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AFCON 2023: Nigerians, we can’t win all the time

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On Sunday, Nigeria’s senior football team, the Super Eagles, lost to the Elephants of Ivory Coast in the finals of the 2023 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. Expectedly, the loss hit Nigerians who had built hope on winning, and reactions, some of which became untoward, ensued.

Now, it is normal for a nation the size of Nigeria, especially one that has recently given its people very little to hope for, to express disappointment at a failure like Sunday’s. But in reacting, a country of serious people must be honest with itself, juxtaposing its preparation with the results it got.  Responses from many Nigerian football enthusiasts went overboard, exposing one or two tendencies that our people demonstrate in other areas of national life—sadly, to our detriment.

The first is the tendency to deceive ourselves, believing in illusions usually fostered by our primordial interests!

As it concerns AFCON 2023, the preponderance of pre-event analysis suggested that the Nigerian team was ill-prepared for the championship. Analysts identified that we had individually talented players but a wobbly squad, a reason for which we played badly in friendly matches. Even the journey to qualifying for the championship was less than spectacular.  Conversations from people around the country supported these analyses – Nigerians expected very little from their team.

Things, however, changed after the team struggled to win its first match against host Ivory Coast! Concerning this match, those knowledgeable about football indicate that the Eagles had a lacklustre outing. Nigeria won that match not because of any spectacular skill but just by a stroke of luck, which curiously stayed with the team until the end. The testimony of those who watched these matches without prejudice is that chance, more than any outstanding performance, drove the team’s successes during AFCON 2023. Statistics from the finals show that the Eagles were mostly spectators in the game. The Elephants had better ball possession (over 60 per cent), as they shot better on goals. Nigeria played a defensive game, scoring the only noticeable shot at goal. Analysts complained about Nigeria’s midfield from the outset, and in this match, it fell flat, such that a different result would have been an outright miracle.

By this time, however, Nigerians were already taken by victories secured by the team. They had lost sight of the team’s pre-championship sub-optimal performance. But again, this is a pervasive tendency in Nigeria. We primarily accept and even celebrate tokens and condone mediocrity if it gives us a measure of result. We will return to this point.

But then, Nigerians do not also take kindly to losses, and we saw that after Sunday. Moments after the Elephants took the trophy, we went to town complaining and grumbling like it was our birthright to win every game even when we did not deserve it.

As usual with us, the same mouths that shouted “Hosanna” after the previous matches, started to promote the “crucifixion” of the players on Sunday. As we were wont to, we picked scapegoats and went personal on Alex Iwobi and Victor Osimhen. We forgot that football is a team game, and that one tree cannot make a forest. Even if one person drops the ball in the circumstance, this was a sport, and no team is ever made to win all the time. We complained about how they perform much better professionally than when they play for the country, but we refused to remember the humongous investments that clubs make in building the talents of individual players and developing the spirit of their teams. We discount the essential requirement of sportsmanship and carry on like losing or failure was the end of life. We forget that there are no quick fixes to success and that lessons from failure provide the ladder to ultimate success. We see failure as a destination and almost always learn nothing from it. We want success even when we do not lay the foundation for it! We have become a nation in unbridled pursuit of emergence and unabating success.

Sadly, this attitude to sports reflects the character of many of us and how much we contribute to the unenviable state of our country.

For starters, many Nigerians delight themselves in hoping for things their realities do not support. Check out how government apologists continued to defend the immediate-past administration of President Muhammadu Buhari even when it was evident that it was digging Nigeria’s socio-economic grave.

Nigerians would vote for politicians not because they are manifestly competent but because of the language they speak or the religion they “claim” to practise. We are a people who do not care much about the substance of things. Our leaders already know this, so they never tire of putting off faces that deceive us.

In the same breath, we are content with tokens. This is why successive governments have made palliatives a state policy instead of introducing lasting transformative policies to enhance opportunities for shared prosperity.

Just like we celebrate mediocre wins, forget the limitations of our teams (just because they score goals) and transport them to unrealistic levels of performance, we celebrate tokenistic gestures (that do not change our lives sustainably) from politicians. By this, we expose ourselves as people of little ambition. As a result, political leaders have perfected the games of teasing us with the crumbs and stealing the bulk of our commonwealth while education, health, and other social services suffer.

Finally, we love to always win and by all means possible! Whether it is in sports, politics, education or even awards, when our people do not win, we troll and mock rather than celebrate them. Why, for example, did the loss of musical artistes, Davido, Burna Boy, Asake, and Ayrastar at the 2023 Grammy Awards, where they received nominations, become such a massive subject of trolling on social media? Isn’t the recognition of these stars through their nominations enough reason to make people proud?

That is not all. When politicians lose elections, it is hardly their fault; if the other politician has not rigged them out, the Independent Electoral Commission, the election tribunal, or the court of law (created by the constitution), must have manipulated things. We never consider ourselves to have lost fairly. even when we did not prepare, we always find excuses to explain it away and pass the buck.

We must learn to take our failures as stepping stones to future success and as evidence of an opportunity to do things better and get more suited for victory the next time we try.

We are a nation of hopes and wishes in all aspects of our national lives, but sustainable progress, sterling accomplishments and successes are seldom products of good luck. On the contrary, deliberate, and strategic planning are more sure bankers for success.

The frontiers that humanity has advanced in medicine, science and technology are all products of human confrontation with adversity which opens the doors for development. We cannot just continue to bet on chances while the rest of the world is taking serious action to confront the challenges of today and conquer the future ahead of its happening. Nigerians must get more serious about remaining in reckoning on all fronts.

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