Nigeria will renew a historic rivalry with Ghana in Cape Coast on 25 March before hosting the Black Stars in the return leg three days later. The stakes could not be higher: on the line is a place at the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
Nigerians have gone from enthusiastic optimism to mild pessimism about the fixture since the draw took place on 22 January. On the day, the sense was that Ghana represented one of the more favourable match-ups possible for Nigeria. That point of view was only enhanced by the Black Stars’ dismal campaign at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). The four-time African champions finished bottom of group C – behind tournament debutants Comoros – and lost two of their three matches.
By contrast, the Super Eagles were flying high. Three wins from three matches in the group stage had secured them not only a place in the round of 16, but also the favourites tag. Having arrived in Cameroon with uncertainty hanging over them, Nigeria was suddenly a popular pick to go all the way.
All that positivity dissipated within the span of 36 hours, however, as Nigeria suffered defeat at the hands of Tunisia in the last 16.
The backlash was swift and not so much about the loss as the manner of it. Former international Jay-Jay Okocha, working as a television pundit for SuperSport, called it a “life lesson” and opined that Nigeria had been “outsmarted tactically”. It is a widely shared view, and one that has punctured the confidence of Nigerians in both the abilities of the coaching crew and the Super Eagles’ chances against Ghana in March. The anxiety has only grown since that disappointing exit as uncertainty continues to reign over Nigeria’s coaching situation.
A coach debacle
Following the sacking of long-serving coach Gernot Rohr in mid-December, former international Augustine Eguavoen, 56, was drafted in from his position as technical director of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to take charge of the team.
There was, however, little actual confidence in his ability to lead the Super Eagles. NFF president Amaju Pinnick, 51, said the federation was on the lookout for “someone who can do it better” and made it clear that if Eguavoen ended up leading the team to Cameroon, it would be for lack of an alternative.
At the time, talks were under way with a number of applicants and Portuguese coach José Peseiro, 61, was at the front of the queue. “If we are unable to sign him soon, then we will work with the current team and empower them to take us to Cameroon,” Pinnick said.
An agreement with Peseiro was ultimately announced, with the former Venezuela boss to act as an observer in Cameroon before taking over after the Afcon. It later emerged that Peseiro did not actually travel and had not, in fact, signed the contract sent over. Sources indicate he had reservations over the constitution of his back-room staff, preferring to have total autonomy in selecting his assistants.
That sense of confusion has persisted following Nigeria’s Afcon exit. Eguavoen appeared to resign, before clarifying otherwise, and then the federation said a decision on his leadership of the team would only be made following a review of the technical report he would submit.
Ultimately, a decision was reached on 7 February: Eguavoen would continue in the role, but with fellow class of 1994 member Emmanuel Amunike drafted in as first assistant to “inject some kind of technical sagacity”, as Pinnick put it.
However, even with that seeming resolution, the NFF head remains unwilling to fully commit to the arrangement. Eguavoen’s designation remains that of interim coach, and sources suggest that the decision to bring Amunike into the fold is at the behest of the sports ministry. Pinnick would prefer to bring in an overseas coach instead.
Pinnick himself confirmed this, revealing he was in talks with Peseiro until the very last minute. However, the former Porto and Sporting Lisbon manager put out a statement debunking the notion that an understanding had ever been achieved between the two parties and effectively ending the prospect of working with the NFF in any capacity in future owing to “disagreement over contractual clauses and financial matters”.
The boss’ ambition
There is reason to suggest Pinnick’s reticence is motivated by his political aspiration. The former Confederation of African Football vice-president ascended to the helm of Nigeria’s football in 2014 and won a second term in 2018, becoming the first person ever to do so. That second term is coming to an end with elections to be held in September 2022.
Sources suggest that although Pinnick has said on multiple occasions he would not seek a third term and publicly deflected recent questioning along those lines, he is actively working behind the scenes to secure another tenure in office. In a recent interview with the Guild of Sports Editors of Nigeria, Pinnick claimed that “a lot of people have come to ask me why do I want to leave”. The “reluctant leader” is a well-worn political ploy and is often understood to signify a declaration of intent, with implied public support used as a proxy for personal ambition.
The decision of the NFF congress to amend its statutes in August 2021 is understood to be part of a plan to extend the tenure of the president, allowing him to be at the helm during the World Cup in December. Of course, that plan relies on Nigeria actually qualifying for it.
This is perhaps the biggest reason Pinnick has been bent on securing the services of an overseas coach to lead the Super Eagles. A long-time sceptic when it comes to the capabilities of Nigerian coaches, he declared in 2016 that, following the resignation of erstwhile coach Sunday Oliseh, no other local coach would lead the national team under his watch. The Delta State-born administrator is unwilling to leave anything to chance in his bid to remain in charge beyond 2022.
With this in mind, the play-offs against Ghana in March assume even greater significance than was immediately apparent.
Nigeria’s defeat to Tunisia and early exit from the Afcon have apparently weakened Pinnick’s popularity somewhat. Much of the goodwill he has enjoyed as NFF president has been based on the relative success and stability the Super Eagles have enjoyed under his tenure, even to the neglect and detriment of other areas. Such a historically poor performance on the big stage is therefore a knock to his credibility, which means qualifying for and doing well in the World Cup is a sure-fire way to rehabilitate his image. And in Pinnick’s mind, an overseas coach would provide stronger guarantees in this regard.
While Eguavoen’s stock took a hit following the round of 16 elimination, he earned plaudits from pundits and players alike for his approach to man management. Team vice-captain William Troost-Ekong described the former Nigeria international as a “breath of fresh air” and implied his selections were based on merit. “Everyone is fighting to show themselves and everyone is really enjoying themselves at the moment,” he said, “and maybe that’s more special than what it was before.”
For others, such as Nantes winger Moses Simon, Eguavoen’s instructions were clearer compared with what he had got before and he felt this was liberating. “[Eguavoen] gave me the freedom to attack – just go do your thing and defend less. It allows us to bring our style of play from our clubs.”
Eguavoen’s tactics for the defeat to Tunisia have been criticised, but much of that disapproval has been based on the perceived predictability of his approach, rather than the team’s style of play. In the latter sense, Eguavoen has been lauded in some quarters for, in the words of legend Segun Odegbami, “playing football of the Nigerian brand”.
Returning cheerfulness to the Nigeria national team, while no substitute for a place in the Afcon quarterfinals – and maybe beyond – has made the prospect of letting Eguavoen continue in the role a little more palatable for observers and pundits. The success of a local coach in Aliou Cissé with Senegal has also strengthened the case for investing time and resources in the erstwhile technical director.
The belief is that, given more time to work with the team than the two weeks he did have, there is scope for Eguavoen to learn from his mistakes and lead Nigeria into the future. Ghana in March will provide the first major test for that idea, and with so much at stake it is a true acid test.