THERE is perhaps no better demonstration of the pitiable state of Nigerian football than the just concluded Confederation of African Football (CAF) Awards, the 28th edition of which was held at the Albatros Citadel Sahl Hasheesh Resort in Hurghada, Egypt. Although Nigeria’s own Asisat Oshoala, who plays as a striker for Spanish side FC Barcelona Femeni in the Primeira Division, predictably took home the award for the African Women’s Footballer of the Year (her fourth time, thus equaling the record set by compatriot Perpetua Nkwocha), it was more or less a disastrous outing for Nigeria.
The gong for African Player of the Year deservedly went to Senegalese striker Sadio Mane, who plies his trade with Liverpool FC, the current European and World Club champions. Mane garnered 477 votes, beating his Liverpool mate, Egyptian Mohamed Salah (325 votes) and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez (267 votes) to the second and third position respectively. Not only was there no Nigerian player among the top three players on the continent, Nigeria also lost out in the other categories. For instance, despite being nominees for the category of African Youth Player of the Year, both Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal FC, Spain) and Victor Oshimen (Lille FC, France) eventually lost to Moroccan Achraf Hakimi who plays for German Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund. Most significantly, no Nigerian was listed in the CAF-Fifpro Best XI, the best African players by position for the year 2019.
It takes no special knowledge to observe that Nigeria’s poor showing at this year’s awards, particularly in the men’s game, continues a downward trend. While Nigeria has failed to produce the winner for the category of African Women’s Footballer of the Year only thrice since 2010, the country has failed to produce a winner in the men’s category since Nwankwo Kanu emerged winner in 1999. In both 2003 and 2004 respectively, Austin Jay-Jay Okocha could only manage a third position. The closest a Nigerian footballer has come was in 2013 when John Obi Mikel was runner up to the Ivorian midfielder, Yaya Toure.
Now, awards are not the be-all and end-all in any area of human endeavour, let alone something as unstable as the fortunes of football players. Yet, especially over time, they can provide a useful vehicle for monitoring the progress of particular individuals, clubs, or countries. Accordingly, it becomes possible to contrast Nigeria’s poor showing over the past decade and more with its relative dominance in the 1990s. For example, between 1992 and 1999, Nigeria produced the winner five times, with Rashidi Yekini blazing the trail in 1993 and Emmanuel Amunike following suit in 1994. Such was the country’s dominance in the 1990s that a Nigerian player was either runner up or third even in the years that a Nigerian was declared winner.
It is an understatement to say that since that glorious era, things have gone south for the country. The explanations for this situation are many, and go beyond the narrow confines of football. Despite repeated promises, the country has failed to modernise its sport. Its stadia are in shambles (the National Stadium, Lagos, and the Obafemi Awolowo Stadium [formerly Liberty Stadium] Ibadan, are good examples), and most of the catch-them-young initiatives which used to provide a platform and training ground for its emerging stars have either completely run aground or are wobbling on their last legs. Today, no Nigerian footballer worth his salt plays in the anaemic Nigerian Professional Football League. What applies to the average footballer applies to every young athlete in any discipline in Nigerian sport.
The solutions to Nigeria’s football (and sporting) problems are too well known to be rehashed here. If the country’s sport administrators don’t sit up and act as a matter of urgency, the country will continue to regress, and its best talents will continue fleeing to other parts of the world where the infrastructure is superior.