I WAS in the Nigerian entourage to Point Noire nearly 22 years ago when the Super Eagles chased World Cup qualifying points to the Stade du Point Noire in Congo Brazaville on Sunday,December 20, 1992. On that occasion, the Eagles, arguably the strongest team in Africa at the time, defeated their Red Devils hosts 1-0 en route to eventually qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the first time at USA ’94.
That match had been moved to Point Noire because Congo’s main stadium in the capital Brazaville was in a state of disrepair. But that shift in venue to a patchy pitch did not deter the Eagles as the free-scoring Rashidi Yekini (now late) blasted home the lone goal of the match in the first half to give Nigeria all the three points.
No prizes for guessing who was captain of the Super Eagles on that fateful day. It was a certain Stephen Keshi!
As the Eagles return to Point Noire this weekend, Saturday, November 15, 2014for a 2015 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier against the Red Devils (Diabe Rouges in French), the scenario couldn’t be more strikingly different.
Unlike the confident, swashbuckling Eagles of 1992 who beat other teams in Africa black and blue and sunk them in an avalanche of goals, the current Eagles are a struggling bunch, beaten already by Congo and Sudan in the AFCON race, and not enjoying the total confidence of Nigerian fans. Unlike the 1992 team that advanced from their World Cup qualifying first round group even with a game in hand (South Africa were the other team in that group), the present team are walking a tight rope in the AFCON race even with just two games to go.
The only thing common to both sets is one individual: Stephen Keshi. The big boss was team captain 22 years ago.Today, he’s the team coach and under great pressure to deliver.
It’s no use revisiting here how Keshi got his job back after he was temporarily removed by the Nigeria Football Federation. That issue was discussed extensively in this column last week. Our focus this week is Point Noire and how Keshi and his boys can come back victorious just like in 1992.
Apart from Keshi’s own personal failings which reflect in his sometimes controversial team selections and tactical approach, we must admit that the greatest challenge facing the Eagles in recent times has been inactivity and poor form amongst most of the first team players.
Keshi’s team had habitually struggled to score since he unwittingly dismantled the forward line that he himself built for the 2013 AFCON winning team. But that attacking weakness had been partly mitigated by a solid defence quartet and a goalkeeper that didn’t concede many goals either.
Keshi’s trouble started when his trusted back line of Ambrose Efe, Godfrey Oboabona, Kenneth Omeruo and Elderson Echiejile were repeatedly caught dozing by Congo in Calabar and by Sudan in Khartoum, leading to two damaging defeats, 3-2 to Congo and 1-0 to Sudan. Keshi finally wielded the axe for the return leg against Sudan in Abuja, dropping Efe for Ogenyi Onazi at right-back and Echiejile for Juwon Oshaniwa at left-back. In particular, fielding Onazi at right-back was a big surprise for many observers. But the changes paid dividends and the Eagles romped to a 3-1 victory.
Meanwhile, Onazi’s midfield place was taken by rookie Hope Akpan (Reading FC midfielder), while Keshi’s controversial “China Product” Aaron Samuel (Guangzhou R&F) also played. Both of them justified their Eagles debut despite the flak that had trailed their invitation. The performance of those two actually allowed Mikel Obi to bomb forward at will and he played what I consider his best game for Nigeria so far this year.
Keshi must demonstrate similar courage and inventiveness when selecting his team for Point Noire. With the rusty Efe and Echiejile yet to regain their regular places at their club sides and Omeruo also joining them on the substitutes’ bench, Keshi must pick his team for this important game based not on reputation, but on current form and performance. He, like most coaches, has always mouthed this cliché but, more than at any other time, he must walk the talk this weekend with his selection.
Mikel Obi has equally seen less playing time at Chelsea this season so Keshi has a big decision to make there. I understand the coach’s dilemma concerning his foremost high-profile player, but the game in Congo will not tolerate “big man” football. If Mikel commits himself to the cause the way he did against Sudan in Abuja, he has the ability to win the midfield for Nigeria and to force the passes that would lead to goals.
When Mikel was challenged by Nigerian journalists at the World Cup in Brazil for not performing to the high standards expected of a player of his calibre, his reply was that he “didn’t want to be the Maradona of the team,” and he was more concerned by the collective. Well, I beg to differ. Nigeria needs a few Maradonas (a.k.a. Match Winners) in the Super Eagles at the moment and Mikel has to be one of them. When the going gets tough like they will in Point Noire, we want our big players to rise to the occasion and bail us out, no matter what it takes. Mikel must consistently lead the charge from the midfield. And if Keshi’s “China Products” also post a repeat performance of their Abuja showing, we can start believing.
