Friday, June 24, 2016

'THE GROUP' is here: Nigeria in tough path to Russia

The truth is that based on Nigeria's seeding for the African qualifiers to the World Cup, Nigeria was never going to have an easy path to the 2018 World Cup. However, of teams in Pot 2, Egypt and Cape Verde received arguably more difficult groups with teams averaging 54.75 and 55.75 FIFA ranking respectively. Nigeria's Group B has an average rank of 57.50. Yes, by reputation the Nigeria's Group B is obviously the most difficult and has been widely labelled the "Group of Death." However, if you take the most current FIFA ranking of teams, it is not the most difficult. Bear in mind that this is perhaps the toughest ever qualifiers for the World Cup involving African teams. Only two of the Top 20 African teams, using FIFA rankings, did not make it to this stage and only two -- Gabon and Libya  --made it! Of the teams, Libya ranks outside the Top 100 in the world. Thus, no group was going to be easy.
Nigeria's group has an average FIFA ranking of 57.50. Group A average is 67.75 (primarily because of Libya's low rank), Group C is 60.0, Group D is 55.75, and Group E 54.75.  Ultimately, the draws today all but confirm the belief that the path to the World Cup finals will not be easy. What is left is for the on-field contests to confirm what the belief is. The contests begin in October and Nigeria must now confront Algeria, Cameroon, and Zambia in Group B.

None of Nigeria's Group B opponents is new to Nigeria. The Super Eagles of Nigeria have confronted each of their qualification group opponents multiple times in the past. The results of those previous contests appear on Table 1. The results indicate that Nigeria has actually performed better against each of those teams in recent times. However, let us bear in mind that even though Nigeria has beaten Algeria in five of their last six encounters, both teams have not met since 2010. Nigeria has also beaten Cameroon five out of their last six encounters, and have knot lost to Zambia in their last six meetings.

What Lies Ahead?
Unfortunately, I do not have a magic wand to look into the future. However, one strongly believes the past helps us to analyze possible outcomes of these upcoming fixtures. Thus, this piece reviews the experience of the Super Eagles players, the team's home/away performance in competitive games since the last World Cup finals in 2014, and the team's performance in competitive games against African teams ranked in FIFA's Top 50 since the World Cup finals of 2014.

Team Experience
Nigeria, unfortunately, finds itself in an interminable rebuilding against teams that are largely settled and experienced. If Nigeria plans to go into these qualifiers with largely the team called up by Coach Salisu Yusuf in the last two internationals then we have a team where 60% of the players have made less than 10 appearances for the national team. As much as 36% of the more experienced players have played in 15 games or less. See Table 2. 

Nigeria's Recent Results in Competitive Games 
Nevertheless, Nigeria is capable of beating any of the top African teams. But that is increasingly becoming difficult. In Nigeria's competitive away games since the 2014 World Cup, it has won only one of six games, drawing three and losing two (see Figure 1). Yet, it is the ability to win these away games that will determine who goes to Russia in 2018 from this group.

At home, Nigeria has also stumbled in recent times (See Figure 2). This is quite unusual for Nigeria. Previously, it was a sure bet that Nigeria will win at home, particularly during the great years in the 1990s. In Nigeria's competitive games at home since the 2014 World Cup, it has won only 50% of those. It has won three of six games, losing one, and drawing two.

Results Against Teams Ranked in Top 90
Finally, take a look at the FIFA ranking of each of Nigeria's opponents in the announced qualifying group. Algeria is 31, Nigeria is 57, Cameroon is 59, and Zambia is 83. Nigeria's results against teams ranked in the Top 90 since the 2014 World Cup is shown on Figure 3. It is shocking. Nigeria has only one win in six games (home and away) against such teams and that came away to Congo Republic (ranked #59 at the time) in a Nations Cup qualifier. Besides that result, Nigeria's wins in competitive encounters have only come against teams ranked 100 or above. None of Nigeria's group opponents is ranked lower than 83. 

Since 2014 World Cup, Nigeria has played only one African team competitively, that is ranked as high as 50. That game ended in a home loss 2-3 to Congo Republic (ranked #48 at the time).

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

FIFA Rankings, Politics and Gaming the System

On June 24, the Confederation for African Football (CAF) will conduct its draws for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in Africa. We know that the draws depend on the seeding of teams based largely on FIFA's Ranking. Of course, it is a system that put Nigeria outside the Top 10 teams in Africa barely a few weeks ago. Fortunately, Nigeria was placed among the second set of seeded teams based on its performance in its last two international friendlies.

Of course, there are many who detest FIFA's Ranking system and for very good reasons. When you have a ranking system that confuses you more than it helps in understanding the relative strength of teams, then you should really worry. FIFA's Ranking system, modified several times over the years, remains a confusing system.

Nevertheless, it is a system that will not go away any time soon. Thus, you either learn how to cope with it and face its perils. That is the fact about international football today.

