 CAN. Back to playing regular football after long layoff due to club transfer disputes. His big game temperament and knack for crucial goals should make him a key option off the bench for the World Cup squad.
Ejike Christantus Uzoenyi (Enugu Rangers, Nigeria):
Announced his return to form in a big way with an outstanding CHAN tournament. He needs to have regular club action and maintain a high fitness level to play a big role for the World Cup Squad. Being primarily left footed in a team that desperately needs southpaws will stand him in good stead.
Nosa Igiebor (Real Betis, Spain):
Struggled at the 2013 CAN, and has been plagued with injuries lately. He is however having a good season with the bottom placed La Liga club and remains a viable option for the attacking midfielder spot.
Nnamdi Oduamadi (Varese, Italy)
Highs of a crucial last ditch equalizer against Kenya, and a hattrick against Tahiti have been followed by uninspiring performances for the National team. Has managed 3 goals in the Serie B this season, but like Moses and Nsofor, he is another right footed player masquerading on the left wing.
Victor Obinna Nsofor (Chievo, Italy)
A delightful freekick from Obinna killed off resistance from Ethiopia and secured the World Cup ticket for Nigeria, but he has struggled to get club games either in Russia or Italy this season. His most recent performances suggest a player who is past his prime and a poor shadow of what he once was.
Shola Ameobi/Uche Nwofor/Micheal Uchebo (Newcastle, England/Heerenveen, Holland/Cercle Brugge, Belgium)
These three giant strikers have a total of six league goals between them this season. They are grouped together because Keshi wants them for the same purpose; a big backup striker that can be a physical presence that will be tough for opposing defenses to handle. It is inconceivable that more than one player from this group make the final cut, and I’m not sure the team will miss much if none of them is selected.
Keshi’s 40 Campers – Part 4
Carl Ikeme (Wolverhampton Wanderers, England)
Ranked as one of the top goalkeepers in England not playing in the premiership, the big keeper had injury worries earlier in his career, but has been in excellent form over the last two years with loan spells at Middleborough and finally back to Wolves. Long overdue for a Nigerian cap.
Kenneth Otigba (Heerenveen, Holland)
Excelling under the tutelage of the legendary Marco Van Basten in the Eredivisie, Kenneth Otigba declaring for Nigeria is a major coup that will somewhat compensate for the losses of players like David Alaba and Dennis Aogo. Comparisons to Kenneth Omeruo are appropriate as he will strengthen the Central Defense and Right Back pool.
Joseph Yobo (Norwich, England)
Forced his way back into the World Cup conversation with a mid-season move to Nowrich. With regular playing time at the highest level, his form over the next couple of months and his ability to bury the hatchet with Keshi will determine if he makes the final cut.
Erhun Obanor/Femi Balogun/Joel Obi (Insurance, Nigeria/Olhanense, Portugal/Parma, Italy)
One of these three players is needed for the same role, as backup to Eldersen, and providing depth on the left side of Midfield.
Obanor showed much more poise and competence in the recent CHAN, than Benjamin Francis, the long tenured understudy.
His club might be struggling in the Portuguese 1st division, but Femi Balogun has started just about all of his club’s games, playing more games and minutes that both of his compatriots and fellow left footers (Echiejile and Ogu) combined. Included in the initial squad for a friendly against South Korea in August 2012, his form deserves a callup either as backup to Echiejile or to provide depth on the left side of midfield.
Joel Obi was the ‘Onazi’ before Onazi; a young combative and dynamic Italian based midfield player. He was an emerging star who played all 11 games for the Super Eagles in 2011. That was until injuries took their toll on his career. He is currently returning to form in the Serie A with Parma, and deserves an opportunity to compete as a backup in the thin Leftback and Left midfield positions.
Sone Aluko (Hull, England):
Making a timely return from an Archilles injury, he has the enough talent to start and be a difference maker for the national team. He has made the Premiership team of the team of the week this season.
Ramon Azeez (Almeria, Spain):
Has impressively worked his way up from U-17 and U-20 ranks over the last five years, and is having an impressive debut season in the Laliga. Currently in the a relegation dogfight with his club, the central midfielder could be a useful option off the bench for the Eagles.
Lukman Haruna (Dynamo Kyiv, Ukraine):
Had to fight his way into the 2010 world cup squad with impressive performances in friendlies just before the tournament. Was ranked by FIFA as Nigeria’s best outfield player in the 2010 World Cup. Has played for relatively big European clubs, Monaco and Dynamo Kyiv, since the World Cup. With excellent long range shooting, good passing and superior ball control, he seems like an obvious solution to the attacking midfielder question. However, he has not been invited to the national team for 3 years as former coach Siasia froze him out, accusing him of not playing to instruction in an U-20 match several years earlier.
Kalu Uche (Al-Rayyan, Qatar):
A bit tough to make a case for a 32 year old playing in Quatar, so I’ll start by stating that Stephen Keshi is an admirer and believer of his talent and abilities. Kalu and his brother Ike scored on Keshi’s debut, a tough 2-0 victory against a Zambian side that was crowned African champions a few weeks later. Keshi also invited Kalu to the Confed Cup, but he stayed away, citing contract issues, but the soured relationship between his brother, Ike and the coach, likely played a part. He is extremely versatile, with most of his appearances for Nigeria have been in the midfield or on the wings.
