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WAFU Cup of Nations disaster shows Nigerian football is in dire straits

And so the unthinkable happened. A penalty shootout defeat by Cape Verde saw Nigeria eliminated from the 2019 WAFU Cup of Nations in disgrace.

Nigeria looked likely to avoid the disgrace of the unwanted record when Sikiru Alimi scored his scrambled goal, but a giveaway just seconds before fulltime saw the game go to penalties and the nervy Super Eagles lads missed three of their kicks to hand the islanders victory.

This was nothing short of disaster. Two losses in one tournament, and another defeat not quite two weeks before, tallied three losses on the spin for the domestic league Super Eagles. And it is not like they faced any of the African or regional giants in any of those games.

It is a disaster that should have wider consequences for the future of Nigerian football.

In the buildup to Saturday's game, it was clear that Nigeria coach Imama Amapakabo's brief was to play at least for some redemption after falling to Togo in the two previous games. And it did look like things were heading that way when Sunusi gave them that lead.

But old frailties returned to haunt them despite a dominant showing: An inability to put away scoring chances meant they failed to add security to their slim lead, and fragility at the back saw them concede the late late goal.

Such was the disappointment in Nigeria that the Nigeria Football Federation's communications team, which usually puts a positive spin on results good or bad, could not find it in them to write a single line.

There are no positives to be found.

But negatives abound aplenty.

Starting with how a Nigeria squad could not find the quality to win at least one game against opposition they should be walking through. And for players who play in a league in which penalties are awarded and scored regularly, to miss three spot kicks in a match that could have repercussions for their own future speaks very much to their very inadequacies.

Immediate reactions to the elimination focused largely on the lack of league action for players. The Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) has been on a forced break since concluding with a six-team playoff in June, meaning 18 of the 24 clubs have seen no competitive action in nearly half a year.

Not that the season before was any better. The league ended prematurely after 24 rounds of games, following a two-month break for the FIFA World Cup; no champions were declared but Lobi Stars were picked as the nation's CAF Champions League representatives.

So for two consecutive seasons, football players in Nigeria have had very limited competitive action to occupy them.

But is this really a valid reason?

Shehu Dikko, chairman of the League Management Company LMC, disagrees and points to other countries who have also had recent league troubles

"When last did Ghana play league football; I know for sure they have not played in over a year," he noted to ESPN.

He makes a fair point.

Ghana have not seen league football since June 2018, but their domestic players' national team does not find itself in the same sorry quagmire as Nigeria. They may have struggled slightly, needing penalties to overcome Burkina Faso, but they are still in the semifinals, at least, of the WAFU Cup of Nations Cup competition.

So perhaps, Dikko is correct and league football is not all there is to it.

Emmanuel Nyabam, a football administrator in Nigeria, independently agrees, pointing to much darker reasons

"What do you expect when match officials and club administrators compromise for matches," Nyabam tells ESPN.

"I feel sorry for Imama because he will now take the blame for what is not his fault."

And then, of course, there are those, such as coach Uni Dan Kawa, who blame it on the lack of football education at the grassroots level.

All three make good points.

Nigeria's international football provides a case study in stark contrast.

While the Nigeria team consisting of players only from the domestic league endures humiliation after humiliation -- the first squad failed to qualify for the inaugural African Nations Championship -- the main Super Eagles team is doing well, propped up by players whose skills are honed by foreign, mostly European, clubs.

In recent years, those players have been reinforced by players born, raised and developed abroad who have switched allegiances from their countries of birth.

As a matter of fact, four of the starting XI that drew 2-2 against Ukraine in a recent friendly, were diaspora-born players: Ola Aina, William Troost-Ekong, Semi Ajayi, Joe Aribo and Alex Iwobi.

But that is not as shocking as this next fact: Of the starting XI in that game, only Oghenekaro Etebo had spent significant time playing in the NPFL, with Warri Wolves. The rest went from youth academies straight to Europe.

Of the rest of the squad, goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa was the only other player to have spent significant time in the NPFL; he still plays in the league, for Heartland.

Just to make that clear: Only one player in the Nigeria starting XI currently played in the NPFL, and only one more in the 21-man squad currently plays in the league.

The squad that played Ukraine is not an isolated case.

The number was not significantly different in Nigeria's 23-man squad to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt: Only Etebo, Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, Shehu Abdullahi and Ahmed Musa had spent significant time in the NPFL.

A deeper dive does the NPFL no favours.

Musa spent barely one year at Kano Pillars, Etebo only slightly more at Wolves.

Add this: The majority of players transferred from Nigeria to European clubs are signed mostly out of academies rather than from NPFL clubs, hence it is easy to see why the African Nations Championship and WAFU Cup of Nations Super Eagles are performing so poorly.

These numbers -- and results, including club football results at continental level -- would seem to suggest that NPFL players are nowhere near good enough to be playing international football for Nigeria. And that providing support for Gernot Rohr's refusal to integrate league players into the full national team.

Amapakabo told ESPN before the WAFU tournament that NPFL players were coached so badly that they failed to assimilate and execute tactical instructions with ease.

The three recent results suggest he may not be far from the truth, and gives rise to the thought that there is an emergency in Nigerian football; an emergency that remains as yet unacknowledged across the board.

If there is one positive that should come out of this WAFU Cup of Nations disaster for Nigeria, perhaps it should an acknowledgement that the nation's domestic football is in of the dire straits, and in need of workable, long-term fixes. POST HASTE!

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