Atalanta man Ademola Lookman is one of a host of Super Eagles strikers shining in Europe, but club form does not always translate to international football. Former Nigeria international Jonathan Akpoborie reveals all the reasons it could go wrong.
When Ademola Lookman elected to sign with Atalanta last summer, it is safe to say that no one, least of all the player himself, expected it to go as well as it has.
The forward, who played to halting effect for Leicester City last season, is flourishing under the tutelage of Gian Piero Gasperini. Under the 65-year-old, La Dea have come to be known for their swashbuckling football, and it is within this framework that Lookman’s production has shot through the roof.
So far this term, the 25-year-old has scored 12 goals and assisted four more in 19 league appearances for Atalanta, his latest being a fabulous solo effort in the 2-0 over Sampdoria that took the Bergamo club into the Champions League places. “He has the potential to do better and be even more decisive,” Gasperini said afterwards, and with the former Charlton prospect revving following the World Cup, it is difficult to put a cap on what Lookman can achieve this term.
His friendly “sibling” rivalry with Victor Osimhen, who is two goals ahead in the capocannoniere race, has only served to re-graze a still-scabbing wound. Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, despite its embarrassment of riches in attack, is not only difficult to understand close to a year later, but remains a source of major regret for football fans not just in Nigeria, but the world over. As Africa recorded its best ever performance at the Mundial, the Super Eagles were conspicuous by their absence.
However, tantalising as it is to fantasise about what might have been had Nigeria rocked up to Qatar with a blockbuster attack featuring not just the likes of Osimhen and Lookman, but also Terem Moffi, Taiwo Awoniyi and Paul Onuachu, the reality is often markedly different. While the Napoli sharpshooter has, over the course of just over 20 appearances, maintained a ratio of a goal every other game, the others have made rather more muted transitions to international football.
While six goals in their 29 appearances combined is hardly disastrous, their recent goalscoring fettle does lead one to wonder: how could his sparkling form be brought to bear on international football? After all, many a player has struggled to turn sparkling club form into consistency and excellence with the national team. If Nigeria somehow never sees the best of this sparkling cast of forwards, what would be to blame?
You hear it said often that international football is a completely different sport.
Except, it really isn’t. It does, however, present different challenges. Away from familiar teammates and comforts, many players have, following underwhelming displays in national team colours, severally been accused of a lack of commitment, gumption and ability. It is a familiar refrain; it is also, according to Jonathan Akpoborie, “crap”
The former Nigeria international had to deal with many of the same allegations in his playing days. Despite a strong club career in Germany that took in spells with Stuttgart – with whom he reached the final of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1998 as the competition’s second top scorer – and Wolfsburg, Akpoborie never quite transferred his club form to the international stage, and consequently never nailed down a spot in the Super Eagles.
So, how is it that a player can be so good for his club, but then underwhelm internationally? “It is definitely not (about) playing ability,” the 1985 FIFA Under-17 World Cup winner says. “There are so many reasons for that, depending on the environment.”
In total, Akpoborie only played for Nigeria 13 times, first selected for the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations but not handed another call-up for three years. He was then controversially left out of Nigeria’s squad to the 1998 World Cup, with his final international appearance coming in 2001.
Even granting the small sample, it is interesting that only one – in a 4-0 demolition of lowly Eritrea – of his tally of four international goals came on home soil. It is also, in his mind, far from coincidental.
“The primary reason for that is the exposure of the players to the local public when they are in Nigeria,” Akpoborie says.
“Football has evolved. The expectation is high. The concentration level (needed) is also high. When you bring in the crowd from outside to come and sit with the players every time, they transfer that tension from the general public into the team, and it affects what they can produce.
“A lot of players these days are very nervous and afraid, and when you give them firsthand pressure from the crowd, then it becomes a problem, because they will not be able to translate exactly what the trainer is telling them on the field.”
Akpoborie’s first competitive international goal for Nigeria came during the 1998 World Cup qualifying series, in a hard-fought away tie against Kenya. On a difficult playing surface in Nairobi, the Harambee Stars took a first-half lead, but the Stuttgart forward struck early in the second half to rescue a point. There is an amusing anecdote about the power of concentration.
“Between me and you – well, the whole of Nigeria will read it now – I had a bet with the Kenyan player that marked me in Nairobi,” Akpoborie recalls. “I was telling the guy then, ‘See, we'll now destroy you guys in Lagos.’ He was telling me they would be the first team to beat us in Nigeria. I said: ‘Okay, we have a bet.’
“Before that (return) game, from Monday, I refused to see anybody, to discuss with anybody outside the Super Eagles team. And it was the best game I played for the Super Eagles.” Even though Akpoborie himself did not score, Nigeria won 3-0.
“Most of the games I played inside Nigeria, you'll find that I would not really be good in those games because the concentration level would be zero. It actually tells you a lot goes on when those things happen in Lagos, for example. And I tell you what, it does not just happen in Lagos.”
Another underappreciated element of international performance is the tactical. A player thriving in one system at club level can find himself hamstrung by another one while on international duty, unable to replicate his output within a scheme underpinned by different principles of play with and without the ball.
This means the identity and philosophy of the national team manager is vital, both in terms of getting the best out of the talent pool and integrating new talent into an already established framework.