In this piece, we take a look at FIFA's Ranking system in order to identify problems with some of its logic. Importantly, we also note the geopolitics that shroud the system. Because my interest revolves around its impact on Nigeria, I look at how Nigeria's historical ranking by FIFA is related to coaching performance in recent times. The final part of this piece is to muse about what Nigeria may do in order to take advantage of the ranking system. 

The Baffling (Makes you Puke?)
The most baffling issue, for me, is why a system designed to rank national teams has to depend on factors beyond national team performance. This is, perhaps, the biggest "logic" question about FIFA's system. Presently, FIFA's system assigns weights to confederations. It is a calculation based on prior performance of a collection of national teams from particular continents or confederations. But is this necessary? My answer is "No." It makes little sense.

The system is NOT designed to rank confederations! It is designed to rank national teams. Thus, it makes little sense to add weights for performance of a confederation. By assigning weights to confederations, distortions are introduced in the system. For instance, does it make sense for a country playing Luxembourg to receive a higher score because Luxembourg is in Europe and a lower score for playing against Congo DR because the latter is in Africa? While one can understand the superior strength of UEFA teams like Germany, Italy, and Spain one cannot understand why teams like Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Andorra should be assigned greater strength compared to countries like Mexico, Ivory Coast, and Algeria.

The only interpretation for the above is the continuation of geopolitics that has plagued FIFA since the beginning of the 20th century. In essence, lets build and continue advantages for all of Europe's teams without regard to the rest of the world. It is similar to the thinking behind the absurd and imbalanced allocation of World Cup berths.

But then, even this weighting of confederations has been calculated questionably by FIFA. See the attempt to increase weights for UEFA and another error in calculating weights for the Asian Federation found by a diligent blogger and eventually corrected by FIFA. Are these unintentional? Perhaps. But it is hardly convincing when you consider that the weights were, in the first place, designed to help UEFA and CONMEBOL teams that already have advantages based on individual team ranks.  

More baffling, is that FIFA has taken away from its rankings the factors that make sense. For example, the recognition of the difficulty of playing away from home has been taken away from the formula. Yet, it is more logical to include it in the ranking formula than it is to include confederation weights. Why? Most disadvantaged countries (Those outside of UEFA) often have to play their international friendlies away from home because of financial calculations. Take a look at the last international friendlies between UEFA countries and non-UEFA countries to understand the issues here.

How Nigeria has Ranked Under Recent Coaches
Nevertheless, I already stated that "you either learn how to cope with it and face its perils." This brings us to reviewing Nigeria's recent rankings using the FIFA system. Here, we track the tenure of Nigerian coaches since 2008. The figure below shows where Nigeria has ranked during the tenures of Shuaibu Amodu (April 2009 and February 2010), Lars Lagerback (November 2010), Samson Siasia (November 2011), Stephen Keshi (November 2012, July 2013, July 2014, and July 2015), and Sunday Oliseh (May 2016).

Because FIFA rankings are affected largely (50%) by a team's performance in the last 12 months, we have tried to measure a coach's 12 months of tenure. For Keshi, we are able to take four such measures because of his longevity. For Lagerback, his measure accounts for 10 months period only because of his short tenure. But that 10 months also denote his close to 50% impact on the country's ranking assigned to him.

By using this measure, the effect of previous tenures on an account of a particular Coach's tenure is reduced by at least 50%. Thus, this measure is a rough but probable measure of accuracy on the impact of a coach's tenure on Nigeria's ranking. Of course, 100% accuracy can only be achieved if a Nigerian coach had a tenure of four years (period that covers impact on any rank assigned by the FIFA system). We know that has not happened for quite a long time! Thus, we settle for a high percentage of a coach's impact on the rank.

During the period of measurement, I note that Shuaibu Amodu produced the largest positive ranking effect for Nigeria moving the country from its No. 30 rank one year into his appointment to a rank of No. 15 in the world by the time he was replaced with Lagerback. The worst effect is the No. 67 rank under Coach Sunday Oliseh. However, note that by our measure this rank while due largely to performance under Oliseh's tenure is also partly affected (at least 50%) by the previous coach's tenure.

What Nigeria Should do 
With the data shown above, it is clear that Nigeria must strive to maintain a reasonable rank in order to receive the best seed at an event such as the draws that take place on June 24. Obviously, our current rank in the high 50s (9th in Africa) led to Nigeria receiving a second round of seeding for the  June 24 draws. Though, FIFA reportedly plans to issue a special ranking for African teams prior to the June 24 draws. So what should be done going into the future?

By the above, we acknowledge that FIFA's ranking, albeit with its imperfections, has been increasingly used to make very important decisions in competitive football. It is not just for seeding in an African qualifier but in seedings for global competition. Disadvantaged countries including those in Africa, like Nigeria, should learn how to make the system work to their benefit as much as possible in spite of the obstacles mentioned above.

