Samson Siasia rode a wave of overwhelming popular support to be named Nigeria coach on a four-year contract in December. But the 43-year-old former Super Eagle and Nantes player is also the first to point out that if the results do not come, he could easily be the most vilified man in this football-mad country of over 150 million souls.
Having lost to Guinea in Conakry 1-0 last October before Siasia took over, Nigeria know they will need to make up those three points. So pressure is high heading into their home CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier this weekend against Ethiopia - a match that will mark the half-way point of qualifying.
It is a thin line between love and hate and Siasia already got a hint of this last month, when his Super Eagles were booed as Sierra Leone pulled a goal back in a 2-1 friendly win in Lagos. “It was a good start, and I am pleased with the team. We had a lot of injuries to deal with,” said Siasia about his debut. “But we lost our shape in the second half, and I was not fully impressed with the defence. We need to work more on this area.”
Attacking options on the table
Having gone through over a dozen coaching changes since their last major international laurel at senior level - the historic Olympic gold at Atlanta ’96 - the two-time African champions are anxious to reassert their standing as one of the continent’s elite sides. As a long-time international and a key figure for the side that both won the Cup of Nations and reached the second round of the FIFA World Cup™ in 1994, the hope is that Siasia’s appointment can re-conjure those glory days.
An elegant striker in his playing days, Siasia has set about rebuilding an attack short on confidence and flair. For the Ethiopia match he has called up a full nine or ten attackers in his 24-man squad, including a first recall for Obafemi Martins since South Africa 2010 and long-term injury Ikechukwu Uche. Siasia says that he’s interested in exploring all of his options, and seeing where Uche is in his recovery. “I think having this many strikers is an advantage for us to see where they are for the match,” he said. “We have a long way to go, so it is an advantage for us to see how the players are prepared. It is the way you play in practice that you are going to play during the match, so we will look at them and pick from there.
“We just want to encourage [Uche]. He is back after a year, so it’s not like if he comes here, we are going to start him. We want to see if he can actually fit in. If he does, maybe he would come in [later in the game]. He missed the World Cup, and I think it is a good thing to encourage the young ones like that and that is why we invited him.”
Odibe out, Mikel settling in
The Super Eagles missed out on Germany 2006 after finishing behind unfancied Angola in qualifying, and most supporters are still reeling after an unsatisfactory outing at last year’s FIFA World Cup finals, where they earned just a point in failing to go past the first round in South Africa. Siasia is well-known in Nigeria for leading a generation of youngsters to the final of both the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup and the 2008 Men's Olympic Football Tournament, and the Ethiopia match will be his first competitive match in charge of the full national side.
His roster includes four domestic players, but it has a strong emphasis on players that he knew from his youth team days. With so many attackers, there are still concerns at the back with ‘central defender of the future’ Michael Odibe failing to impress against Sierra Leone. “Sometimes when you have a chance, you need to prove yourself, but he didn’t play to expectation,” Siasia said on leaving out the Italy-based Odibe. “I don’t have any problem with him, but I have some players who have played in that position that I have worked with before, and who I believe they could do better than what we saw against Sierra Leone. I am not saying Odibe is a bad player, but he didn’t play like I wanted him to play. He will have the chance to come back later, but for now, I think I don’t want to experiment with him.”
Although John Mikel Obi has been struggling with a knee injury, he should be in the holding midfield role to help shield the defence. That is something of a departure for the Chelsea player, who Nigerians have long hoped would fill the playmaking role largely vacant since the retirement of Jay Jay Okocha. But Siasia has a more realistic view of the 23-year-old. “You cannot change Mikel now to play in another position because he has played that way for almost five years now,” he said. “There is no miracle that could change him to start going forward any more, so we will play him where he is plays for his club. He is doing very well [in that position], so I don’t see the reason why we have to change him.”