Reigning Cup of Nations champions Nigeria now the outsiders looking in

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**This also appeared on the Guardian website**

Nigeria will hardly be better off when Stephen Keshi, their most successful coach, is cast adrift amid the turmoil and inexcusable failure to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations

All is not well for the Nigerian national football team. With this year’s Africa Cup of Nations scheduled to start on Saturday, the reigning champions will be watching the battle for their crown from afar, pondering whether, or how, their failure to reach the tournament could have been avoided.

Two wins in the last three qualifiers could not undo the damage of a poor start to the campaign in a group (containing South Africa, Congo and Sudan) where an expectant Nigeria Football Federation and fans demanded nothing short of a walk-through. Instead they saw underachievement, tactical ineptitude and personal battles rip through the confidence of the squad, failure to qualify serving as the icing on the cake. All roads of blame lead back to the coach Stephen Keshi but this is only an aspect of a saga that has persisted for the best part of two years.

In the time span of Nigeria’s qualifying campaign Keshi, the nation’s most successful coach in 20 years and arguably the best the country has ever produced, was fired and then rehired and now lies in a state of limbo over his position, for which he has not been under contract since last June when his deal expired. It is widely expected that the 52-year-old will leave his position. It goes without saying that Keshi has not been held in particularly high regard by the NFF, which has taken him very much for granted despite leading a young, relatively inexperienced side to Cup of Nations glory in 2013, their first since 1994.

The NFF’s actions since that triumph have done little to portray a productive working relationship between employer and employee. Immediately after winning the Cup of Nations Keshi, expecting to be sacked, offered his resignation after reports that the NFF had been offering his job to other candidates. Amid the high politics surrounding presidential elections and Nigeria’s suspension from Fifa following its ban for government interference back in July, Keshi was left in the middle.

Nigeria’s failure to qualify for this year’s Cup of Nations can very much be attributed to the insecurity of Keshi’s position, which undoubtedly affected squad morale and performances.

Which is why when Keshi eventually departs, Nigeria will not be better for it, and it may even signal a return to the state of underachieving mediocrity that had engulfed them for years before Keshi took over. While his approach has been deemed questionable by many, in his three-year reign he brought the best out of the players he introduced and nurtured and brought the likes of Sunday Mba, Ahmed Musa and Brown Ideye into the fold.

His was a brand of quick-paced attacking football that fans had not seen since the peak years of Jay-Jay Okocha, with an urgency that frightened opponents and an organisation that ensured solidity. He was not afraid to take risks and his greatest gamble paid off, as a squad with an average age of just 24 years claimed the crown as kings of Africa. One bad qualifying campaign and the fans are calling for the head of the man revered just a year ago, which says much more about the state of football in Nigeria than it does about Keshi.

Granted, failing to qualify for the Cup of Nations is inexcusable, particularly as reigning champions, and Keshi should take some responsibility for alienating such star players as Mba, Ideye and Ikechukwu Uche and dealing his own blow to his reign. But for the NFF to have treated a man who has remained dignified in the midst of turmoil, with such negligence serves as yet another example of the organisation’s inner chaos and constant search for short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

For Nigeria to regress to those dark days when Lars Lagerback, Berti Vogts and Samson Siasia ruled, while nations such as Senegal and Cameroon are back on the rise, will be a heavy blow for the NFF and fans to take.

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