‘It’s Sad African Nations Cup Begins Without Nigeria’
FORMER Super Eagles’ defender, Isaac Semitoje, was silent for some minutes when he was asked to speak on the 2015 African Nations Cup party, which begins today in Equatorial Guinea.
When he finally gathered himself, Semitoje said: “It is so sad that we have to learn in a very hard way. As an ex-player for the senior national team, I always feel bad watching other teams instead of cheering our Super Eagles in a big occasion like this. I am not happy, but as I said, our failure to qualify for the 2015 Nations Cup is a hard lesson to every Nigerian, especially those of us in the football family.”
From being a ball boy on the streets of Benin City in the early 1970s, Semitoje grew to become one of the most accomplished footballers of his time. He was in Edokpolor Grammar School, Benin City, where he became a warlord, captaining the school’s football team to win various sports competitions within and outside the old Bendel State.
Semitoje played his way to the national team after featuring for various clubs, including Niger Valley FC of Benin City, Utility Bombers of Ilorin (now Kwara United), Flash Flamingoes, Bendel United and Iwuanyanwu Nationale.
He bulldozed his way to the national team and was part of the Super Eagles team to Algiers ’90 African Nations Cup, where the team bounced back from a 5-1 defeat to the host in their opening game to reach the final, which they lost 1-0 also to Algeria.
The high point of his football career came in 1994 when he made history with Super Eagles by winning the African Nations Cup in Tunisia.
In Tunisia ’94, Semitoje teamed up with Peter Rufai, Wilfred Agbonavbare, Alloy Agu, Ben Iroha, Austin Eguavaon, late Uche Okafor, Stephen Keshi, ‘Gentle Giant’ Uche Okechukwu, Emmanuel Amuneke, Finidi George, Nduka Ugbade, Edema Fuludu, Austin Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Mutiu Adepoju, Dan Amokachie, Samson Siasia and the late Rashidi Yekini to lift the trophy, the second for Nigeria.
It took another 19 years before the Super Eagles could win the Nations Cup a third time at South Africa 2013. But barely a year after, the Eagles failed to fly, thereby denying football-loving Nigerians the opportunity of seeing their darling team defending their Nations Cup title.
Semitoje said non-qualification for the 2015 Nations Cup might affect the nation’s football negatively, unless the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) acts fast by putting mechanism in place to develop football at the grassroots level.
Another former Super Eagles player, who was part of the heroic Tunisia ’94 squad, Edema Fuludu, said the absence of Nigeria in the 2015 Nations Cup would adversely affect the nation’s domestic league.
Fuludu reasoned that Super Eagles’ absence in Equatorial Guinea might reduce the chances of scouts coming to look for players in the Nigerian league.
“Economically, our non-presence in this football party in Equatorial Guinea is not good for us because it is a bad business for the local league. It will affect the domestic league in a way because the players, who stood to benefit, might be ignored by those who want to take them out to ply their trade in Europe and other parts of the World.
“It is when our national team excels at a place like the Nations Cup that the domestic league will have quality sponsorship they will use as a bargaining stake. But it depends on how the current NFA does it because they want to rejuvenate our domestic league,’’ Fuludu said.
Another ex-international, Tarila Okorowanta, is also sad that Nigeria’s flag will be missing as the Nations Cup kicks off this afternoon in Equatorial Guinea.
“It’s a pity Nigeria will not be part of this Nations Cup party, but we must learn from our mistakes to avoid such situations in future. We should always take every qualifier seriously if we want to be present at major competitions,” Okorowanta advised.
He, however, opined that the Eagles’ absence would have minimal effect on the fans following events in Equatorial Guinea.
Another ex-international, Teslim Fatusi, said it is a pity that fans would be deprived the opportunity of cheering up the Super Eagles. “It is a sad thing that Nigeria is not part of this competition. Even other participating teams and CAF will feel Nigeria’s absence,’’ Fatusi said.
A former Eagles’ goalkeeper, Segun Oguns, said the country’s non-participation “is a big minus to soccer development in Nigeria.”
Oguns said it was a shame that after winning the last edition, the Eagles could not be in Equatorial Guinea to defend the title.
“The truth is that we have disappointed ourselves because we are heavyweight when it comes to continental football.’’
Nigeria made first impact in the AFCON in Ethiopia in 1976, where the country placed third in the tournament.
The country did not qualify for the 1986 edition and also withdrew from the tournament in 1996 because of a diplomatic stand-off with South Africa, which hosted the event.
