THE story of Nigeria’s participation at the 2002 Nations Cup in Mali is one that will linger for a very long time in the memory of many soccer fans that witnessed it. It was arguably the most controversial in the history of Nigeria’s participation at the tournament. All key figures in the game – players, coaches, administrators, the media, and even the fans – had a field day in the intrigues, accusations and counteraccusations which characterized Nigeria’s participation.
The drama which built up during pre-tournament preparations gathered momentum at the event proper and finally exploded when Nigeria lost to Senegal in the semi-final. Although the team went on to win the bronze medal against Mali in the third place match, it was clear to all that the Super Eagles needed a new lease of life and the aftermath was no less dramatic and controversial. In fact, the ripple effects on Nigerian football were to be felt for a very long time.
Nigeria were pitched against Madagascar, Zambia and Namibia in Group One of the qualifiers for Mali 2002 Nations Cup which ran side-by-side with the qualifiers for the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup. It was rather tedious, but it also served the team well as the former was used as preparation for the latter.
Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere was initially in charge of the Super Eagles. His exploits at the Atlanta ‘96 Olympics where Nigeria won the football gold by beating the likes of Brazil and Argentina had endeared him to Nigerian soccer fans and the administrators. So despite Nigeria’s absence at the 1996 and 1998 editions of the Nations Cup in South Africa and Burkina Faso respectively, Bonfrere still enjoyed lots of goodwill which facilitated his re-appointment in December 1999 after erstwhile Eagles boss Bora Milutinovic went AWOL following the France ‘98 World Cup.
Bonfrere went on to lead Nigeria to a second place finish behind Cameroun in the final of the 2000 Nations Cup at a time many had written off the players as spent-forces. But the NFA and Bonfrere’s relationship later turned sour, culminating in his sack midway into the 2002 World Cup qualifiers.
Bonfrere’s problem started when the Dutchman was not keen on bringing in promising home-based players into the Eagles, preferring to stick with foreign-based players who, unfortunately, were not living up to expectations in the qualifiers. Also, his insistence on having new assistants – Austin Eguavoen and Lawrence Akpokona – to replace NFA’s choices of Stephen Keshi and Joe Erico on which the Dutchman eventually had his way, also set him on the war path with his employers. From then on, it was a cat and mouse game between Bonfrere and the NFA.
A lackluster performance by the Eagles in a World Cup qualifier which saw them lose 2-1 to Liberia in Monrovia signaled the beginning of the end for the Dutch tactician. At the peak of his frustration with the NFA, Bonfrere boxed himself into a tight corner when he promised to quit if he failed to beat Sierra Leone to put Nigeria’s World Cup quest back on track. The embattled Dutchman bit more than he could chew by publicly challenging NFA secretary general Tijani Yusuf to resign if he (Bonfrere) led the Eagles to victory in Freetown.
Another shocking loss in Freetown where the Eagles crashed 1- 0 put the nail on Bonfrere’s coffin as he was swept out by a much relieved NFA despite the Dutchman’s volte-face on his earlier threat to quit if he lost. As it turned out, Tijani Yusuf had the last laugh and Shaibu Amodu was elevated into Bonfrere’s seat to salvage Nigeria’s World Cup quest. Stephen Keshi and Joe Erico were recalled to assist Amodu.
Unlike the World Cup qualifiers where he recorded poor results, Bonfrere had earlier led the Eagles to a 4-0 win over Namibia in Lagos in the Nations Cup qualifying series. The Eagles then drew 0-0 away to Madagascar and returned home to beat Zambia 1 -0 with Victor Agali scoring the lone goal. The road trip to Zambia for the return leg ended 1-1 with Benedict Akwuegbu cancelling out an own-goal by Isaac Okoronkwo.
Shaibu Amodu had taken over when the Eagles played host to Madagascar and piped them 1-0 to bag the Nations Cup qualification ticket. Nevertheless, the Eagles played their last game away to Namibia and recorded a 2-0 victory to garner a total of 14 points and head to Mali 2002. Zambia came a distant second in the group with eight points. Although there was a change in the team’s handlers, not much had changed in the national team set-up, however. Amodu and his crew still had to contend with the NFA over their own emoluments and the allowances for the players. This formed the origin of the Mali 2002 misadventure as senior players in the team took it upon themselves to fight for the coaches over unpaid salaries.
The issue got to a head in Port Harcourt after the Eagles defeated Ghana 3-0 to book their flight to the 2002 World Cup finals after their main rivals, Liberia, slipped up. Rivers State governor Peter Odili announced a largesse for the team which was handed over to NFA officials. The players were not pleased with the arrangement, prompting team captain, Sunday Oliseh, to suggest that the sports ministry and NFA officials were untrustworthy. From then on, the officials were looking for an opportunity to get back at the team. But there was not much they could do so long as Amodu and his boys were getting the desired results. The sports ministry and the NFA bided their time.
