Afcon 2021: Seyi Olofinjana calls for a ‘football philosophy’ in Nigeria
As Nigeria prepares to mount their bid for a fourth African Cup of Nations title, their lack of forward planning and overall philosophy has been criticized by a former international.
The Super Eagles are often seen as an underachiever when it comes to African football, despite being the most populous nation on the continent with a deep-rooted passion for the sport and a series of talented players.
Long-time national team coach Gernot Rohr was sacked barely a month before the tournament kicked off in Cameroon on January 9, after being heavily criticized for failing to perform against lower-ranked opponents in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
Austin Eguavoen was named interim manager of the Nations Cup, but the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) then announced José Peseiro as Rohr’s successor on December 29.
However, the Portuguese are expected to come to the tournament as an “observer”, rather than taking over immediately.
Seyi Olofinjana, who has won over 50 caps for the Super Eagles, believes there has to be a change in attitude for Nigeria to live up to their high expectations.
“Talent has never been Nigeria’s problem. I think (the problem) is in the philosophy, it’s in the structure,” he told BBC Sport Africa.
“I think we are living in the moment as a people. We think ‘What can we do at the next Nations Cup?’ without thinking further. “
Nigeria will face seven-time winners Egypt, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau in Group D of the Nations Cup, and have been touched by forwards Emmanuel Dennis and Victor Osimhen abandon their team.
“We are like ‘Oh, we have prepared well. The boys have done well’ but there has to be a plan behind the way we play football,” added Olofinjana.
“Germany won the World Cup (in 2014) but didn’t win it when it was hosted in 2006. But there was a plan – a 10-year plan to win the World Cup.”
Future strategy for players and coach crucial
Former Wolves midfielder Olofinjana is the technical director of Grasshopper Zurich, having joined Switzerland’s most successful club in May.
He is the last African to hold such a post in Europe after compatriot Michael Emenalo held similar roles in English Premier League Chelsea and French club Monaco.
Olofinjana insists that any planning for the Nigerian game must be broad and long term.
“Which players do we need? What do the media need? What umpiring training do people need? the 41-year-old pointed out.
“It goes way beyond how to win a tournament on the pitch. For a country as big as Nigeria right now, there has to be a plan, there has to be a philosophy.”
While Nigeria has struggled to make a serious impact at the top level on the world stage, the country has enjoyed unparalleled success on other levels.
The West Africans have won a record five Under-17 World Cups, reached two finals at the U20 level and won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympics.
Olofinjana, who holds two masters – as sporting director and project manager, insists that all planning must integrate all levels in order to bring any success.
“In the next two, three World Cups, we want to win it. What does it look like? He asked.
“Which coach would fit into this strategy? Which players would fit into this strategy?
“We need to start exposing our young players to major tournaments, so that when it comes to this third World Cup, they are ready and have had the exposure they need.
“Now we are talking about Afcon. What preparations have taken place before we try to see if we can win the Africa Cup of Nations?
“And even when we don’t win it, what then? There’s always something after. And for me, the succession plan of where we need to be is what’s missing.”
Refuse the call from his country
Since their World Cup debut in the United States in 1994, Nigeria have reached all finals except the 2006 edition in Germany.
They reached the second round three times – in 1994, 1998 and 2014 – and failed to advance from a group including eventual finalist Croatia, double champions Argentina and Iceland at Russia 2018.
NFF President Amaju Pinnick has often said that one of his goals is to change the face of football in Nigeria, and in 2020 he approached Olofinjana about the role of technical director.
But he rejected the post, which was filled by Eguavoen.
“It was difficult, but at the same time easy,” remembers Olofinjana.
“I think the federation made it a bit easier for me to make this judgment. There were some questions that I asked the federation that they weren’t able to answer.
” What should be done ? Where do they think we are as a nation? Where do we have to go? How fast do we have to get to these places?
“I did not get answers to these questions and it is daily work for me. If there is no clarity, there is no future.
“Do I regret that I said no? Absolutely not. Is there a part of me that thinks this might be a good opportunity for me to go and put myself in the history books and d ‘trying to help my people? Absolutely! I am always looking for this opportunity
“I’ll keep knocking on the door. Any day. I don’t know the day. I’m Nigerian. I can’t change that.”