Surrounded by a chaotic buildup to the Games, including a war of words between Nigeria’s Sports Ministry and football federation, the Olympic football team delivered the country’s lone medal from Rio.
Bronze it may have been, but seeing as it was a very marginal improvement (cough cough) over the grand total of zero from 2012, there was some reason to be, well, less glum.
In any case, there are a four key lessons to take away from Dream Team VI’s face-saving campaign:
1. Siasia has not changed much
In his second spell as under-23 coach, and 11 years after his first job as national coach, Samson Siasia’s tactics remained as gung-ho as they have always been.
At their best, his striking department wreak havoc like a wrecking ball wielded by refined berserkers.
But at the back, they look about as solid as eggshells resisting a UFC fist. Nigeria’s opening and final games of the tournament at once represented the best and worst of a Siasia team: Scoring goals with reckless abandon, and letting them in with equal gusto.
Here’s the thing though, as long as they show heart in the brawl, Nigerians would rather play Siasia-ball and lose by the odd goal or two, than be subjected to some of the static staleness they have had been made to put up with sometimes.
2. Mikel has grown into a leader
It seems like just yesterday that John Obi Mikel was that wide-eyed innocent being pulled in three different directions by Manchester United, Chelsea and Lyn Oslo.
Actually, it’s been 11 years. Incidentally, that’s the same amount of time that Siasia has been a coach. What’s not coincidental, is that Siasia was Mikel’s coach back then in 2005, and has looked to him on each occasion he found himself managing a Nigeria team that the midfielder was eligible to play in.
While Siasia has remained essentially the same tactically, Mikel has evolved into a leader. It’s doubtful that the Nigerian squad would have overcome their pre-tournament ordeal without his strength of character and guidance.
Even more doubtful they would have got as far as they did, or ended up among the medals without his stabilizing influence.
With just two games under his belt as the full Nigeria captain, no doubt the Olympic experience would have given him a more hands-on crash course about what it takes to lead the national team.
He handled it all with a mature, level head. Barely heard, but always getting the job done via a carrot and stick approach.
The Chelsea midfielder has also finally allowed himself (after years of strong resistance and bolting from Twitter after one bad experience) to be reunited with social media, although his team would do well to give his social media persona more of the Mikel voice and less of the sterilized PR-speak.
3. Nigeria will always overcome the worst of adversity
Prior to their opening game, and despite all of their troubles, I did warn our Japanese opponents on Twitter to underrate this team at their own peril.
Maybe they listened, maybe they didn’t. Proved immaterial, as they were blown away by the Dream Team, who in turn contrived to get caught in their own wake.
The message however, is that as Nigerians we are used to adversity. From living without electricity for the major part of daily life, through driving on pockmarked roads, to lack of potable water or affordable healthcare, to even going 12 months and over without salaries, Nigerians have perfected the art of survival against near insurmountable odds.
It doesn’t matter what a Nigerian team goes through, once it is showtime, expect a big, unyielding scrap.
4. Not much to pick from
As good as the Dream Team were in Rio, and with the current transitional state of the Super Eagles, it would be easy to want to push a sizable chunk of the squad upstairs.
But let’s pause. Apart from the fact that that particular approach has not quite worked for Nigeria in the past, this was a team whose whole was far greater than the sum of its parts.
First, the majority have already had their shot at impressing in the full senior squad and did not quite pass the test.
Second, the ones who did are already in the full squad, like William Troost-Ekong, Shehu Abdullahi, Stanley Amuzie and Oghenekaro Etebo.
Of the others, only goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel, midfielder Azubuike Okechukwu and forward Imoh Ezekiel look anywhere near capable of making the step up.
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