PREPARATIONS AND SQUAD SELECTION
Ota Farm, owned by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, was selected for the camping exercise. As usual, home based players were the early callers to the camp while most of the foreign based players reported late. The coach, Shaibu Amodu, and his crew could not complain much apparently because of the pact they had with the players as regards monetary issues with the NFA. Some of the players were seen cruising around various cities in Nigeria in their state-of-the-art automobiles having been released by their foreign clubsides only to stroll into the camp at the eleventh hour.
As the competition drew nearer, arguments over what the match bonuses and allowances would be took the centre stage. The players dictated the friendly matches they wanted to play and ensured that the FA cancelled matches that didn’t suit their fancy like the one against Egypt which was cancelled at the eleventh hour at the players’ instance over bonus payments. Amodu did not help matters and, just like Bonfrere before him, he chose to play along with his players. His utterances on issues concerning the team left much to be desired. The ever critical press that had supported him all along had suddenly become a bother to him.
Nevertheless, the Eagles camp later shifted to Cote d’Ivoire where preparations were rounded off and the final squad list was released. The list caused some uproar back home especially over the inclusion of Victor Ikpeba who was considered to be match-rusty, at the expense of inform striker Benedict Akwuegbu who incidentally had scored the Eagles’ face-saving equaliser against Cote d’Ivoire in a pre-tournament friendly in Abidjan which ended 1 -1. But apparently, Bonfrere preferred Ikpeba who was more experienced than Akwuegbu. The team finally departed for Mali but most soccer fans back home in Nigeria were not convinced that the Eagles could deliver at the tournament, considering the shoddy preparations they had and their bickerings over money. Nigerians could only wait apprehensively for the kickoff of the tournament that would make or mar not only the Eagles, but the technical crew as well.
Having landed in Mali, the Eagles were camped at Hotel L’Amite in Bamako where they played their group matches against host country Mali, Algeria and Liberia. Nigeria’s first match was against Algeria. The Super Eagles were intimidating on paper but on the field of play, they looked ordinary as they laboured to pip the Desert Warriors 1-0, courtesy of Julius Aghahowa’s strike. Algerian striker, Tasfaout nearly became a casualty when he swallowed his tongue but prompt medical attention saved the situation. In the second match, the Eagles came up against Mali and, again, the Nigerian team struggled to secure a scoreless draw against a determined Malian side backed by a vociferous home crowd. But the result was good enough for the Eagles as they now only needed another draw in their last group game to secure a quarter-final berth.
The last group match was against Liberia, complete with the famous George Weah. The Lone Star had hoped that the Super Eagles would ease their own task by beating Mali to open the way for them to qualify alongside Nigeria but it was not to be. As in the previous games, the Eagles produced an average display with Julius Aghahowa again scoring the lone goal that gave Nigeria three points to top the group and qualify for the quarter-final.
The Eagles confronted Ghana in the quarter-final. The performance against the Black Stars was again not convincing as the Eagles continued with their lethargic display. It took a late goal by Garba Lawal for Nigeria to advance to the semi-final where they would confront Senegal, Nigeria had got a dose of the Senegalese Lions at the 2000 ANC in Lagos where it took a very late equaliser and an extra time goal by Julius Aghahowa to salvage Nigeria’s pride in a quarter-final cracker that ended 2-1 in favour of the Eagles. Rather than heed the warning signaled by that experience just two years before, the Nigerian camp imploded on the eve of their semi-final showdown in Mali.
The crises brewing within the team which had been managed somehow up till this time exploded when the sports minister, Ishaya Mark Aku visited the players in company of the then director of sports development, Dr. Patrick Ekeji, himself a former international. Inevitably, money issues cropped up and old wounds were reopened. Ekeji accused the players of inflating the prices of their flight return tickets which was usually refunded to them by the NFA when they came for national assignments. A furious Sunday Oliseh, very articulate and outspoken captain of the team, responded by declaring that his (Oliseh’s) own generation of players had achieved more for Nigeria than Ekeji’s generation ever achieved. He lambasted Ekeji for suggesting that the players were thieves and declared that the director would not have been allowed into the Eagles camp if not for the minister’s presence! Oliseh may have been correct in his statement of claims, but his effrontery and very scathing remarks shocked Aku even as much as some of the other players who felt that their captain had gone a bit too far. Unfortunately, Oliseh was not rebuked by Amodu who had his own issues with Ekeji and probably decided that Ekeji deserved the tongue-lashing.
It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back as the Minister felt insulted and embarrassed by the players’ “disrespect for constituted authority.” The media seized upon the issue and blew it out of proportion. Apparently, it was a good opportunity for the aggrieved journalists to settle scores with the players and their officials for denying them access and for refusing to grant them interviews. The handwriting was clearly on the wall that the only thing that could save the team from imminent disbandment was if the Eagles managed to win the trophy. In a very tense semi-final match played at the Stade Modibo Keita in Bamako, the revenge-seeking Senegalese Teranga Lions scored first but lost a player to a red card in the 35th minute when Nigeria’s Garba Lawal was elbowed in the face. But despite the early numerical advantage to the Eagles, the Nigerian team struggled and it took a last gasp effort from talismanic striker, Julius Aghahowa in the 89th minute to steal the equaliser and drag the match into extra time.
