Okocha maintains dignity as pressure builds on Nigeria

Poor preparation, enormous expectations and divided camp are undermining Super Eagles' campaign
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As presentations went, the manner in which Jay-Jay Okocha received his award as the BBC's African Footballer of the Year was something of a shambles.

Television cameramen were standing on chairs and sometimes on each other to thrust a lens as near as they could to his face, as the corporation's correspondents attempted, without ever losing their essential English politeness, to restore order. Throughout, Okocha maintained his patience, dignity and smile. As the captain of Nigeria, he is used to scenes like these.

The decision to send home Celestine Babayaro, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Victor Agali for: having an unauthorised cup of coffee (if you are Yakubu's manager, Harry Redknapp); staggering in late from an unauthorised drinking session (if you are the Nigerian Football Association); or having "European women in their rooms" (if you are part of the Nigerian press) hit Okocha hard. "It's been a nightmare for me, I'm in a difficult situation and it's been stressful. We now have only 16 outfield players and I pray this decision does not cost us the African Nations Cup," he said before leading out Nigeria against Benin on Wednesday night in a match the Super Eagles had to win to make the quarter-finals.

Benin should have provided no problems. Most African nations have grandiose, aggressive nicknames - there are three eagles and three lions in the quarter-finals alone - but Benin are "The Squirrels". They lost, but not by very much, and yesterday Babayaro, Yakubu and Agali were all invited back to the miserably unhappy team headquarters at the Kuriat Palace Hotel in Monastir, a town which, interestingly given the allegations against the players, was so named because it was built near a monastery.

Yakubu, who last Saturday went straight from a plane to play in a match at Fratton Park which had started before he arrived, was understandably reluctant to return. "The way he was sent home and the stories which were given to the world media by the Nigerian FA leave him extremely cold," said Portsmouth's chief executive, Peter Storrie, sticking rigidly to the "late cup of coffee" version.

In Tunis, Okocha admitted he could see little justifiable reason for the players' return since if they flew back this morning, they would have only a day to prepare for a quarter-final with Cameroon which virtually nobody in the Nigerian media expects them to win. Until this tournament, Babayaro had not played for his country since the World Cup two years ago.

"I was not happy when they were sent home because we all make mistakes," Okocha said yesterday. "You had to punish them but not that badly. I don't know if it is the right decision to call them back and it was not mine, it was the management's. I did speak with them before they left but I will not be speaking to them when they come back. It is not up to me to remind them of their mistakes. But it will be very difficult for them to fit in again."

Ten years and several clubs ago, Okocha came to Tunisia as part of the explosive Super Eagles side which won the African Nations Cup before taking flight on a bigger stage at the 1994 World Cup. Two years later, they were Olympic champions. Then, the decline; slow at first but increasingly swift. Two African Nations Cups were missed for political reasons and the 2000 final in Lagos, in which Okocha scored, was lost to Cameroon on a penalty shoot-out. When they returned early from the 2002 tournament, their reception was vicious.

"I think there is more pressure on Nigeria than any other nation here," said Ajibode Babatunde, the football correspondent for Lagos State Radio. "It is not a sport there, it is a thing of idolatry. When we had the success in the 1990s it created all this enormous expectation. When they came home from the last African Nations Cup without making the final, players had stones thrown at them. If they do the same, there will be trouble; people could be killed."

"We had a very special team in 1994, you cannot recreate that," Okocha said. "We have to be honest and say that we have not played really well at all in this competition. We have to believe that we can still make it through to the final. With this squad we can and we have to do better. At home, they keep hearing about the problems but a match against Cameroon can only bring out the best in us. Everything now is a final before a final."

For their coach, Christian Chukwu, it is likely to be his final, final match. The Nigerian FA had attempted to replace him with Bryan Robson before the tournament began but dropped the appointment before it was ever made. Much like the dismissals of the Monastir Three, nobody can quite agree on a version.

Either the Nigerian FA changed its mind, bowing meekly to press criticism of Robson's abilities and showing the same indecision it was to display when the competition began. Or those who know Robson claim it was because the Nigerians changed kit suppliers in a deal that actually brought in considerably less money than the original, rendering Robson's contract unaffordable.

Thus did Captain Marvel end up at Bradford City, where attempting to salvage a club some £30m in debt from relegation to the old Third Division must appear peculiarly simple compared to the mess in Monastir.

Apart from a 4-0 victory over South Africa, a country even less organised than itself, Nigeria have not looked a credible force. Internazionale refused to release Obafemi Martins while Taribo West was not selected. The opening game against Morocco saw John Otaka from Lens taking it upon himself to play on the right wing, although Chukwu had told him to hold the centre of midfield. The choice of Isaac Okoronkwo in the centre of defence when he had not played for Wolverhampton for weeks was horribly exploited. Nwankwo Kanu has never had much of an impact in an African Nations Cup and, although he walked out of an interview when reminded of the fact, the pattern has continued in Tunisia.

Stephen Keshi, who captained Nigeria to the African Nations Cup in 1994 and who grew up in the same village as Okocha, was appalled at the mess. "It's been very sad. To see what has been going on has not been very encouraging. The way they have been playing and the situation with the players has been lousy. Yes, they had some preparation, spending four weeks in Portugal, but having a training camp is very different to actually playing games. The atmosphere in the camp is terrible and they have waited until the last minute before deciding on their tactics. I have played and coached in this country for 20 years and I have never seen a Nigeria team as bad as this.

"The players say they have too much pressure on them but that is what they are supposed to contend with. Nigeria in footballing terms is like Colombia, like Brazil; football is a religion. You either cope with it or you go under."