My senior colleague, brother and friend Akinbode Oguntuyi must have been sharing the same thoughts with me sometimes last week when he posted a comment on twitter about the ongoing African Nations Championship(CHAN2020) in Cameroon.
He was unhappy that the tournament, which is for players in their home leagues only, is going on without Nigeria. Some how, we were becoming a regular feature at the CHAN having attended 3 straight editions between 2014 and 2018….before this time we always missed out. However, on two out of the three occasions that we appeared at CHAN, we finished on the podium.
As losing finalists at the last edition, the expectation was that we could do one better this time around but sadly, we did not even qualify to be among the best 16 National B Teams on the continent.
Our conquerors during the qualifiers, Togo did not go beyond the first round in Cameroon.
Oguntuyi disagreed with those who felt Nigeria’s absence in Cameroon is solely the fault of the players. He thinks everyone, from the football federation, the league organisers, the coaches and the players have to share some of the blame. I agree with his position because if the opposite was the case, as in 2018, everyone would share of the praise.
I then flashed back to the journey of the remarkable achievement of 2018 when the CHAN Eagles finished second behind the hosts Morrocco and decided it was worth more than just a mention.
Coaches Salisu Yusuf and Imama Amakapabo struck a perfect combo for the CHAN assignment. They had worked together briefly with the NPFL select side that toured Spain as part of a partnership arrangement between the NPFL and La Liga in 2016. Goalkeeper coach Alloy Agu was the final part of the triumvirate.
I worked regularly as a Match Delegate for the League Management Company during the 2016/2017 season and it made me a small but useful part of the equation.
Yusuf and Amakapabo had a mental picture of what they wanted the CHAN Team to look and play like. Yusuf was also going to put into good use some of the lessons learnt from the unsuccessful campaign of the 2016 team and will make his search for the best local talents more extensive and intensive.
Both men (Yusuf and Imama) have very good coaching experiences between them having handled some of the top clubs in the league. Infact, Imama just had a league winning experience with Rangers, Yusuf had won the Federation Cup with Enyimba and made very telling impact with Lobi Stars, Kano Pillars and Elkanemi before then, and Alloy Agu had also worked with a good number of clubs.
The lesson is this: When men with such rich experiences decide to work together, without any misgivings, the results are always outstanding.
Anytime I was out on league duties I would inform the coaches and they would give me a list of players to look out for. It was like they knew all the top players in the league.
Yusuf covered the north, Imama, the south. Everywhere was covered.
During one of my engagements, I was in Ilorin. The game was ABS, Ilorin versus Kano Pillars. The game was a very tough and exciting one, ending in a 1-1 draw.
As usual, the CHAN Team coaches gave me a list of players from both teams to monitor. I saw most of them and told them they were being considered for national assignments with the Super Eagles B Team. I did this so they could stay disciplined, consistent and hardworking.
The Assistant Coach and Media Officer of Kano Pillars at that time, Friday Christopher and Idris Malikawa, my good pals saw my interactions with some of their players and this led us into deeper discussions. Along the way, we talked about the challenges of starting the CHAN Team camp owing to paucity of funds.
The Confederation of African Football(CAF) had already released the fixtures for the qualifiers and we had been drawn against the winner of Togo vs Benin Republic. The Beninoise ousted Togo over 2 legs and were ready, super motivated to confront Nigeria.
Friday Christopher and Idris Malikawa gave life to my suggestion, turning it into a Master Plan. Both guys promised to discuss the ideas we had talked about with Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima, the chairman of the Kano State Sports Commission….the rest as they say is history.
Alhaji Galadima bought the idea and invited the home based Super Eagles to Kano for a week long camping exercise during which they will play two friendly matches against Kano Pillars.
The coaches were happy with this plan as it will help to kick start the preparations for the CHAN qualifiers.
Coach Salisu Yusuf is a Kano man…so everyone was on the same page. The Team Administrator of the Super Eagles perfected all the paper work with the speed of light and within a few days, it became official. The foundation of the 2018 CHAN Team was laid there and then.
The one week of camping in Kano soon became two, then three weeks because the Kano State Government kept extending their hands of fellowship…and so the CHAN Team became Kano based.
The team played friendly games against local club sides in Kano every other day. That first week, they played Kano Pillars twice and prepared for the qualifiers against Benin Republic there.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was a very good decision and professional attitude not to have taken Benin Republic for granted. They were a very tough team to crack.
We lost 1-0 in Cotonou to a late minute penalty and won the second leg in Kano 2-0. The Beninoise had a penalty in the second leg that was saved by goalkeeper and captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa. That was a defining moment. If that penalty went in, that would have been the end of our dreams.
After picking a ticket to the 2018 CHAN, the Super Eagles B Team participated in the WAFU Cup. It was a very difficult and physically draining tournament where a game was played every other day and there was four hours of road travel on those match days. Infact, the team didn’t have training sessions before most of the games only warm up exercises.
For the WAFU Cup, there was to be no bonuses or allowances but the Nigeria Football Federation(NFF) challenged the boys to keep whatever prize money they won.
The lads braved all the odds, played some of the best football at the competition and finished second, losing to the hosts Ghana in the final. Of course, they kept the prize money as reward for their hardwork but more importantly the character of a solid CHAN Eagles team was developing. The performance at the WAFU was testimony to the tenacity, ruggedness and never say die spirit of the average Nigerian home based player.
