Nigeria may never win the World Cup - Conversation with Sam Okpodu.
‘What have you people been doing to enable us win the World Cup in Rio in 2014?'.
I look around me. Who is that question meant for? I am alone with Sam in the room, so he can only have been talking to me.
Is he out of his mind? Winning the World Cup in 2014? Who is talking about winning the World Cup in 2014? Wait a minute, when did the World Cup become ten for kobo, so cheap that any Nigerian can be dreaming of winning it in 2014? Even Pele has long swallowed his misplaced prediction, after watching Victor Ikpeba and co in Scotland in 1989 at Under-17 level, that, with the way the 'young' Nigerian lads were playing, they would win the senior World Cup by the turn of the Century. Well, the end of that Century has come and gone, and some 12 years into this new Century, Nigerian football is groping in the dark. With what is happening to the Super Eagles, the World Cup is as from Nigeria as the earth is to Pluto! I can understand Nigeria buying a replica of the cup in Rio and bringing it back home, not playing and winning the real thing in 2014? If it is a joke, Sam, please stop it!
But is Sam really thinking that winning the 2012 World Cup is about good coaching that will take the Super Eagles to Rio in two years time and make them win the Cup? No, Sam, no, you cannot be serious!
Unfortunately, that is the look I see on his face - very serious.
Sam has done well for himself in the world of football. As one of the most respected Black coaches in the USA, his work in collegiate football speaks volumes about his wide experience and knowledge about the technical aspect of football administration. In the past two years he has added the dimension of football organisation at the grassroots level to his bulging credentials. He was appointed Executive Director of the South Carolina Youth Soccer Association in charge of designing and implementing a technical development programme for youth football in the whole of South Carolina State. He is the first and, perhaps, the only African to have occupied such an important position in American football history.
Before that, he had been coach of several colleges and university men's and women's football teams, and, for his contributions and achievements, he was elected the first African to chair the over 3000-member Black Coaches Association of America. That is Samuel Okpodu.
This is our conversation.
Sam : 'What plans have you people put in place to win the 2014 World Cup?'.
Me: 'Win the 2014 World Cup? Are you out of your mind?', I ask him. 'Who says we have any intention to win the World Cup any time soon?'
Me: 'What plans could we have put have in place? We do not have a culture of proper planning well ahead of time. We have a new coach - Stephen Keshi. We also have so many players in the national team now that it is now hard to keep track of who's who in the final Super Eagles line-up. We are still building a team, and that is extremely challenging considering the problems Keshi inherited. As far as I know Keshi is still trying to identify the best players available to him from both inside and outside the country. It will take more time than he has at his disposal now obviously, but he is doing his best. Thats all I know'.
Sam: 'Winning the World Cup is a long-term plan. It involves taking a microscopic look at the grassroots and selecting the best 40 or so young players from each region of the country every year and taking them through a rigorous programme of training and competition with other regions. This shall go on for at least 4 years between the World Cups. That way there is a continuos stream of the 20 best players from the youth programmes coming through to join the elite team of players playing in local or foreign clubs. The production of good players must never stop. Get them a good coach, set up a good plan, and with the kind of natural talent we have, Nigeria will be on your way to winning the World Cup'.
Me: 'So, you think it is as easy as that?
Sam:There are a hundred other factors that will come into play. Is there the administration to drive this plan? Is there a process or programme for identifying genuine young players? Will Nigerians give any coach the time and opportunity to discover genuinely young players and expose them without the pressure of winning by hook or by crook? Can we really be authentic and not cheat so that we can take the real young talents through the process of proper coaching that will prepare them for football at the highest level?'
Me: 'I like your enthusiasm, optimism and confidence in your ability to coach any set of good players and win the World Cup, but with all due respect, I do not believe Nigeria can even smell the Cup in the near future. Where are the good players? Corruption has eaten too deep into or fabric. We are happy with the small victories at youth level and so we sacrifice victory at the World Cup level.'
Sam: 'What you say is true, but I thought, we are working at ridding football of the age-cheats'.
Me: 'No, Sam, can we rid the country of general corruption? I asked a player who was brought to my office the other day by his father to tell me how old he is. He looked at his father who gleefully remarked that his son's coach is yet to give him a date of birth. Thats what we are coping with every day everywhere. We have all giving up on arresting that situation. Thats why I have also given up on Nigerian football. We have reached our highest peak. We are at a plateau!'.
Me: 'After my return from the USA a month ago, I saw and experienced the depth of the decay in the system and the active participants in it. Corruption has permeated the core of our being. It is all around us. In football, everyone's involved, from parents, to games masters, to coaches and administrators. No one is immune from its bad influence. Directly or indirectly we are all caught inextricably in its awful web. Parents are the greatest culprits and accomplices in this grand larceny. Unless we are ready to confront the demon we have created ourselves and be ready to give up our appetite for unmerited victories at junior levels, stop rewarding the cheats that win at those levels, and severely punish those that are caught cheating, then it is foolhardy to think that there would be no price to pay for our indiscretions. That price, unfortunately, is that we may never win the World Cup in the foreseeable future'.