In the past few months, Gernot Rohr, the German coach of Nigeria’s national football team, has been combing European leagues for players of Nigerian parentage, but hewn on the rich technical diet of European football, to make up his new-look Super Eagles en route to Russia 2018.
It is a clear demonstration of his dissatisfaction with the number and quality of players available and emerging through the domestic Nigerian leagues, players who should have been in the mold (but are not) of Finidi George, Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel the Bull Amokachi, Papillo Kanu Nwankwo, Chief Justice Adokie Amiesimaka, Muda Lawal, Nathaniel Adewole, Stanley Okoronkwo, and so on. They were legends imbibed with the DNA of true Nigerian football – power, speed, unadulterated attacking and wing play mentality, never-giving-up spirit, the love of show boating and the art of the dribble.
The movement of players to Europe provided the locally bred players the ingredients missing from their Nigerian grounding – better technique, better tactical understanding and the discipline of organised team play. Within a few months they learn quickly and become the complete material.
That’s how it has been since Nigeria started exporting its ‘raw’ but gifted players to Europe for essential refinement.
Now the process is being reversed. Coach Rohr is experimenting with importing Nigerian players fed exclusively on the diet of European grassroots football. These are players without the natural characteristics of the homegrown players.
With the way things are unfolding under Rohr, it is not far fetched to think that in the not too distant future Nigeria’s Super Eagles will be dominated by a foreign legion of European-born and honed football players, technically sound but lacking the flamboyance, flair, fighting spirit, showmanship, physicality and die-hard attitude of the local home breed when it comes to matches against Cameroon and Ghana in particular, their two fiercest rivals on the continent.
Two weeks ago, as the Eagles prepared to play two friendly matches in London, names of invited players sprung up that Nigerians were not familiar with, with faces they had never seen. And the number of these ‘strangers’ representing Nigeria is growing.
The list of invited players to the national team for the two friendlies is revealing: Carl Ikeme, William Troost Ekong, Leon Balogun, Ola Aina, and Tyronne Ebuehi. And there are more of these previously unknown, fully European-Nigerian players in coach Rohr’s radar.
I am not quite sure, but the concern in local beer parlours in Nigeria now is whether with more of these players the Super Eagles will be able to play with their characteristic style and intensity that defines Nigerian football and makes it attractive to global football purists.
With very difficult matches still ahead in the World Cup 2018 African qualifiers how will this foreign legion of Eagles face up to teams like Cameroon and Algeria? These are matches where winning requires much more than technical ability on the field, where matches are driven and won by sheer fighting spirit, physicality and the passion fueled by a deep rivalry that makes the matches between the countries look like war.
It is hard to know now what the full implication of this emerging interesting scenario will be. But Nigerians are watching and taking it all in, waiting for time to tell.