CAF Player of the year: Time for Nigeria to look inward

African Footballer of the Year, Egypt and Liverpool striker Mohammed Salah speaks during a press conference after the CAF awards at the Accra International Press Conference in Accra, on January 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA ALDEHUELA

Perhaps the best way to begin this column is to heartily congratulate African Player of the Year, Mohamed Salah. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) confirmed what everyone knew: in 2017, there was no African better.

He edged out Liverpool team mate Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, both superb forwards in their own right, to become the first Egyptian in 34 years to win the award.

The point of curiosity, given the final three, was the clamour for Nigeria international Victor Moses as more deserving. This claim was entirely hinged on a season wherein Chelsea took the English Premier League by surprise, storming to the title after an initial wobble forced a change in team shape. While Moses is an intrepid, roving playmaker by international window, necessity dictated that when Antonio Conte needed a wing-back, he was tapped for the specialist role.

Perhaps the fact that Chelsea’s upturn in performances coincided with Moses playing more regularly led most to credit his influence directly, rather than that of a system that made a previously undisciplined winger into a disciplined defender.

Whatever the case, the argument seems to be that, having won a league title – more than could be said for any of the players in the final three – he should win by default. The fact that he did not has now come to be seen as the furtherance of some ancient agenda against Nigerian footballers. Not since Nwankwo Kanu won the second of his two awards in 1999 has a Nigerian been crowned Africa’s best. That’s a long time, but there is a danger of looking at it from the simple point of demographics.

Nigeria is by far Africa’s most populous nation, and football is by far its most popular sport. Just as science has proven, the human brain can struggle to grasp probability: we tend to think that, just because there are more of us, one of us should at least have won once on the last 19 years.

As such, it is convenient for the average Nigerian football fan to invent another reason for the dry spell. While Issa Hayatou was in power, and perhaps mindful of the (perceived) injustices of years gone by (Exhibit A: 1988/2000 Africa Cup of Nations finals against Cameroon), the narrative was that CAF was partial to Francophone nations.

So we hear that Mustapha Hadji won in 1998 on the back of one bicycle kick. Never mind that he scored at the World Cup as Morocco were hugely unfortunate to be eliminated, and that while he was scoring the bicycle kick in question, his closest challenger Jay-Jay Okocha was missing out on the Cup of Nations thanks to a CAF ban on Nigeria.

Look beyond the self-pitying narrative, and it is clear that, in the timeframe, there have been no viable candidates anyway. The aforementioned Okocha came closest, but was unfortunate to mature at a time when Samuel Eto’o was growing into one of Europe’s most devastating strikers. Should he have won in 2003 anyway? Maybe. But even allowing for that, it was still 15 years ago.

There is also the obvious question: why would CAF, or any footballing association for that matter, devalue its top award by being biased? To do that would amount to sabotage.
The simplest explanation is often the right one, but in this case, it is a rather uncomfortable one: our players simply are not good enough. To acknowledge this is to take responsibility, so you can understand why it’s not an easy pill to swallow.

A lack of ambition is at the core of the problem. The average Nigerian footballer sees football as a means to elevate his social and financial status. While there’s nothing wrong with that at all, it is the enemy of that extra push to true stardom.

It is also antithetical to discipline (once comfort is secured), another area in which our footballers fall down. The ability to delay gratification is a cornerstone of the drive for growth. When did you ever hear a Nigerian male footballer say he seeks to be the best player in Africa?

Yet, when Salah stood on the podium in Accra, he spoke plainly of his long-standing desire for the gong, and his intention to win many more. It is the lack of precisely that sort of ambitious thinking, focus and discipline, that has seen, and will continue to see our footballers come up short among their peers.

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