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Iwobi: Throwing away the baby with the bathwater

On February 11, the ambition of the Super Eagles of Nigeria to win a fourth Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title came crashing as they…

On February 11, the ambition of the Super Eagles of Nigeria to win a fourth Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title came crashing as they were outclassed 2-1 by the Elephants of Cote d’ Ivoire in the final of the 34th edition of the biggest football tournament in Africa.

It was a bitter pill to swallow because before the match, many Nigerians fancied the chances of their darling team to come home with the coveted trophy. The Eagles had shown the capacity to win. Therefore, expectations were really high in the build up to the rematch at the Alassane Quattra Stadium in Abidjan.

Although President Bola Ahmed Tinubu didn’t attend the match personally, he ensured a high powered federal government delegation led by the Vice-President, Kashim Shettima, represented him. It was reported that at least 20 private jets landed in Abidjan filled to the brim with rich Nigerians who went to cheer the Super Eagles to victory.

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Apart from that thousands of Nigerians resident in Cote d’ Ivoire trooped to the venue of the all-important match just as almost every Nigerian at home prepared himself to watch proceedings on television. Since petrol is now out of the reach of the common man in Nigeria, most of the fans dashed into nearby viewing centres to watch the Super Eagles battle Elephants.

In the end, it wasn’t a good day in the office for the Super Eagles as they got trampled upon by the rejuvenated Elephants. Although the Super Eagles lost the final, they were not humiliated. They didn’t play against the Elephants on the field only, they contended with the whole nation. Every Ivorian, old and young, desperately wanted the trophy. Led by their President Alassane Quattra, the home fans ensured their boys were motivated enough to get the expected revenge against the Super Eagles.

Unfortunately, some Nigerian football fans who understand only the language of victory immediately descended on the players. As if to rub salt into their wounds, the cyber bullies castigated most of the players and even wished them ill-luck in their future endeavours. Worst hit was no doubt the Fulham of England man, Alexander Chuka Iwobi, who was badly attacked by those who unpatriotically trolled the players.

Some of the bullies made it look like Iwobi played against Nigeria in the final. The attacks became so serious that the former Arsenal star had to delete photos from his Instagram handle leaving only one video. And immediately, reports emerged in some quarters that he was contemplating quitting the Super Eagles. Although he is yet to issue a formal statement on his international future, most Nigerians are hoping he will regard the unwarranted attacks as some of the professional hazards he must face in his career.

Indeed to single out Iwobi for condemnation was an error in judgment on part of the cyberbullies. Maybe he didn’t live up to expectation in the match but what of the remaining members of the team? Of course, Ekong was fantastic throughout the tournament and even emerged the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the 2023 AFCON. He scored the opening goal in the final but also failed to quickly close down Sebastien Haller to prevent him from scoring the winning goal.

Moreover, Peseiro got both his line-up and tactics wrong. There was no reason whatsoever for him to start Samuel Chukwueze ahead of Moses Simon who had built a near perfect understanding with Ademola Lookman. Furthermore, the Super Eagles played dangerously by staying deep in their half of the field. It is said the best form of defence is to attack. By staying back to defend, the Eagles invited pressure on their defence and rendered Osimhen redundant in the attack. The strike force was effectively extinguished as Osimhen had to drop deep to defend. There was no way the Super Eagles whose wings were tactically clipped would have soared high. It was a collective failure. So, why Iwobi was singled out for harassment and attacks is difficult to understand.

Those who attempted or are attempting to push the Fulham man into depression or out of the Super Eagles should pause a little to appreciate his commitment and dedication to the national team. Since he made his debut for Nigeria in 2015, Iwobi has been consistent in honouring national team invitations. At the moment, he is the seventh most capped Nigerian with 76 appearances. He has also scored goals like the one against Zambia in Uyo that qualified Nigeria to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

One crude reason which may be responsible for the constant criticism of Iwobi is the feeling in some quarters that he is in the Super Eagles on the ‘ticket’ of his famous uncle, Jay Jay Okocha, the former captain of the national team. This misconception is enough reason for some people to malign him. There is no way a bad player will last for so many years in the Super Eagles, even if his father is the President of the country. Let’s not forget that there was an attempt to force Ogbonna Kanu into the team maybe because of his elder brother Nwankwo Kanu but he didn’t last because he was not a national team material. It simply didn’t work.

So, the case of Iwobi is completely different. Of course he needs to up his performance for the Super Eagles but nobody can say categorically that he does not deserve his place in the national team. It is, therefore, necessary to commend Nigerians who stood by the player against those who wanted to harm Iwobi physically and mentally.

In fact, there’s nothing as painful as being targeted by the same people you have sacrificed your comfort zone to come and serve. Indeed, it is the dream of most young Africans to play for national teams of any European country but Iwobi who was close to playing for the Three Lions of England chose to come back home. Let’s not give the likes of Tammy Abraham and Bukayo Saka a reason to mock him.

At the same time, Iwobi’s ordeal should serve as a wake-up call to every member of the Super Eagles who takes pleasure in toying with the emotions of football loving Nigerians. The Eagles should know that Nigerians are averse to defeat. Therefore, they should be ready to do everything humanly possible to win when they are representing the country. Anytime they are coming home to play for the Super Eagles, they must take along with them the same legs they use for their respective clubs in Europe.

Honestly, the Super Eagles have just shown in Cote d’ Ivoire that they have the ability to play good football so Nigerians won’t hesitate to descend on them once they return to their lackadaisical style of football. But the fans too should learn to temper justice with mercy. It is not good to throw away the baby with the bathwater simply because of a single mistake or defeat. Even the Lionel Messi inspired Argentina national team was beaten by Saudi Arabia on their way to victory at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Moreover, defeat is inevitable in football.

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