Westerhof still a hard act to follow
There are a number of reasons why it is important for Nigeria to at least get past the group stage at next year’s Afcon, one of which is to preserve the life span of the present coaching crew of the Super Eagles to ensure continuity.
The authorities have not hesitated to fire erring coaches and this has led to a constant rebuilding of the side.
It’s been 18 years since the departure of the legendary Clemens Westerhof and in that period Nigeria have had 11 different coaches. Shaibu Amodu had four spells as coach.
Nobody knew Westerhof when he came to Nigeria in 1989 and he has achieved little since quitting the Super Eagles but he was able to succeed here because of the talent he met and nurtured to stardom.
Had he not taken over from Paul Hamilton, the likes of Uche Okechukwu, Ben Iroha, Thompson Oliha, Daniel Amokachi and a couple of others may not have made their international breakthrough at the 1990 Afcon. The team had a strong mix of the old and new generations, as well as continuous infusion of new talent that made the Eagles so strong from that point.
Westerhof also had the strong character needed to keep a team, with a lot of bloated egos, going. Besides being a good coach (technically and tactically), he was an excellent manager of his players.
The Dutchman is truly a legend. He lasted five years, the longest ever in the history of Nigerian football, and won silver, bronze and gold in the Afcon as well as leading the Eagles to their first ever World Cup. The Eagles reached the second round before bowing out to eventual runner up, Italy, and were ranked fifth in the world and second most entertaining team.
Westerhof quit immediately after USA ‘94 but he left behind what, at the time, could be considered the most feared side in Africa. Many believe they could have won the 1996 and 1998 Afcons, had they taken part.
Since then there has been this argument that the main reason Westerhof was able to achieve what he did was because he was given enough time and that subsequent coaches have not had the same opportunity. This reasoning is gaining more ground and needs to be checked.
Apart from Amodu, Phillipe Troussier and Bora Multinovic, no other coach sacked since the exit of Westerhof deserved to stay a day longer.
Jo Bonfrere was sacked after he virtually put Nigeria's World Cup qualifying campaign in jeopardy in 2001. He had earlier taken the team to the final of the 2000 Afcon and the Under-23s to the quarterfinal of the Olympic soccer tournament but, had he not been sacked, Nigeria would probably not have qualified for Korea/Japan.
Adegboye Onigbinde took the Eagles to Japan/Korea after Amodu had qualified the team. He dropped key players from the side for reasons best known to him and in their place came a bunch of rookies - most of whom went into oblivion thereafter - and a spent Mutiu Adepoju.
Nigeria failed to reach the second round for the first time after losing their opening two games and the Fifa instructor tried to justify staying on so as to continue his rebuilding. The days of his pranks were over and the NFA did the right thing to part ways with him.
Christian Chukwu won bronze at the 2004 Afcon but failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup from a group comprising Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Gabon, with the Palancas Negras getting the draw they desired right there at the Sani Abacha Stadium. Allowing him to continue would have spelt disaster.
Augustine Eguavoen got to the semifinal of the 2006 Afcon, where they lost to Ivory Coast. Perhaps he was unlucky to be relieved but it was the third straight bronze and the authorities were expecting much more.
Berti Vogts, a European Championship winner with Germany in 1996, led the team to a quarterfinal defeat to hosts Ghana in 2008, a bar below the usual semifinal elimination, and had to pay the price. If Eguavoen could be sacrificed after winning bronze, then Vogts had no case. Besides, the team laboured through the group stages against the likes of Mali and Benin.
Lars Lagerback found himself in charge at the 2010 World Cup after Amodu had qualified the team and failed to qualify from a relatively easy group that also had South Korea and Greece. He could have stayed on if he wanted but opted to leave.
Samson Siasia was the favourite to replace Lagerback following his success at age grade level but he failed to even qualify for the 2012 Afcon. He was duly sacked but fought back initially, threatening to sue his employers for wrongful dismissal. Unfortunate as it seemed, what could Siasia have expected when those who won bronze at the Afcon fell short of the requirement? There was a clause in his contract to take the team to the semifinals and he could not even qualify for the tournament.
Added to his immediate past records of failure with the 2009 class of Flying Eagles and Heartland FC in the 2010 Champions League, it would have been a very huge gamble to entrust the 2014 World Cup qualifiers in Siasia's hands and the NFF cannot be faulted for showing him the door. There were bizarre calls in some quarters that he should be allowed to stay on.
Stephen Keshi rose to fame as an international coach after qualifying little Togo for the World Cup ahead of continental powerhouses like Morocco and Senegal in 2006. However, he was sacked a few months later after failing to take The Hawks beyond the first round of the Afcon. Of course there was the much publicised row with national idol Emmanuel Adebayor, who claimed the big boss wanted to manage him.
He later guided Mali to the 2010 Afcon but again failed to go beyond the group stage and got the boot. He was in the running for the Super Eagles job with Siasia but lost out and it was no surprise they turned to him immediately Siasia got the chop. His first assignment in charge of a Nigerian team was in 2001 when the Under-20s failed to progress past the group stage at the Africa Youth Championship.
So, having qualified Nigeria for the 2013 Afcon, what will it take for Keshi to avoid the chop and be given five years or more to build a strong side like Westerhof?
He would have to go a step further than his previous tournaments by getting past the group stage in South Africa and that is by no means a tall order. The draws have been kind to him so far in the Afcon qualifying, Afcon finals and World Cup qualifying and there should not be much of a problem between the Afcon finals and the next stage of the World Cup qualifying.
Drawn along with Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, the Eagles should be able to make progress in the Afcon, while they are expected to see off the challenge of minnows (yes, there are still minnows) Malawi, Namibia and Kenya to reach the final stage of the World Cup qualifiers.
The side needs to improve technically too and only the best players, whether based at home or abroad, should be considered.
The key to Westerhof's longevity was that, rather than stutter, he made progress at each stage of his stay. Nigeria may have won bronze at Senegal 92 but they were unlucky and could have gone all the way. With minor changes, such as Friday Elaho making way for Emmanuel Amunike, Jay Jay for Friday Ekpo and Chidi Nwanu for Keshi, he was able to leave a sound legacy before departing.
One of the strongest characters in the Nigerian game, Keshi is on course to matching his ''masters'' achievements with the results posted so far but the ball remains firmly in his court to sustain it as the challenges will get harder as time goes on.