Sports

AFCON 2023: What’s Next For Super Eagles?

For a reminder, going into the tournament, the Nigerian team was not among the bookmakers' favourites to take home the trophy owing to a series of below-par performances.

Super Eagles AFCON 2023
Super Eagles at the AFCON 2023 [PHOTO CREDIT: DailyPost]

The Super Eagles of Nigeria on Sunday night at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan lost 2-1 to the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in the final match of the 2023 AFCON, missing out on the opportunity to clinch their fourth Africa Cup of Nations title and bring home the trophy to Abuja. 

The conclusion of the final match, which brought agony and anguish to the supporters of the Super Eagles, sparked wild celebrations amongst the Ivorian football faithful as the Elephants, who sneaked into the knockout stages of the competition as one of the best losers, won their third continental crown on home soil.

As the dust of the pulsating football tournament settles across the continent and as the stench and pains of the defeat hover around the Super Eagles, one question lingers on the minds of the teaming followers of the Nigerian national team: What next for the Super Eagles of Nigeria going forward?

Accordingly, it is important that the Nigerian football administrators and all concerned with the game in the country take a detached and dispassionate look at the football team and fashion out a better blueprint that will ensure that Nigeria betters this performance next time, keeping in view that there is much ahead to still play for.

Yes, unarguably, Nigeria got to the finals of the tournament and could have won the title with a slice of better fortune, more discipline in the final 20 minutes of the game, and better tactics from the coach. But it would be folly to get carried away in the euphoria of the second-place finish and not set things in better perspective.

For a reminder, going into the tournament, the Nigerian team was not among the bookmakers’ favourites to take home the trophy owing to a series of below-par performances. In November, during the opening round of the FIFA 2026 World Cup qualifiers, they were held to a 1-1 home draw by the Crocodiles of Lesotho.

A few days later, they struggled against the Warriors of Zimbabwe in their second qualifying match, coming from behind to pick up a point. In addition, the friendly matches in preparation for the AFCON championship left much to be desired, as the lacklustre performances continued with no respite in sight.

However, much to the surprise of everyone, pre-tournament, the Super Eagles got to the final and finished second.  Without taking anything away from the team, the Super Eagles at Ivory Coast were solid and efficient rather than spectacular in their performances.

Apart from the opening match of the tournament against Equatorial Guinea and in the final match, where the team conceded from open play, the five-man defence of Zaidu Sanusi, Calvin Bassey, William Troost-Ekong, Semi Ajayi, and Ola Aina was rock-solid; the midfield was combative in patches and porous at worst, and the attack was anything but lethal, with star striker Victor Osimhen feeding on scraps throughout the tournament.

Before the tournament, pundits had argued that the Nigerian team was top-heavy and particularly light in midfield. However, the stark reality is that Troost-Ekong, Nigeria’s captain, was the team’s joint top scorer with Lookman Ademola on three goals each. The Nigerian attack somewhat failed to click during the tournament.

Stick Or Twist With Peseiro?

The future of José Santos Peseiro, the coach of the Super Eagles, and his technical crew continue to divide opinion. Admittedly, his position was precarious and untenable before the tournament. However, he has strengthened his negotiating power by taking the team to the finals for the first time in over a decade. 

Under him, the team has been laborious, lacking identity and cohesion. The Super Eagles of Nigeria, under Peseiro, have rarely completed a fifteen-pass sequence in any game before or during the tournament. Yet, this is a team blessed with an abundance of talents in all areas of the pitch.

His contract with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) expires this month, in February 2024. It was just in September 2023 that he signed the contract extension with a pay cut with the NFF on a mandate to “lead the Super Eagles to, at the very least, the semi-finals of the 34 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Ivory Coast.”

The Portuguese tactician can argue that he has delivered on the core mandate of his contract and even went a step better in the final. The ball is now in the court of the NFF to decide whether Peseiro has done enough to deserve a full and fresh contract. Do they stick or twist with him? 

The answer to this question could determine the immediate, medium, and long-term direction of the Super Eagles, bearing in mind that the qualifiers for the FIFA 2026 World Cup are all to play for and Nigeria cannot afford to lose further ground in this round after the disappointing opening two draws.

FIFA 2026 World Cup Qualifiers 

With the 2023 AFCON now settled, all attention should be shifted towards the 2026 World Cup. Nigeria started the qualifiers poorly. They were held to a 1-1 home draw by the Crocodiles of Lesotho, as well as another uninspiring draw a few days later against the Warriors of Zimbabwe. 

Two matches are gone, and the Super Eagles of Nigeria are already lagging and trying to catch up. This should not be allowed to continue. All the resources available, both human and material, should be channelled towards getting the qualification back on track.

Nigeria agonisingly failed to qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. The trend should not be allowed to continue. The disappointments of losing in the final at the 2023 AFCON and the success of getting as far as the final itself should be harnessed by the football authorities, coaches, and players to ensure that the green and white flag of Nigeria is flown at the 2026 FIFA World Cup to be hosted in the three North American countries of the United States of America, Mexico, and Canada.

Anything short of qualifying for the 2026 football fiesta is a disaster for Nigerian football and their teaming faithful. Thus, everything should be done to avert such a catastrophe from occurring, and it all starts now.

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