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Nigeria legends Kanu and Okocha hold the key to Afcon glory

The scene: With one game to go in the group stages of the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana, Nigeria were staring elimination in the face.

An opening day loss to Cote d'Ivoire, coupled with Mali's 1-0 win over Benin, was followed by a 0-0 draw with Mali which left the Super Eagles with just one point going into the final round of group games, and facing the very real prospect of an embarrassing early exit.

The Nigerians, under the tutelage of German Berti Vogts, not only needed to beat Benin, but also needed Cote d'Ivoire to do them the favour of beating Mali.

Over at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra, the Ivoriens were holding up their end of the bargain, with Didier Drogba having found the net within the opening 10 minutes. But Nigeria were huffing and puffing against the group's whipping boys, failing to even get a shot on target in the opening 45 minutes.

Tensions were rising on the Nigeria bench, and at half time skipper Nwankwo Kanu gave a rousing team talk in the dressing room. After the restart, he moved to replace Vogts on the touchline, restlessly prowling the technical area while shouting instructions at every turn.

Nigeria eventually won 2-0 and advanced. Kanu's influence had proved to be a big reason for the win.

Since his international retirement in 2010, the Nigeria legend has been named team ambassador and has carried on in the same inspiring manner, most recently at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

There, he was in the dressing and the tunnel, shaking hands and embracing every player before they ran out on the pitch to claim a 2-0 win over Iceland.

So it's only fitting that last week Kanu, along with former international teammates Austin Okocha and Tijani Babangida, were officially appointed Super Eagles scouts and motivators.

"Okocha, Kanu and Babangida served Nigeria meritoriously as players and we believe they have the capacity to excel in this particular assignment.

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"They will also serve as role models for our young team in Egypt," NFF General Secretary Mohammed Sanusi said in a statement.

Okocha, for his part, has shown with his broadcast stints that his understanding of the game is just as captivating as his skills on the field were.

All three have been saddled with the twin tasks of providing opposition scouting for coach Gernot Rohr during Afcon, as well as motivating the players with their status as revered former internationals.

Kanu says the appointment was needed to help the team as they return to the Nations Cup for the first time in six years.

"I have been doing this for a long time even without official recognition," he told ESPN. "In 2013, I was with the team at their training sessions, at their hotel and in the dressing room. I encouraged them, pushed them and God helped us, we won the Nations Cup.

"At the World Cup in Brazil I was also there, and last year in Russia, I was with the players in the tunnel. So it is something I have been doing for my country. It is a fantastic one now that it is official, being a scout and motivational figure.

"We cannot just sit back. The more we can get close, the more we can help them out and maybe that is what they need to go that one step further."

Rohr agreed, even though he conceded that he was not consulted prior to the appointments, telling ESPN: "I didn't request and I have not been consulted about this.

"But I am always happy when former great players want to help the national team."

The appointment has received praise in many quarters, especially from former players, and appears to be an indication of the NFF's embracing of former internationals.

More than that, it is exactly the sort of below-the-surface action that this young Super Eagles team might need to build their character, especially if veteran captain John Obi Mikel does not make the squad after having failed to take part in a single qualifier.

Questions remain, however, as to how the trio will fit into the current set up, although Rohr stayed diplomatic in assessing the problem.

"We have already our professional scouting team, we have already analyzed our opponents. But during the competition there are a lot of games to watch and I am happy to have my friends Jay Jay and Kanu to help us."

Kanu was just as keen to not rock the boat: "It is not like the legends will come in and take over from the coaches or something like that but anything that will help the national team, why not?"

But there was one area where Kanu was pulling no punches. He questioned why the same had not been done for the women's team, who are heading to France for the World Cup in June, at about the same time as the men are taking part at the Nations Cup.

He said: "This is football. It is men and women. We should do whatever it is we have to do to make sure we are on top of our game. And if this will help, why not?

"The trouble is that we don't even value our women's team. We don't appreciate them and the legends who have made women football famous and worked hard for the country, we don't appreciate them.

"We need to pay attention to that. If we can do this for the men's team, then we should do the same for the women too."

As the favoured sons, Nigeria's men will benefit from having past greats not only looking for weaknesses in the opposition, but rooting out and eliminating weaknesses in themselves.

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