By Bassey Ibiatsuho
Akwa United’s premature elimination from this year’s CAF Champions League left a lot to be desired when compared to the quality, style and beautiful football played by The Promise Keepers last season on their way to winning the NPFL title, their first in the history of the club.
With Sixteen wins and three draws in 19 home games, scoring 53 goals in 38 games and losing just five games last season, many football fans in Nigeria had expected the Uyo-based side to be a strong force in Africa, leading other Nigerian representatives from the front in this year’s CAF competitions.
However, the draw against CR Belouizdad, one of the most successful clubs in Algeria, having won the domestic league title eight times, the Algerian Cup eight times, one Algerian League Cup, two Algerian Super Cups and the Maghreb Champions Cup a record three times was an early sign that the two-legged fixtures were not going to be a stroll in the park for Akwa United with just two CAF Confederation Cup appearances and their first CAF Champions League campaign.
Experience, adequate preparation, quality of players as well as good team spirit, concentration and motivation count alot at this level of football, infact it determines to a great extent how well a team plays and how far it can go in the CAF competition. Sadly, all of these factors have remained a major stumbling block for Nigerian teams at the continental level, sooner or later it usually shows up and unfortunately it showed up quite early in the Akwa United’s fold.
1. PLAYERS REGISTRATION/TRANSFER
Losing key players shortly after the completion of last season was definitely going to haunt Akwa United at the CAF Champions League. The joint highest goal scorer in the league, Charles Atshimene joined Portuguese side CD Feirense, the best central defender in the league Olisa Ndah joined Orlando Pirates in South Africa, Nasiru Jubril, Ikechukwu Nwani, David Essien, Kodjo Dadzie, Etim Mathew among others left or were asked to leave the club.
Then the problem of registration came in, Akwa United had just ten days after the completion of last season to register players on CAF’s content management system for the Champions League before deadline August 15, the shortness of time and unavailability of quality players in the country resulted in panic buys and so eleven new players were brought in. After signing, unbelievably, it was realized that six players (possible starters) in the team had issues with their international passports.
Cases of passport expiration, age falsification, unavailability of passport all meant that Akwa United was already depleted at the point of registration and then Ezekiel Bassey was unable to get his International Transfer Certificate from his former Egyptian side PetroJet in time for registration.
Twenty-four hours before departure from Nigeria to Algeria for the second leg, there was a positive case of Covid-19 in the camp which affected a key defender in the team already booked to travel.
Traveling without key players to Algeria was already a serious concern for Coach Kennedy Boboye, but the worst came when central back Denis Nya got injured during warm up in Algiers on Saturday night which further weakened the team and affected the game plan. All efforts by the medical staff to get Nya fit for the game on Sunday proved abortive. Dare Ojo, a midfielder had to be deployed to pair Samson Gbadebo at the back. The absence of Nya was obvious as the Algerians ran riot time and again in Akwa United’s box.
4. PLAYERS MUTINY
Perhaps one of the biggest problem in the camp of Akwa United in Algiers, was money. The players lost concentration, demanded $1,000 estacode, $200 winning bonus and $100 daily allowance. They threatened to boycott their only training session before the match, it took the intervention of the Chairman, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly Committee on Youth and Sports, Hon. Nse Essien and some of his colleagues as well as the Chairman of football stakeholders, Obong Isong Isang for the players to agree to train one hour after the scheduled time for training on Saturday. During the training, it was observed that some of the players had only their bodies on the pitch but their minds were far off.
The mutiny became worst on Sunday, match day as the players again threatened to boycott the match led by Captain Otobong Effiong, assistant Captain Ubong Friday, Mfon Udo and Godspower Aniefiok.
Hours of pleading by Chairman Paul Bassey who delayed the traditional prayer meeting of the club on match days and was in tears for the players to focus on the game as the money approved for the match was received late and would be paid, yielded no result.
When all intervention and pleading had failed with the players insisting on their action, the Commissioner for Youth and Sports, Sir Monday Uko had to call in from Nigeria five hours to kickoff to address the players and cleared all their outstanding, this came as Chairman Paul Bassey also added $2,200 to the players all in a bid to get them focus and lift their spirit which was very down. For the players, the money was much more important than the match.
Akwa United’s defeat to CR Belouizdad was not a surprise, what was surprising was the manner in which the team lost and their priority in Algeria, a clear case of chasing cash and ignoring the primary reason for being in Algeria which had a lot to do with their career.
With just one shot on target in 90 minutes and a yawning gap of ball possession, the CAF Champions League game in Algiers will go down as one of the worst performances by Akwa United as a football club.
A depleted squad with bad energy in a strange land can barely do much on the pitch of play. Godspower Aniefiok was a shadow of himself, Mfon Udoh got lost in the game, Akarandut Orok could barely move, the entire defence line was over-worked while Coach Kennedy Boboye was helpless.
Football agents were available at the Omar Hamadi Stadium, but sadly no player from Akwa United except perhaps the goalkeeper, Adewale Adeyinka was a delight to watch. They lost their focus chasing Naira when Dollars was waiting at the stands for them in Algeria.
It was a woeful performance by the players and there’s a need to drop some of the so-called senior players from the team if Akwa United must make headway and the new committed players not badly influenced by the old ones who have nothing more to offer the team going forward.
Coach Kennedy Boboye must also be careful not to throw away diamonds while gathering stones. His choice of dropping players like Ikechukwu Nwani who has now signed for Plateau United and Kodjo Dadzie at the end of last season is inexplicable and till now none of his new signings can fill that vacuum.
Akwa United has now joined the clique of teams to represent Nigeria in the CAF Champions League, though shortlived, there are lessons that must be learnt to ensure that the experience of the past are not repeated. The burden now lies on the team to make adequate preparation to defend the NPFL title and return to the CAF Champions League and hope that experience and other factors they lacked in this first outing will be available in full doses to see them go far in the competition next time.
Bassey Ibiatisuho, a Sports Journalist, writes from Uyo.