We know that Switzerland played few international friendlies to ensure that it had a good ranking going into the draws for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In Africa, Egypt reneged on international friendlies planned against Malawi and Congo DR because of obvious negative effects of those games on Egypt's  ranking for the June 24 draws. We also know that Romania hired a consultant to help it go up the rankings in order to achieve a favorable seed in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers within UEFA. Wales also utilized the same strategy. This is the game that Nigeria may consider.

In Nigeria's case, I do not recommend not playing international friendlies. Rather, such friendlies must be strategic. Nigeria needs international friendlies against UEFA countries. These countries can be beaten and they have high coefficients based on the fact that they are members of UEFA Confederation. No point playing African countries that are ranked lower than Nigeria. There is hardly anything to gain from those games in terms of moving up the ranking. Instead, play against African countries ahead of Nigeria in FIFA ranking table or select less competitive UEFA countries that are usually ranked from 15-50 for international friendlies. These are winnable games that afford the benefits of (1) playing a team "supposedly" stronger than Nigeria, and (2) a team from a confederation with a significant weighting system attached. Those benefits matter as they move a country quicker up the FIFA ranking system.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

SHUAIBU AMODU: Final Records

The passing of Nigeria's top coach Shuaibu Amodu on June 10, 2016 is shocking news. He was, perhaps, Nigeria's best coach at the club level and one of the best at the national team level. Unfortunately, he may also have been the country's most unappreciated. He led Nigeria to two World Cup qualifications (2002 and 2010 World Cups) but was denied opportunity to coach at the global event. His rescue job for the 2002 World Cup was miraculous. Nigeria was virtually out under Johaness Bonfrere when Amodu was called in. He won five straight games to take Nigeria to qualification. The coaches who replaced him at the World Cups in 2002 and 2010 could not take the team beyond the opening rounds on each occasion. In essence, Amodu would not have done any worse. In fact, more likely he would have done better going by his record. At the time of his death in Benin, he was the country's Technical Director.

Perhaps, part of the unappreciation was that he never had a stellar playing record finishing his playing career with a broken leg after careers with clubs like Dumez and Niger Tornadoes of Minna. However, he learned his coaching craft assisting the mercurial Coach Alabi Aisien at Jos Mighty Jets. Eventually, he surpassed Aisien's coaching achievements. Below are his stats:

Challenge (FA) Cup
        Winner 1989  (BCC, Gboko)
        Winner 1992 (El Kanemi Warriors)
        Winner 1993 (BCC Gboko)
        Winner 1994 (BCC Gboko)

National League
        Winner 1994 (BCC Gboko)

Continental (AFRICA) Cups
        Winner 1990 (Cup Winner Cup/BCC Gboko)
        Runner Up 1991 (Cup Winners Cup/BCC Gboko)


PERIODS: 1994-95, 1996-97, 2000, 2001-02, and 2008-10
RECORD: 52 games Total: Won 27, tied 16, and lost 12/ 73-37 goals/ Debuted 52 players
FIRST GAME:  v England (November 16, 1994)
LAST GAME: v Algeria (January 30, 2010)

4th Place Intercontinental Cup 1995
3rd Place Cup for African Nations 2002
3rd Place Cup for African Nations 2010

Longest Winning streak in competitive games = 6 games from June 1, 2008 to 11 October, 2008.
Nigeria's largest margin of victory away: 4-0 over Sudan in Omdurman on July 1, 2001.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

STEPHEN KESHI: The Passing of a Great One

The death of Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, 54, earlier today is the passing of one of Nigeria's greatest players, perhaps Nigeria's greatest managerial achiever, a fighter for football labor, a supreme motivator, and a trailblazer. It is difficult to express in words the service that this man provided to Nigeria and Africa. Below are his stats as Player and Coach as well as links to the last words on this great man.


PERIOD:  1981-1994
GOALS:   8
DEBUT:   July 18, 1981 v Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) in 19 minutes
LAST GAME: June 30, 1994 v Greece in 90 minutes
CAPTAINED:  29 times
DISQUALIFIED: 1 ( v Togo July 24, 1983)
MINUTES:  Over 4924 minutes for Nigeria
HONORS:  Champion: Cup for African Nations 1994
                    Runner Up: Cup for African Nations 1984
                    Runner Up: Cup for African Nations 1988
                    Third Place: Cup for African Nations 1992


PERIOD:  2011-2015
RECORD:  26 won, 20 ties, 11 losses (90-53 goals). Debuted 66 players.
DEBUT:   November 12, 2011 v Botswana (F)
LAST GAME: June 13, 2015 v Chad (CANQ)
HONORS: Champion: Cup for African Nations 2013
                   African Coach of the Year 2013
                   Third Place: CHAN 2014              
                   World Cup Round of 16 in 2014
                   World Cup Qualification for Togo in 2006**

**First African-born coach to take a team to Round of 16 World Cup.
**One of two to win Cup of African Nations as Coach and Player.
**First African coach to qualify two countries to the World Cup.


Nigerian Premier League
Selected countries
Ghana FA

President Buhari of Nigeria
Former President Jonathan and others