Inspite of all these, the coaches did not stop their search for better players. They(Salisu Yusuf and Imama Amakapabo) kept in touch with almost all NPFL coaches. I personally witnessed and facilitated a few.
I also remember an occasion that Coach Imama and I had to stay in Uyo for a few more days after a Super Eagles A Team game just to watch some players from Sunshine Stars and Akwa United in the Aiteo Cup.
Ahead of the 2018 CHAN in Morocco, preparations would also begin in Kano. The League Management Company(LMC) included the CHAN Eagles in the 2016/2017 season ending Super 6 playoffs in Kano along with Enyimba, Plateau United, MFM, Akwa United and Kano Pillars.
The CHAN Team won the tournament and proceeded to Abuja for the final phase of camping which lasted about four weeks. There was no yuletide break for the team. The boys were happy to sacrifice the festivities for a good outing in Morocco.
By the time the team was headed for Morocco, they had been properly drilled and prepared. They were a very disciplined band both on and off the pitch. At every place where the team camped in Morocco, from Casablanca to Tangier, Agadir, Marrakech and back to Casablanca, they left a very warm and positive impression of Nigerian football on the people.
Coach Gernot Rohr led a few technical support staff of the A Team to Morocco and they were all pleasantly surprised to see how well organised and disciplined the CHAN team was. On the pitch, the CHAN Eagles were very difficult to breakdown, a bunch of rugged fighters who would put their bodies on the line to get the desired results.
After the slow start to the tournament with a 0-0 draw against Rwanda, a game that could easily have ended 5-1 in Nigeria’s favour, the team gained strength and composure beating favourites Libya 1-0 and Equatorial Guinea 3-1, topping the group in the process.
The quarter final game against Angola was rated among the best games of the competition. With two injury induced changes early in the game, it was clear the team would face an uphill task against a very formidable opponent. Nigeria trailed till the second minute of added time, drew level with the last kick of the game and won it after extra time.
In the semi-final against Sudan, goalkeeper and inspirational captain Ikechukwu Ezenwa picked up a nasty knock in the early minutes and had to be rushed to the hospital, the team had a player sent off early in the second half but they held on doggedly to a 1-0 first half lead to make history.
Sadly in the final, the CHAN Eagles capitulated badly with a heart breaking 4-0 loss to the hosts Morocco. The team had been greatly diminished physically by the time it got to the final. About seven out of the eleven starting players were patched up for the game by the medical team, some needed very heavy strappings, others even needed jabs (injections) and added to these were those out owing to suspensions and injuries.
The team barely held things together till late in the first half, then a red card (deserved in my opinion) early in the second half. The lads could not produce a fight back, everything collapsed and it was clear to all that the turbocharged and highly motivated hosts could not be stopped.
Winning the trophy and the gold medal would have been the perfect reward for all the hard work but the silver medal feels like gold to me and, I am sure, to most members of the team.
The experience at CHAN 2018 is easily one of my most exciting moments as the Super Eagles Media Officer.
I know Nigeria will be back at the CHAN…and I hope the next batch of CHAN Eagles do one better than this 2018 band of heroes.
FULL LIST FOR CHAN 2018
Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba FC); Oladele Ajiboye (Plateau United); Theophilus Afelokhai (Enyimba FC)
Osas Okoro (Rangers International); Daniel James (Plateau United); Kalu Orji Okogbue (Rangers International); Ikouwem Utin (Enyimba FC); Abdullahi Musa (Wikki Tourists); Timothy Danladi (Katsina United); Ifeanyi Nweke (Kano Pillars); Stephen Eze (Kano Pillars)
Ifeanyi Ifeanyi (Akwa United); Rabiu Ali (Kano Pillars); Augustine Oladapo (Enyimba FC); Ekundayo Ojo (Sunshine Stars); Emeka Atuloma (Rivers United)
Anthony Okpotu (Lobi Stars); Eneji Moses (Plateau United); Ibrahim Mustapha (Enyimba FC); Emeka Ogbuh (Rivers United); Sunday Faleye (Akwa United); Nura Muhammed (El-Kanemi Warriors); Okechukwu Gabriel (Akwa United).
Sleep well Joe Erico, Big George.
I was left very devastated by two deaths in the last few days. Former Nigerian International goalkeeper and Super Eagles assistant coach Joe Erico and former Nigerian Basketball International
Bereofori George Soukari. Both served Nigerian sports and made great impact on many. They were passionate and kind hearted persons who gave back to society some of the opportunities their different sports gave them.
May God comfort their families and rest their souls.
Mimi makes history.
Nigeria’s top woman referee Mimisen Iyorhe was part of the first set of women only officials to handle a senior men’s game at a CAF competition. Iyorhe assisted Lidya Tafesse(Referee). Bernadettar Asimenye Kwimbira was the other assistant. They handled the Namibia vs Tanzania game at the ongoing CHAN 2020 in Cameroon.
Amaju Pinnick cleared for FIFA elections.
The Review Committee of FIFA have cleared the president of the Nigeria Football Federation(NFF), Amaju Pinnick for elections into the FIFA Council. The elections are to hold in March 2021.
This is just a little step forward. The main step is getting into the coveted position. I wish Amaju Pinnick the best of luck.