Undaunted by the setback, the 10 men of Senegal came into the extra time showing more hunger and were rewarded when Salif Diao made most of a half chance to place a low shot which beat goalkeeper Ike Shorunmu for their second goal. The Eagles were again presented with an opportunity to salvage the situation when they won a penalty. But this time, luck ran out on them as Wilson Oruma’s spot-kick cannoned off the upright and Senegal went on to claim a famous 2-1 victory after 120 minutes.
With the title chase effectively over, Nigeria went on to play the match for third place where they again came up against hosts and first round opponent, Mali. And despite fielding a second-string team, the Eagles subdued the Malians 1-0 to pick the bronze medal.
Shaibu Amodu would later explain the Eagles laborious approach to matches as a tactical manouver. “Most of our key players were not so young anymore but they had game management experience, so I devised a strategy to navigate through our matches with minimum fuss. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective and we nearly got to the final. Senegal were a very strong team and they also had luck on their side to eliminate us in the semis. The officials made our lives difficult with so much interference and distractions. Considering all those circumstances, I was satisfied with our performance in Mali.”
Expectedly on arrival in Nigeria, the Super Eagles were promptly disbanded by the authorities. The coaching crew, led by Shaibu Amodu, was sacked apparently for taking sides with the players and failing to check their excesses. And like his predecessor, Amodu who had relied heavily on the players to keep his job discovered much too late that the boys could not save him from the wrath of his employers. He thereafter vented his frustrations on Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, accussing the CAF instructor, who was assigned by the NFA to assist the team in his capacity as the Head of Technical Department of back-stabbing him and stealing his job.
Amodu also pointedly accused Ekeji of sabotaging the Eagles by upsetting the fragile peace that reigned in the camp on the eve of the semi-final against Senegal. The coach insisted that had Ekeji not visited, the team’s concentration would not have been disrupted. With the team’s disbandment, Onigbinde, who led Nigeria to a silver medal finish at the 1984 Nations Cup in Cote d’Ivoire, was appointed with the mandate to build a new team that would represent Nigeria at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan. It was a tough decision by the sports ministry and the NFA, considering the fact that the World Cup was just three months away. But there was a strong resolve to stamp out what was considered as “indiscipline” in the team and this gained the approval of the majority of the fans and the critical media.
Eagles midfield maestro Austin Okocha was appointed as the new captain with Nwankwo Kanu as his assistant to replace the old order of Sunday Oliseh and Finidi George. A new crop of young players were brought into the team amongst whom were Bartholomew Ogbeche, Osaze Odemwingie, Rabiu Afolabi and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
The new coach, Onigbinde, eventually led Nigeria to the World Cup where the Eagles were eliminated in the first round. Some observers felt that was the price Nigeria had to pay for her “rash” decision of disbanding the national team a few months earlier while others felt it didn’t matter, provided that the lesson had been learnt that affront on the part of players would no longer be allowed in the national team.
Notably, however, Senegal who eliminated the Nigeria at the Nations Cup in Mali would go on to perform creditably at the Korea/Japan World Cup, (beating defending champions France in the opening match and going all the way to the quarter-final), thus underlying the fact that the Eagles were beaten by a truly quality team. Shaibu Amodu may have been right about them after all.
GOALKEEPERS: Murphy Akanji (Sliema Wanderers, Malta), Ndubuisi Egbo (SK Tirana, Alb), Ike Shorunmu (no club)
DEFENDERS: Celestine Babayaro (Chelsea, England), Eric Ejiofor (Maccabi Haifa, Israel), Justice Christopher (Royal Antwerp, Belgium), Isaac Okoronkwo (Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine), Ifeanyi Udeze (PAOK Salonica, Greece), Taribo West (Kaiserslautern, Germany), Yobo Joseph (Marseille, France)
MIDFIELDERS: Tijani Babangida (Vitesse Arnhem, Holland), Wilson Oruma (Servette, Switzerland), Finidi George (Ipswich, England), Garba Lawal (Roda JC, Holland), Karibe Ojigwe (Bayer Leverkusen, Germany), Augustine Okocha (Paris Saint- Germain, France), Sunday Oliseh (Borussia Dortmund, Germany)
FORWARDS: Victor Agali (Schalke, Germany), Julius Aghahowa (Shaktar Donetsk, Ukraine), Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Maccabi Haifa, Israel), Victor Ikpeba (Real Betis, Spain), Nwankwo Kanu (Arsenal, England).
COACH: Shaibu Amodu;
ASSISTANT COACHES: Stephen Keshi, Joe Erico.