Over the last two decades, the demise of local football to opt for European based footballers has negatively impacted the grooming of local talent. Today an African football rising star dreams to feature in a European club to stand a chance to be called up by the national team irrespective of the league’s pedigree but as long as he plies his trade in Europe, whether in first, second and third division even though he never features in his club starting eleven. Some go far as to fourth division or CFA in UK and France respectively.
On Friday 13th 2020 in Nigeria, Super Eagles were hit by the paraskevidekatriaphobia Friday 13th phobia) syndrome in the third week of AFCON 2022 qualifiers against the Lone Star of Sierra Leone. Gernot Rohr men seemed to cruise to victory with an unassailable four goals lead, only to witness their lead cancelled out by the brave Lone Stars under the leadership of John Keister, former Sierra Leone international, to the bemusement of Zinedine Zidane former coach with Bordeaux.
At 4-4 when the referee blew the final whistle, Sierra Leone had pulled off an incredible come back to draw a game already won by Nigeria seemingly. Iwobi, Kelechi and other big claws in the Eagles nest failed to deliver against a team identified as one of African football weakest links.
Robert Nouzaret, the French manager who twice coached Cote d’Ivoire, painted a bleak prospect of African football during his first tenure at the helm of the pachyderms in 1996-1998.
He was pleasurably delighted to lead, teach and coach a bunch of local players. Each time he threw them on the pitch it was a marvelous display to watch total African entertaining football with spectacular repertoire of magic actions and moves that leave one breathless. Regrettably his second spell 2002-2004 was a coup fatal against the flair, four years earlier.
“Then it was about calling up foreign based players, field them and let them train”, he pursued. By then he knew that African football has lost its soul. It was no longer the crème de la crème that Algeria, Morocco and Cameroon concocted in 1982, 1986 and 1990 at FIFA World Cup, each time.
Kano Pillars’ Junior Lokosa topped the goal scorer’s chart in the Nigerian Professional Football League 2018-2019 season. Despite his exploit, he was ignored by 1996 Europa League (UEFA Cup) Runner-up coach for the World Cup in Russia.
Super Eagles perform well with a backbone comprising of local based players just like Zambia at AFCON 2012. 1980 AFCON finals saw Super Eagles crowned champions against Algeria of Beloumi, Madjer and Sallah. Godwin Odye was the only foreign based player in the Super Eagles squad. Runner-up at 1984 AFCON, the team had no foreign based player.
In 1988 it was a déjà vu as they finished runner-up against the Indomitable Lions with four foreign based players- Peter Rufai, Augustin Eguavoen, late Samuel Okwaraji and Keshi. Striker Yekini Rashidi, also late, was the Ivoirian side, Africa Sport, player.
Two years later, Clemens Westerhof assembled a young team that finished the tournament runner-up once again against the host Algeria. Apart from Andrew Uwe who was with KSV Roeselare in Belgium, Friday Elahor with Brondby and Yekini still with Africa Sport d’Abidjan, the remainder of the squad was playing in the Nigerian League.
Isaac Semitoje of Iwuanyanwu Nationale and BCC Lions Edema Fuludu were exception to the rule as the only local players selected in the AFCON triumphant squad against a brave Chipopolo team under the leadership of King Kalusha Bwalya, three months following the crash of the first team off the coast of Libreville en route for a 1994 FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Senegal.
Unfortunately, the Nigeria winning team could not defend their title in South Africa 2 years later due to political feud between South Africa Nelson Mandela, vociferously condemning Nigeria Sani Abacha decision to hang the activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Jo Bonfrere selected one local based player, Julius Berger’s Murphy Akanji, for the 2000 AFCON co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana, in which they finished runner-up.
The “Big Boss” Stephen Keshi was steadfastly bold enough to impose his leadership in including six local players in the 2013 AFCON winning Super Eagles. Three players from Enugu Rangers: Chigozie Agbim, Sunday Mba and Ejike Uzoenyi.
Warri Wolves’Azubuike Egwuekwe, Reuben Gabriel of Kano Pillars and Sunshine Stars’ Godfrey Oboabona completed the 23 men squad. Though he swept away heavy criticism for his choices that resulted in his replacement being announced before the competition ends, Sunday Mba vindicated the late Keshi by scoring the goal that sealed the fate of the final in Soweto Calabash against the buoyant Burkina Faso led by the tournament Best Player, Jonathan Pitroipa.
It was an unprecedented outcry that Junior Lokosa was left out of the Nigerian squad for the 2018 world cup. No country would fail to include in the national team its top goal poacher with 23 goals in 35 games like Lokosa.
Disappointed and badly hurt after being dropped out, Lokosa joined Esperance de Tunis in January 2019, and the world has ever heard of him never again, hoping he would bounce back and prove his FA and Rohr wrong.
France Premiere Division top scorer Stephan Guivarch was selected for 1998 FIFA World Cup in France to the detriment of Eric Cantona, Ginola and Papin. It has become the order of the day that playing in local league in Africa, stands as a curse.
Players will be overlooked by the national team leaders and technical staff, to make way for overseas players irrespective of the fact they warm the bench or play in a lower league. African based player of Esperance de Tunis, Youcef Belaili was preferred by the Algerian coach, Djamel Belmadi, to FC Porto’s striker, Yacine Brahimi who finally warmed the bench, at the newly expanded AFCON finals in Egypt 2019.
Friday’s happenstance at Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium shall sound as a strong wake up call for Africa football authorities, to finally realize that it is time to endeavour for the resurgence of local football leagues. A team mainly consisting of amateur players dug deep to break-even the star studded Super Eagles.
This signals a great deal of endeavours deployed by Aisha Johansson, Sierra-Leone FA President, to perfect the Lone Stars for upcoming battles. Leaders have heeded the call to focus on making local football strong again so that teams’ main backbones become the cornerstones that will be cemented only by few deserving foreign based players input.
Save for 1996 Olympics with goalkeepers Emmanuel Babayaro (Plateau United) and Dosu Joseph (Julius Berger) as local players, and midfielder Thomson Oliha at 1994 FIFA World Cup as the only player from Africa (Africa Sport d’Abidjan), Nigeria delivers with the involvement of local players, eager to wet the jersey and ready to represent the country, prouder to print their names in the Nigeria football annals.
Give them that minute and infinitesimal window of opportunities!