Nigeria are a hot mess, again, as they go into AFCON qualifiers

It's a good thing Nigeria hold a healthy advantage going into this week's 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying double header against Guinea Bissau, because behind-the-scenes drama has again taken centre stage.

With six points and a sumptuous +11 goal difference, it would take a meltdown of catastrophic proportions for the Super Eagles -- who currently top the group by two points ahead of their opponents this weekend -- to not secure the four points they require to book their ticket to Cote d'Ivoire in January.

However, there is so much going on in the Nigeria national team set-up at the moment that this is not entirely implausible, and the actual football might end up being the sideshow.

Nigeria are no strangers to shooting themselves in the foot. Their most recent example of self-sabotage was the coaching change in late 2021 that cost them both a podium place at the last AFCON, and a ticket to the 2022 World Cup.

To add insult to that injury, they still had to pay sacked coach Gernot Rohr his full $45 000 a month salary for the remaining year of his contract, which only ended last December, while taking on Jose Peseiro at a near-double $70 000 a month wages.

That is $115 000 on the expense sheet per month, on coaching wages alone, between June and December 2022 for a total of $805 000. Peseiro has reportedly only been paid for three of those months.

Financials aside, dust from Peseiro's recent selection controversies had barely settled as the team reported for camp, when word emerged that two of Peseiro's coaches, former internationals Finidi George and Ike Shorunmu, had seemingly been fired.

Ajax star Finidi was replaced by Usman Abdallah, while Shorunmu's place was taken by under 23 goalkeeping coach Olatunji Baruwa.

But NFF Communications Director Ademola Olajire quickly issued a statement denying that the coaches had been sacked, claiming instead that it was a coaching rotation as part of the NFF's new cost-cutting measures.

Olajire said: "As part of cost-cutting measures instituted at the beginning of the new administration, we established a rotation policy among the assistant coaches, based on the high number, which was agreed with all of them.

"The last time that the team had a programme, Mr. Finidi George ravelled for the friendly match in Portugal. This rotation policy is only for matches. When there is a tournament, all of them will be with the team.

"(Usman) Abdallah is simply taking his turn to be in the camp for the program of Super Eagles vs Djurtus of Guinea Bissau, and Mr. George will be around for the next program."

In response, Finidi told ESPN that he found the decision strange, but was willing to wait until the next camp to see how things panned out: "It came to me as a surprise, as I was not aware of any rotational policy before now.

"I only found out when the team coordinator called to tell me that because I went to Portugal, they want Abdallah to go this time.

"This is the first time I am hearing of coaches being rotated. But I will wait for the next set of matches and see what happens."

Finidi, who currently coaches Enyimba, made it clear that the issue could have been better handled: "I am not begging for the job, but they have to show me respect. They have to show us respect. We have served this country, and we have to be treated properly. We don't even have contracts and that is not right."

As for goalkeeper trainer Shorunmu, the NFF said the former Besiktas star removed himself from contention after he "showed a clear lack of desire to be in camp for the matches against Guinea Bissau.

"It was only when we got the clear signal that he was unwilling to come, and the Head Coach was in a quandary, that he (Peseiro) requested for the services of Olatunji Baruwa, who he had seen at work during the U20 AFCON in Egypt, to help do the work of training the goalkeepers."

A contract disagreement was the sticking point for Shorunmu, who admitted that he did indeed take himself out of the equation and pointed to delay tactics on the part of the NFF in offering the local coaches their contracts.

"We joined this team last year when Peseiro was appointed," Shorunmu told ESPN. "After the game, we asked the General Secretary Mohammed Sanusi for our contract. He told us they will work on it.

"We asked again during the first round of qualifiers in Agadir against Sao Tome. He asked us to wait till we get to Abuja. We got to Nigeria, he asked us to call him later, and then when we did, he said he was busy and could not see us.

"A few weeks later, he told us it was NFF election period so we should be patient. After the elections he said the new board was just settling in and we should give them time till December.

"That is how he kept giving us excuses. All along, they have not paid us any allowance or bonus since we started this job last year. When we were going for the game in Algeria, they even asked me to buy my own ticket.

"So when they called me last week to come for this camp, I told them I don't have a contract, I have not been paid any bonuses or allowances since last year and we are being pushed around like children by Mr Sanusi. So why should I go?"

For a usually phlegmatic man like Shorunmu, who usually keeps his own counsel, this was something of a rant.

Which is perhaps why Olajire acknowledged that the coaches have a genuine grievance: "We agree there are a number of challenges concerning contracts of coaches of National Teams that we need to speedily resolve. The NFF is working on these and the issues will soon be in the past."

While this is not unfamiliar territory for Nigeria, it does appear to be the first steps in new NFF President Ibrahim Gusau's attempt to clean house and restore some order to a cash-strapped NFF.

"We are taking our time to assess the situation in the federation," Gasau told ESPN. "We want to look at all the contracts, look at all our expenses and find the best way to make good use of the little resources we have.

"We know it will not be easy, but we want to ask Nigerians and our coaches and players for patience. Very soon, everyone will see the benefits of what we are trying to do."

As upheaval rumbles on off the pitch, there is at least some good news on the football side.

The team in camp held a joint training session with the under 23s this week, allowing Peseiro the opportunity to get a closer evaluation of potential options from the Olympic team.

For the moment, there are no injuries reported and Peseiro will have at least three full days to work on his team ahead of the first game on March 24, while the second fixture is on March 27.

If they are able to shut out the noise outside and focus on the football, they might just claim those four points and secure their place well ahead of the next two windows of matches.