Rohr debate misses the point about Nigerian shortcomings

Has Gernot Rohr underachieved with a talented squad or overachieved given the Nigerian football ecosystem? Gehad Hamdy/picture alliance via Getty Images

For a record eighth time in their history, Nigeria came away from an African Nations Cup campaign brandishing bronze medals around their necks.

It is not just a record for Nigeria, but also for the tournament. No other country has more third-place finishes in the history of the competition.

When in the past this final podium place has been celebrated as a "golden bronze", this time emotions have been more varied. Nations Cup winner Segun Odegbami vehemently refused to celebrate it.

There are those, like Odegbami, who feel the Super Eagles should have done better than bronze with the quality of talent at their disposal, believing the team was held back by a conservative coach. Then there are those who argue the coach can do only so much given the broken structures in the country.

There is no "one size fits all" solution, but should Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr's position be the major issue of concern?

Calls for the German to be sacked have not exactly been muted. The major reason seems to be his perceived "lack of tactical nous" or, in other words, an "inability to read matches".

The argument here lies in an unfavourable comparison with the late Stephen Keshi, who is said to have led a more limited Super Eagles squad to the Africa Cup of Nations title in 2013.

That comparison loses some steam in the face of context. Keshi had an almost ready-made squad with just a few additions to be made. Rohr has had to build his squad from the ground up.

Keshi's knockout stage opposition in 2013 was Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso. Rohr had to battle against Cameroon, South Africa and Algeria. The Fennecs, who were described as "deserved Afcon champions" by Nick Ames reporting for ESPN, were taken within seconds of extra-time by the 2019 Super Eagles.

All of these considerations might explain why Rohr himself has told close associates that he is uncertain if he wants to carry on.

"A lot of things have been going on but he has taken it all because he does not want to cause any controversy," sources have told ESPN.

"But now, he is not sure if he will continue."

Rohr was noncommittal when asked if he would continue, simply telling ESPN with a wry smile: "I go away to rest now, and then we think about it and see what happens.

"I have a clause in my contract, I made sure I put it there, that it is possible I go any time if we agree."

Rohr is due to meet Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president Amaju Pinnick this week as part of that assessment. And if both parties come to an agreement, a parting of ways might come sooner than most expect.

If that were to happen, there will be many who will celebrate. But that would mean losing sight of what should be the more important conversation, one which should go beyond Keshi, Rohr or any other coach.

Nigeria have had six coaching changes in the past five years. Samson Siasia, Keshi, Sunday Oliseh, Siasia again in a stand-in capacity, Salisu Yusuf (also in a temporary capacity) and then Rohr.

Oliseh aside -- he resigned due to issues with the NFF -- the rest have been fired. And the same story goes back even further.

Clemens Westerhof, now acknowledged as one of Nigeria's greatest coaches, was hounded out and did not even bother to return home with the team after they were eliminated from the 1994 World Cup. His former assistant, Jo Bonfrere, who won the 1996 Olympic gold medal with the under-23 team, was fired as Super Eagles coach. Philippe Troussier was fired. Amodu Shaibu was fired multiple times, despite qualifying Nigeria for two World Cups. Christian Chukwu was fired. Austin Eguavoen was replaced by Berti Vogts, who ended up being hounded out. Same with Swede Lars Lagerback, who opted not to renew his contract with the NFF after the 2010 World Cup. It is a long, unending cycle of celebrating new appointments, then bemoaning their (in)competence before sending them on their merry way.

This unending coaching merry-go-round seems to mask -- however unintentionally -- the real issue. That the complete grassroots development of Nigerian football has been, and continues to be, totally ignored. There are no articulated programs to scout, identify, develop and train talent from a young age. No structured tournaments for children to take part in. No playing philosophy, nothing beyond a hit-and-miss approach relying on an entitled "we have abundant talents" narrative. It's an approach that relies on said talents flocking off to Europe before being called into the Super Eagles, or, even worse, the cadet teams.

The domestic league, which should provide a conveyor belt of ready-made talent, is running on life support, as club administrators push back against much-needed reforms.

As it stands, two influential players retired after Afcon: Captain John Obi Mikel and forward Odion Ighalo; John Ogu may have been a bit part player, but he is also almost certainly looking at the door.

Goalkeeping remains a major issue. Nigeria have struggled in that department since the departure of Vincent Enyeama. Francis Uzoho showed some stability at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but was shaky after. Ikechukwu Ezenwa is in his 30s, and rarely gets playing time in the Nigerian domestic league, and Daniel Akpeyi does not inspire confidence among the fans. Some say even among the coaches.

Nigeria can sack Rohr now or hound him out. But precedent has shown they are unable to attract any real big-name coaches. The ones they do attract, they take months just to hire. When a coach is eventually hired, whoever he is, what is the guarantee he will spend more than two or three years before being hounded out like others before?

And after poppling around in a fresh hire-celebrate-hound-fire cycle, the country returns once again to blaming the coach for another campaign that fails to meet entitled expectations, expectations without a grounding in fundamentals.

Rather than debating whether or not to fire a coach who has done more than most since Westerhof in 1989 to reboot the national team, conversation should be focused instead in a different direction.

How to reset the entire national football ecosystem in a manner that begins to produce and develop talent deliberately and consistently, one that will eventually lead to a playing philosophy that takes advantage of the in-bred self-expression of the Nigerian footballer as well as their natural physical attributes.