Eagles’ Bryan storm

Nigeria's dance of the seven veils with new national coach Bryan Robson should come as no surprise to students of the west African country's football, such as Alan Duncan

Listen to any Nigerian footballer talk for any length of time and you will notice how his every football-ing fantasy peters out with a “God willing”, or an “inshallah”. While it is tempting to read into this no more than a case of fatalism, this idiosyncrasy says much of a lifetime’s experience spent learning not to take anything for granted.

Take any 12 months in the Nigerian football calendar and there will be no shortage of revelations from the Nigerian Football Association (NFA), on everything from future coach appointments, training camps, to the odd billion-dollar World Cup aspiration. Press for an answer on the specifics of any given plan and you are bound to find an all too revealing lack of clarity.

On October 1, the NFA Secretary General, Taiwo Ogujobi, commented in London that he was in Eng­land on official business, but would not go into “any specific plans”. That this top-secret mission had any­thing to do with the search for a new coach for the national team, the Super Eagles, was even by the NFA’s own standards of stealth and deception, something of a give-away. Less than a week later, England’s erstwhile Captain Marvel, Bryan Robson, was widely reported to have been the mystery 46-year-old courted by the NFA and now odds-on favourite to lead the Super Eagles into next year’s African Nations Cup finals in Tunisia. Robson for his part remained largely silent, reinforcing the common view that everything was still up in the air until he had signed on the dotted line.

Nearly a month and a string of cancelled unveiling ceremonies in Lagos later, Robson had come no closer to as much as holding a ticket on the Heathrow Express from his future employers than he was to having a contract at hand.

Discouraging as this may seem, the simple reality is that normal rules do not apply when dealing with the NFA. All the signs may have pointed to a game of procrastination, but it should still come as no surprise to anyone to see the former Middlesbrough manager finalise an initial six-month contract worth around US$300,000 (£180,000) when he eventually reaches west Africa, with the latest arrival date being put for November 3.

Nigerian football is made up of complex forces at the best of times. And at the worse of times merits no less than a parental-advisory certificate. The treatment afforded Robson is no different than that experienced by predecessors such as the Dutchman Jo Bonfrere or the Yugoslav Bora Milutinovic. It is, they say, a final ritual in negotiations, every bit as it is the first move in a game of quickly establishing who is boss.

Yet, if there has been something distinctly Python­esque about the build-up to Robson’s appointment, the irony of his nomination extends to sections of a local sports press who have already welcomed him as something of a long-awaited footballing messiah. That Nigerian football is in desperate need of salvation still does not solve the riddle as to why Robson, out of work since leaving the Riverside in June 2001, has been chosen.

For starters, it is reported that the for­mer England captain took it upon him­self to contact the NFA as far back as August of this year. The Nigerian FA, who had initially been looking at a shortlist of French coaches that included Alain Giresse and former Senegal coach Bruno Metsu, gradually became swayed by the idea of appointing their first English coach, not least because both parties were content to go along with a short-term commitment.

Moreover, going English makes sense, albeit as an afterthought. There are now more Nigerian players playing in the English leagues than at any other time in the past. The fact that there are barely three months to go before kick-off in Tunisia adds to the need for a build-up of minimum disruption complemented with proposed training camps in England. Robson, at the very least, can be expected to offer value for money in appraising the club form of his charges.

Yet if Robson is a measure of Nigeria’s ambitions, what does it say about the country’s football? Most significantly, that they have had coaches with far less substantial credentials in the past. Clemens Westerhof was one, suc­­cessfully employing his compatriot sidekick, Bonfrere, on the training pitch, while he skilfully con­trolled the tempo with the NFA off the field. Westerhof led the Super Eagles to the 1994 Nations Cup, also in Tunisia, and came within minutes of reaching the quarter-finals in the World Cup that year.

Robson’s greatest asset is deemed to be his relative youth (if rumours are to be believed he’s not much older than some of Nigeria’s senior players) and for this alone he should manage the rare feat of commanding respect in the dressing room. That is, of course, for being the great player he is still remembered as.

Drawn in a tough opening group that includes South Africa and Morocco, Rob­son will not be short of reasons for mitigation if at all goes wrong – British press interest in the quirks of Nigerian football alone will see to that.

From the NFA’s perspective, if their masterplan backfires, they will have still managed to land a cheap escort service to a Nations Cup now devalued by its transformation in alternate tournaments from 2006 onwards into Africa’s qualifying series for subsequent World Cups. While the NFA and their coaches habitually work at different speeds, never mind for different goals, the truth is Robson could never have had more need of the street-wise skills of his former mentor Terry Venables. That is, if only to see beyond the lingering smokescreen which is Nigerian football.

From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month