It was February 26 2016 in a popular 5-star Zurich hotel. Excitement was building towards the election of a new FIFA President the next day.
Every manner of football administrator in Africa was in that hotel, discussing in huddles, plotting strategies and casting opinion on what a post-Blatter FIFA would look like from the day after.
Yours truly was in the midst of all of it - watching, talking and gathering information as to how the day would go. Then my phone rings, and it was Amaju Pinnick, President of Nigeria’s football federation. ‘Tunde please come to my suite right now. Something urgent has come up’.
What choice did I have than to painfully leave my interesting politicking to go up and see my friend who clearly needed my attention?
I got there and he was in company of his trusted deputies, and he said the national coach of Nigeria had just resigned, with a big AFCON qualifier looming.
‘Oh dear’, I went, because I was one of many who questioned the choice and timing of the engagement of the said coach, who is clearly a legend of the game, but unprepared for the mammoth task of taking the Super Eagles at that time.
No time for reproach or ‘I told you so’, we discussed temporary measures and started making longer-term plans on what to do.
By April, Nigeria had been knocked out of qualification for the 2017 AFCON and were at a ridiculous 68th in the world and 13th in Africa, by the FIFA rankings.
Cutting a very long story short, in comes Gernot Rohr, new head coach of Nigeria, accepting a job that many turned down, with many mutual friends questioning how on earth he could have contemplated taking the job. Opposition to his engagement from within the home front was loudly silent, while the international world watched.
Rohr’s task? To qualify Nigeria for the FIFA World Cup of 2018 or he’d be gone! What are the chances? In a group of all four nations being former African champions - Algeria, Cameroon, Zambia; and with Nigeria very lowly placed per current form, and an administration that had been maligned by many notably within, and of course outside the football fraternity.
Cutting a lot of details, 20 months on from that evening in Zurich, Nigeria, under the administrative watch of Amaju Pinnick and technical guidance of Gernot Rohr, has qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with a game to spare, and unbeaten so far in its 5 qualifying games.
And suddenly, the tune has changed. Felicitations are well in order. People who said ‘no chance’ are now forced to eat their words and say ‘well done’, ‘thank God’, and ‘congratulations’.
But of course, humans being what we are, suddenly the team that was ‘no chance’ are now being expected to go to Russia and win the World Cup! This life!
Yes the Nigerian team is now a bunch of exciting and excitable youngsters and can only get better. Gernot Rohr has proved to be a Godsend, playing father figure to his wards, and putting together an impenetrable unit of players and staff, that have stuck together to deliver the smoothest run to qualification that Nigeria had ever witnessed in its 6 appearances in the World Cup so far.
This team can only get better. However, caution please. It’s a work in progress. Great players yes. Promising yes. But world beaters? Come on, not yet. We’d take it, surely, but let’s lower those expectations and take a game at a time.
Right now, I can boldly milk the applause and watch with a smile, as the tune had changed from abject criticism and predictions of gloom to one of admiration and hope. And I say congratulations to Nigeria and thanks to Nigerians. More later.