“Before you employ a coach, you must look at his philosophy; what he has done,” Akpoborie says. “When you see all of that, you now compare what he has done to the crop of players you have. Would he be able to do what we want with this crop of players that we have? What kind of football would he be able to play? Is it tiki-taka? Is it the long one?
“Because you have to determine what is best for the person who is going to score the goals. For the midfielders that we have that will play for us. The kind of defenders that we have. Do we want to defend high on the pitch, or do we want to defend behind – very, very deep. Those things come into consideration, depending on the type of the players we have at that time. If you pick the right coach, all well and good, it goes well. But if you pick the wrong coach, then, we are in trouble.”
What about when it comes to integrating a new talent into a settled game model, especially one who, on the surface, is not an obvious fit?
“Well, then it depends on the quality of the player,” Akpoborie says. “If you're playing a system, for example, and you have a player the calibre of Messi. Obviously, you have to change everything…
“When the coach looks at the player, he says, ‘Okay, if I do this and this, then I'll get the best out of this player. He will be able to change games for us unilaterally.’ Then you have to rearrange. You don't even need to tell the coach. He will rearrange everything himself. But it is not everybody's opinion. The coach is the only person who can make that decision.”
Ultimately, the task of insulating the national team from distraction, of picking the correct manager, is that of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). It is at the Glass House that the buck ultimately stops, and it is for them that Akpoborie, who ran for the post of president back in September, reserves the harshest criticism.
Part of communicating to the player the gravity of the assignment, and therefore eliciting the right level of output, is in the organisation around the national team. With the benefit of playing at the highest levels in Europe, “you see that there is actually a very very big problem at the organisation level, and those creep into your performance as a player when you get into the field.
“There are so many things that affect that player when he comes to our national team… that organisation to separate him and actually show him how serious we are for that game to be played and for that game to be won (is not there). I don't see our administrators trying to create that scenario for our current players, and that is what affects most of our National team players today.”
Why is it so hard then to put the right atmosphere and structures in place? None of this is rocket science, really; the line from efficient organisation to productivity is not just straight, but evidently so.
“A lot of them who are picked…” – an instructive choice of word – “...to run these things don’t even understand the game themselves,” Akpoborie says. “So I can’t even blame them. Some of them played in their secondary school games (at best).
“But, unfortunately, those people that say yes to these administrators – my former colleagues – are the ones that I am really, really angry at, because they are the ones giving legitimacy to these people who do not understand football.”
Time and again during the interview, he comes back to the theme of competence within the Nigerian footballing apparatus, and laments the influence of politics in the decision-making process at various levels. As an instance, he cites the flawed appointment process for national team coaches, one which should take a significant amount of input from the NFF’s technical director.
“Tell me [which] one of the coaches was actually picked by Austin Eguavoen. The technical director should be the person to assess everything because he has the experience and the qualification to say, ‘Look, I have assessed everything. This is the kind of football we are playing, and this is the kind of coach that will be appropriate for us.’ Then he lists those coaches. Then, from that list, the FA will, with his own input, pick one of the coaches for us. That has never been done in Nigeria, even when I was still playing.
“Nigeria, even during my time, we have never… a lot of people might argue with me, but I am telling you the plain truth. We have never at any one time gone to a tournament, or a one game, and picked our best team. Never!
“Even if the coach wants to pick his best team, politically, they would influence it. There is the possibility of having a Messi somewhere and somebody else will pick another team and exclude that person for one personal reason or the other. And it will be okay for everybody. And we still do it till tomorrow. So, it is a big problem for us.
“During my time, when we went to win the Under-17 (World Cup), do you know what the complaint was? Even before we left Nigeria, they said, ‘Oh no, we have nine people from the old Bendel State. How come?’
“That is what politicians do to sports in Nigeria.”
When the final whistle blew to sound the death knell on Nigeria’s World Cup ambitions back in March 2020, there followed a pitch invasion inside the Abuja National Stadium. The ugly scenes featured vandalism on a massive scale, with Super Eagles players shepherded off the pitch and then out of the stadium complex by security personnel.
It was reminiscent of the sort of situation that was common in the bearpit that was the National Stadium in Lagos. That intolerance for lowered standards has been a hallmark of the Nigerian match goer; it would have been an instructive experience for Lookman in particular, making his home debut in that must-win encounter in the nation’s capital.
How does an experience like that play on the mind of a professional footballer? Is it a positive or a negative? And might it affect a player’s ability or willingness to apply himself on further international assignments?
Akpoborie laughs. “That is normal in Nigeria. We were stoned [several times] at the National Stadium and we kept coming back to play for Nigeria.
“Nigerians want good football. When you play well and you don't score goals in Nigeria, you have the reaction. The reaction of the fans, especially in Lagos, is extreme. But, as a footballer, it is part of football.
“Even when they stone you, you realise that, yes, we didn't play well, that is why they stoned me today. That does not tell you not to come back tomorrow to play. Even if they are planning to drown you because you didn't play well, you still have to come back and prove to them that you are correct, they are wrong.
“Even when you perform well, you have to put into consideration that you cannot satisfy everybody. What you will try to do is give your best on the pitch. If you're not even playing well, you're still running, you're still fighting to get the ball, you're still passing. That’s the minimum expected.”
The minimum will please no one, but the presence of every other variable certainly makes national team success more likely.
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