Eagles can win Afcon but not in 2013
Last Wednesday night the whole of Africa watched with keen interest as the draw of the 2013 African Cup of Nations was conducted in Durban, South Africa.
Immediately after the event (and for the next several weeks I believe) the conversations in most places in Africa will be about the various teams and their chances. That is the game before the games. I was dragged into it immediately by hoards of people who called me up and wanted to know my impressions.
That’s how I spent the whole of Thursday, answering questions and responding to people who wanted to know where I stood on Nigeria's chances.
What are my immediate thoughts on the 16 teams that have qualified to showcase most of Africa's best footballers next January?
Let me start at the home front - Nigeria. Nigeria's Super Eagles are locked in Group C with Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Zambia. How will they fare?
Group C is definitely not the dreaded 'group of death' in the 2013 Afcon. What this means is that under 'normal' circumstances, Nigeria should be favourites to emerge as one of the two that will qualify from the group, even if achieving this initial feat will not be quite as easy as my summation may sound.
I listened to a radio programme the other day. All the telephone callers to the programme lavishly predicted that the Super Eagles will win the African Cup of Nations come January. I could not help but wonder where this level of optimism comes from. It could not be from the team's last few performances, that have not been quite convincing until Liberia came along and made the Eagles look like champions.
The Super Eagles are an evolving team even now. They will need to tread very cautiously and fight extremely hard to survive. Some people say there are no minnows any more in African football. Bury the thought, there are.
It is like saying that either of Burkina Faso or Ethiopia will win the championship. No way! The two teams have been the regular 'wives' of Nigeria for decades. They cannot defeat the defending champions either. Zambia have continued to impress. Ethiopia and Burkina Faso will create a scare before falling in the first round.
The real rofo rofo (muddy) fight will be between Zambia and Nigeria. That may turn out to be one of the matches of the championship, depending, of course, on when during the group matches it is played. The matches between both countries at this level, even before my days in the national team in the 1970s and 1980s, have always been very close, very hard-fought and very unpredictable, with Nigeria doing more of the struggling to survive.
So, I foresee another terrific encounter between the Chipolopolo and the Super Eagles in January. That match may indeed be Nigeria's first authentic test of how strong the new Super Eagles have become since Stephen Keshi's experimentation of introducing several players from the domestic league into his new-look team.
Let me attempt to read Stephen Keshi's mind as he leads the Eagles to South Africa. He wants to win. To do so he wants to build a team of good players who are used to each other and fighting like wounded lions rather than a collection of famous players playing to the gallery like peacocks.
He has been looking at the strategies of teams that have won in the past and learning. He is building a new national team with a simple and clear playing style defined by previous winning teams.
Note that the teams with the best players in Europe have not always been the winning teams in Afcon, as recent results have shown. Otherwise Cote D' Ivoire, Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana should have won recent championships. It is Egypt and Zambia that have shone the light of the authentic winning formula.
Look at the content of the two teams and you will start to see what is playing in Keshi's mind. At their best they had predominantly local content that produced winning teams, not necessarily brilliant individual players.
So, the Eagles are back to playing fast and furious down both flanks. That has always been the strength of Nigerian football. They are hard to stop when they perfect it.
Keshi's biggest challenge yet would be his midfield combination and his choice of captain.
The midfield is undoubtedly the most important part of every team. That’s where the goals are created and prevented. That’s the engine room of every team. Keshi still does not have a consistent, confident and creative midfield that can complement the rampaging runners up front.
He has less than two months to get it right. The glaring fact is that Nigeria's midfield needs Mikel Obi like meat needs salt. His experience, holding ability and passing skills are invaluable. How to get his commitment may be Keshi's greatest challenge.
Keshi's choice of captain would also be another very important matter. Winning teams have strong captains to lead them through the difficult matches that are bound to come. Yobo has only looked the part for years but never played it effectively.
Vincent in goal is too remote from the main theatre of the action to impact the team well enough. Keshi requires a captain with the heart of a Lion like himself when he was in the national team, like Christian Chukwu, Christopher Katongo, Rigobert Song, Asamoah Gyan and Muda Lawal.
These are players who drove their teams to extraordinary heights with their industry and leadership-by-example. They played with a ruthlessness that propelled other team members to exceed their normal capacities and attempt to win always against all odds.
Keshi has to get such a player to lead his team if the Super Eagles are to stand any chance of going all the way. Can it be Mikel?
The good thing is that the Eagles do not even remotely look the part of eventual champions now, so they may be underrated by their opponents. The bad thing is that Nigerians expect them to win now and that may put on them that extra pressure that does not translate into victory.
Nigerians seem to think these Eagles will win the African Cup of Nations. I think differently. Surely, it is not impossible, but realistically it is unlikely.
At Afcon 2013 the Eagles will play well and get far in the championship but will only be ready to win it in 2014 or 2015.