He was one of the bright spots of a disappointing 2010 World Cup, and has been one of the leading Nigerian goalscorers in Europe since then. Moved to Quatar this season, due to contract and pay disputes, but has continued his rich scoring form. His versatility, intelligence and experience could be immense for this team, especially if Michael Olaitan fails to make the cut.
Ike Uche (Villarreal, Spain):
Ike is a fan favorite with many highlight reel goals, but is not as versatile or as consistent a goalscorer as his brother. The fact that his dispute with Keshi is happening during his most productive goalscoring season has kept the matter in the press and on the lips of football fans. His disappointing 2013 CAN was likely due to the fact that he was just recovering from injury, but if reports of him undermining the coach are true, then it will take a lot more that public pressure for the coach to accept him back into the fold.
Peter Odemwingie (Stoke City, England)
Osaze endured a torrid final season with West Brom, and an anonymous time with Cardiff. His mid-season move to Stoke has however given him a new lease on life with, and he has announced his return to form with four goals in the second half of March. News of his reconciliation with Keshi means he might just force his way back to the team
Raheem Lawal (Eskisehirspor, Turkey):
A strong and skillful midfielder who can come up with the occasional odd goal, he has impressed at junior level and in a friendly under Keshi. Lawal however has the reputation of being a hothead who can be somewhat disruptive.
Keshi’s 40 Campers – Part 5
Femi Thomas/Okiemute Odah (Enyimba, Nigeria/Warri Wolves, Nigeria)
But for Ejide’s tendency to pick up injuries, Keshi might have been encouraged to bravely go with 2 keepers. Ikeme is the best option outside of the established two, but if the coach decides to go with a local based keeper, these two have been the class of the Nigerian league over the last two seasons.
Kelechi Iheanacho (Man City Trainee/England):
Pele and Samuel Eto’o are great players who played in World Cups as 17 year olds. While no one can say Iheanacho will be as great, it is hard to argue against 6 goals and 7 assists in the U-17 World Cup. Seemed set to make the CHAN team until be left camp to sort out club matters. Thankfully, Keshi has had the opportunity to evaluate this player first hand. There are slight concerns over the untidy nature of his move to Mancity, but recent images of him training under Patrick Viera in Mancity have eased those fears.
Isaac Success (Udinese Trainee/Italy):
As good as Iheanacho was, Success is actually the better rated player with most observers of youth football in Nigeria. An ill-timed injury limited him in the U-17 world cup, but did not stop Udinese from reportedly shelling out €1.4 million for his signature.
Abubakar Ibrahim Aliyu (Nasarawa United, Nigeria):
This explosive player could provide ‘instant offense’ if Nigeria is chasing a game at the World Cup. Hit the scene like a bolt out of the blue in the recent CHAN tournament. With good awareness and ability to finish in the box, the young man can also unleash cannons from long range.
Abiola Dauda (Red Star Belgrade, Serbia):
If Keshi ever wants a direct replacement for Emmanuel Emenike in terms of playing style, then the Red Star Belgrade Striker is the man. He has been clinical in his first season with the 1991 European Champions, and is attracting interest across Europe.
Michael Olaitan (Olympiacos, Greece):
Former U-21 coach John Obuh said he was initially not convinced of Olaitan’s talent, but it was obvious by the end of 2013 WYC that Olaitan, who played in a deep midfield role, was an exceptional player who was ready for the big stage. In the last months, he has played in midfield, support striker, on the wings, and the pointsman role for Olympiakos. This versatility is the reason he will be a key player for the Eagles soon but his recent health scare suggests he might miss the Brazil 2014 party.
Imoh Ezekiel Standard Liege, Belgium):
Nifty striker who has been in good scoring form over the last two seasons in Belgium. Made his debut for Nigeria against Mexico, after there were rumors that Belgium could cap him.
Kunle Odunlami Sunshine Stars, Nigeria):
Had a decent CHAN tournament, but no reason for him to displace any of the established players.
The 23 I’d take if fully fit
Vincent Enyeama, Austin Ejide, Carl Ikeme
Efe Ambrose, Kenneth Omeruo, Godfrey Oboabona, Elderson Echiejile, Azubuike Egwueke, Kenneth Otigba, Joel Obi (a midfielder but as cover on the Left Back position)
John Obi Mikel, Ogenyi Onazi, Sunday Mba, John Ogu, Ejike Uzoenyi, Abubakar Ibrahim Aliyu
Emmanuel Emenike, Brown Ideye, Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa, Peter Odemwingie, Sone Aluko, Kalu Uche
Erhun Obanor, Nosa Igiebor, Michael Uchebo, Lukman Haruna, Abiola Dauda
As I mentioned, this is my opinion on who deserves to be there, based on recent club and national team form. If I were to predict Keshi’s lineup, I think Shola Ameobi and Joseph Yobo will sneak their way into the team. Imoh Ezekiel could also make it in there. I think Olaitan’s injury and Kalu Uche’s recent history might mean they both don’t make the team.
I did not forget about Obasi, Anichebe, Ogude, Martins and Agbim. Nigeria just has better players that are in better form in the respective positions of each of these players at the moment.