One of the biggest subplots of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations was finally closed out when the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) confirmed that Augustine Eguavoen will continue as Interim Head Coach while Emmanuel Amunike comes in as the first assistant.
The Super Eagles were rocked by the sacking of Gernot Rohr only a month to the tournament, prompting Eguavoen to step in from his Technical Director role. As pre-tournament camping opened towards the end of last year, Victor Osimhen, Odion Ighalo, Emmanuel Dennis, Leon Balogun and Shehu Abdullahi were forced to pull out from the squad and complicate the options available to Eguavoen.
After crashing out of the Round of 16 despite impressing throughout the tournament, Nigeria have added the pedigree of one of the most accomplished footballers from the country in the former African Player of the Year. Amunike is a member of both the FIFA and CAF Technical Study Groups and qualified Tanzania for their second-ever AFCON in 2019. However, the immediate task is an all-important 2022 FIFA World Cup play-off against rivals Ghana next month.
The former Barcelona winger has successfully worked with many of the Super Eagles’ current stars as they won the 2015 U17 World Cup with the likes of Victor Osimhen, Samuel Chukwueze and Kelechi Nwakali.
The development ends speculation over the future of Eguavoen, who galvanised the squad despite less than two weeks to prepare for the AFCON. It also comes as contract discussions with Jose Peseiro were withheld during the tournament.
After Eguavoen steered Nigeria to the best group stage record at the tournament to briefly spark a fairytale that was cruelly cut short by the unfortunate defeat to Tunisia in the Round of 16, a chance to build on his impressive work is the least he deserves.
I personally hoped Amunike would get the caretaker role before Eguavoen was chosen – due to his pre-existing role as technical director – and the addition of Amunike to that technical crew must be seen as a positive due to his qualities as well as relevance as one of the country’s greatest ever.
Looking Forward: Giving Indigenous Coaches a Chance
The NFF has belatedly elected for the evolution of the team under an indigenous coaching crew. It may not be a popular decision but seems the most effective for a long-standing structure.
While many point the accusing finger of Nigeria’s shock elimination to an inferior Tunisia as a sign of Eguavoen’s technical ineptitude, the ill-fated introduction of Alex Iwobi was a suitable tactical move to increase the threat from central areas as the opponents double-teamed on Nigeria’s wingers.
Although the plan was unfruitful due to Iwobi’s sending off only seven minutes later, it was a sign of the 56-year-old identifying the side’s deficiencies and his willingness to react. It left enough evidence of what he could achieve if given more time with the team.
Despite the general disappointment, Nigerians ended AFCON 2021 with more hope in their national team which was in stark contrast to the final few months of Gernot Rohr’s regime.
Eguavoen was able to call up a number of fringe and untested players due to the large number of absences for the continental showpiece, and the promise the team showed became impossible to ignore. Rohr failed to integrate fresh blood into the team as he stuck to his group of favourites but Eguavoen has effortlessly provided breakthroughs for Kelechi Nwakali, Sadiq Umar, Olisa Ndah and Emmanuel Dennis, to an extent.
Notably, there was immediate improvement from the likes of Moses Simon and William Troost-Ekong to provide a sign of things to come.
Indeed, Senegal’s Aliou Cisse joined the exclusive list of Hassan Shehata, Stephen Keshi and Djamel Belmadi as the only local coaches to ever win AFCON.
Eguavoen became the only man to lead Nigeria to a 100% group stage record – twice – and there is perhaps no better-qualified duo alongside Amokachi to lead Nigeria as indigenous coaches.
The last two AFCON-winning managers have shone the light on growing with your own in Africa and the Super Eagles’ showings in Cameroon underlined the fact that nothing beats an identifiable style of play for both players and fans.
Cisse and Belmadi prove it takes time, but creating an enabling environment and developing an identity is the way to go in international football.