It has now been over two weeks since Nigeria played out the 1-1 draw against Cape Verde that assured a place in the Third Round of 2022 World Cup qualifying. That result and performance, while adequate in a big picture way, proved less palatable to fans and observers alike, and brought to a simmering boil the antipathy toward coach Gernot Rohr from fans and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) alike.
However, in defiance of Tolstoy’s 150-year-old wisdom, it now appears that not even complete division is enough to spur decisive action in any direction. While, according to many reports, there is unanimity with respect to relieving the German — and depending on who you believe, it has already happened — there has yet to be any official missive advising on his present state of employment.
In another 41 days, the Super Eagles will kick off their 2021 Africa Cup of Nations campaign against Egypt. If, as is suggested, Rohr is yesterday’s news, then the choice of his replacement becomes critical in light of the short turnaround, especially if the idea of an interim coach is off the table. Not only will the NFF’s choice impact the preparation and execution of the AFCON, but it would also have repercussions where qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar is concerned, seeing as the Playoffs are slated for March, a mere month after the ructions conclude in Cameroon.
It is, then, a concern to hear the name of Mladen Krstajic being mooted for the role. The Serb seems, at this time, to be the only concrete link too, which is even greater cause for alarm. Not only would Krstajic be — by a distance — the worst coach to have ever sat in the dugout for Nigeria, but the simple fact that his name was not dismissed out of hand the instant it was mentioned suggests Nigerian football is headed nowhere under the leadership of Amaju Pinnick.
If that seems an overly harsh judgment, it is worth taking a look at the 47-year-old’s managerial career to date.
Mladen Krstajic – accidental manager
A former international defender, Krstajic’s first brush with coaching came as an assistant to former Serbia national team manager Slavoljub Muslin. He was handed the role, with no prior experience, purely because Fudbalski savez Srbije (FSS) — the Serbian FA — wanted a token former international as part of Muslin’s backroom and former Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic refused the role.
Muslin was an experienced manager whose 27-year coaching career at the time had taken in spells in nine different countries, most notably Russia and France. (Incidentally, Rohr’s most vaunted achievement as a manager — leading Bordeaux to the UEFA Cup Final in 1996 — came off the back of the Serbian’s work getting the team to the quarterfinals; this is not the final parallel between the two managers, as will become obvious.)
Appointed in 2016, his brief was to qualify Serbia for the 2018 World Cup from a group featuring, in Wales, Austria and Ireland, three teams that had, unlike Serbia, qualified for Euro 2016. The former Red Star manager set about his task, and by the end of qualification, the Eagles stood atop Group D, two points clear of Ireland with just one defeat from 10 matches, having averaged two goals a game.
As it turned out, reaching the World Cup for the first time since 2010 was not enough. There was discontent from the Serbian FA over Muslin’s style of play — which, in fairness, was not the most exciting — as well as his refusal to recall Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (having reached an understanding with the player that he did not fit the team’s tactics), and so the 64-year-old was shown the door mere weeks after the decisive final qualifier against Georgia. “We parted ways because we didn’t think alike on how the team should look for the World Cup in Russia,” Muslin said.
There was, however, no candidate lined up to replace him, so just like that Krstajic was thrust into a caretaker role that eventually metastasized into a full-time contract when the obvious, popular candidates (including but not limited to current boss Dragan Stojkovic and former Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic) declined to accept a clear hospital pass.
What followed was unfettered bedlam.
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