The Super Eagles could not also make it to the 2012 edition of the competition, which was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Uphill Battle For Hosts in Opener
Hosts Equatorial Guinea will get the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations underway when they face Congo in the tournament’s opening match today’s kick-off Group A clash at Estadio de Bata. It will begin at 18h00 CAT.
Equatorial Guinea were originally expelled from the 2015 AFCON in the qualifying phase after fielding an ineligible player, but Morocco’s withdrawal as hosts allowed the central-west African nation to step in and pick up the role of hosts at the last minute.
This will be Nzalang Nacional’s (National Thunder) second participation in the Nations Cup. Their debut was in 2012 when, as co-hosts with Gabon, they reached the quarterfinals of the competition.
The host nation’s side did not enjoy a particularly smooth build-up to the 2015 event. They axed Spanish coach Andoni Goikoetxea late last year and appointed Argentine Esteban Becker with less than two weeks to prepare for this opening match.
They were also the last team to submit their squad list to CAF, further underlining their lack of preparedness.
Congo, in contrast, enjoyed a strong qualification campaign under veteran coach Claude Le Roy. They finished second behind South Africa in their preliminary group and helped eliminate reigning AFCON champions Nigeria, famously defeating the Super Eagles 3-2 in Calabar back in September.
‘The Red Devils’ also have a greater pedigree in the Nations Cup, having won the tournament in 1972 in Cameroun.
However, they have not been regular qualifiers for the finals in the decades after that triumph and will be looking to re-establish their reputation this time around.
The teams have met in six previous official international matches and Congo claimed five wins compared to Equatorial Guinea’s one.
This will be their first clash in the Africa Cup of Nations finals. Their most recent match was a friendly in N’Djamena in March 2007, which Congo won 2-1.
Stallions, Panthers In Bata Battle
Burkina Faso and Gabon will look to get their Group A campaign off to a winning start, when they meet at Estadio de Bata today. Kick-off is 21h00 CAT.
Burkina Faso were the runners-up at the last Nations Cup tournament, losing 0-1 to Nigeria in the final after putting together a fantastic campaign in South Africa 2013.
The Stallions will be appearing in their 10th continental finals and aiming to once again compete for the trophy.
Coach Paul Put, who has been in charge of the team since March 2012, oversaw a solid qualifying campaign in which Burkina Faso ended second (behind Gabon) in their preliminary group, losing just once.
With Jonathan Pitroipa, the 2013 AFCON player of the tournament, still at the height of his powers, most pundits expect the Stallions to be one of the more attack-minded teams in this tournament.
Gabon have their own star in the shape of Borussia Dortmund attacker Pierre Aubameyang. The lightning-quick 25-year-old scored two goals in qualifying to help the Panthers finish top of their preliminary group (ahead of Burkina Faso) with an impressive unbeaten record.
Gabon will be appearing in their sixth Nations Cup tournament in 2015. Their best showing is reaching the quarterfinals, both in 1996 in South Africa and as co-hosts in 2012.
The teams have met in 17 previous official international matches and Gabon have claimed six wins compared to Burkina Faso’s three, with the remaining eight encounters ending in draws.
Their last competitive meetings were in the qualifiers for this very tournament – the Panthers won their home leg 2-0 in Libreville, while the return match in Ouagadougou ended in a 1-1 draw.
Burkina Faso coach Paul Put had criticised facilities put in place for the 2015 Afcon, saying the event should have been delayed until June.
Preparations at the venues and in host cities have also come under scrutiny – in Malabo, workmen were still busy getting the stadium in the capital ready on Thursday, with press facilities clearly not in a position to welcome the world’s media.
No Clear Favourite
On the field, there is no overwhelming favourite for this tournament, with many of the teams considered to have a realistic chance of emerging as champions.
Algeria are Africa’s top-ranked team and would have been one of the firm favourites were the event still taking place in Morocco.
So too would Tunisia, who were impressive in an unbeaten qualifying run in a preliminary group competition that lasted three months from September to November.
But North African teams rarely succeed in the difficult conditions of central Africa.
There is likely to be a strong challenge from the West African teams Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, who were surprise runners-up in South Africa two years ago.
Mali have finished third at the last two editions and Ghana have played in the last four semi-finals.
Reigning champions Nigeria did not qualify, meaning they will sit out the tournament along with seven-times winners Egypt – the most successful nation in the competition’s history.
Call For Boycott By Opposition Parties
Opposition parties in the host nation have called for residents to boycott matches in protest at the human rights situation in the country.
In a joint statement, they asked “citizens not to go to football stadiums during the Africa Cup of Nations”, highlighting the lack of freedom of speech and media freedom in the country.
In contrast, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has personally paid for 40,000 tickets for fans to attend matches.