In attack, Ahmed Musa is suddenly the toast of the Eagles and Keshi will be relying on his searing pace to get us the goals again. As I write this, I have my hands raised up briefly in a manner of surrender, having been hitherto one of Musa’s harshest critics. Musa has always been fast, but I think he’s getting the goals now because he has added more control and direction to his pace. On current form, he will be our most dangerous striker against the Congolese.
As for Emmanuel Emenike, it appears that desperation has set in as his scoreless run continues. In the last few games, he has been shooting from afar in a desperate bid to score even when his teammates are better placed. His dry patch also at club level has not helped his confidence either so Keshi needs to give him some reassurance.
Apart from motivating his players for the crucial game and making the right selections, the trickiest part of Keshi’s task this weekend is how to out-fox the wily Congo coach, Claude Leroy. The eccentric Frenchman has coached in Africa for about three decades and he knows the continent, especially Nigeria, inside out. He knows the temperament of our players and how to frustrate them logistically, psychologically, technically and tactically.
Leroy will have a head start over Keshi because he already defeated Keshi in the first leg; he is at home for the return leg; he is the chief motivator for the Congolese; and all he needs is at least a draw to keep them on track for AFCON 2015. By contrast, Keshi needs an outright win on an away ground to stay in the hunt.
Let’s face it, the odds are stacked up against the Super Eagles for this encounter. Getting the desired result is not going to be easy. But if Keshi can somehow out-smart the experienced Leroy at his own game, the battle of Point Noire is as good as won for Nigeria.
Return to Owerri
After several years of not visiting Owerri in Imo State, South East Nigeria, I had cause to return there twice within the last one month.
The first was on the weekend of October 12 (my birthday) when I attended the burial of the late veteran journalist Dimgba Igwe in his village, Igbere, in Bende local government area of Abia State on October 11, 2014. We flew from Lagos to the Sam Mbakwe airport in Owerri and drove to Igbere via Umuahia on a road trip that gave me a good view of a rustic but wonderful eastern Nigeria countryside. Also, I had a great time eating hot and spicy Isi Ewu served in wooden dishes along with separate plates to drop discarded bones. Nna, O di egwu!
Last weekend, my journey was to Owerri itself to attend the 2014 Nigeria Media Medrit Award (NMMA) ceremony that was hosted by the Imo State government. I had the pleasure to share breakfast with Governor Rochas Okorocha during which he regaled his visitor journalists with stories of how he has used money that was hitherto shared amongst political party god fathers, to promote free education in the state.
The most enjoyable part of the trip for me, however, was a drive around town which brought some really nostalgic feelings when we got to Dan Anyiam Stadium on the famous Wetheral Road. This was where I covered my first ever international football assignment for Complete Football magazine in 1988: Iwuanyanwu Nationale (whom I christened Naze Millionaires in my report) defeated FAR Rabat of Morocco in the first leg semi-final of the African Cup for Champion Clubs (now called the CAF African Champions League) by four goals to one.
Dinner With The Devil
By Mumini Alao –(First published in Complete Football International,
USA ’94 World Cup preview edition, page 6)
After their high-flying start which saw to the 4-0 demolition of the Bafana Bafana of South Africa in Lagos, the Super Eagles prepared for their next World Cup assignment determined not to lose.
Their opponents were the Red Devils of Congo and, remarkably, the tie turned out to be a “Dinner with the Devil” in every sense of the expression.
Captain Stephen Keshi had warned before the Eagles left Lagos that they could be in for some rough treatment from the French-speaking Congolese. He, therefore, led his colleagues in requesting for a chartered flight to facilitate a quick take-off after the game in case the need arose. With Federal Government support, the NFA met the players demand and provided an Okada Airline plane.
Team chief Clemens Westerhof tinkered considerably with the team which beat South Africa in building the squad for Congo. Forwards Ricky Owubokiri and Victor Ikpeba were dropped and George Finidi who played as a substitute in Lagos got a starting shirt. Goalkeeper Alloy Agu took over from Ike Shorounmu while Uche Okafor replaced Nduka Ugbade at right full-back. Austin Eguavoen moved to midfield to create room for a returning Uche Okechukwu to pair Stephen Keshi in central defence. But in attack, Rashidi Yekini and Samson Siasia retained their first team shirts.
The last time Nigeria had met Congo at the national level was in 1973 when the Eagles beat the Devils 3-2 on aggregate in the first round of the 1974 World Cup qualifiers. Since then, clashes between both countries had been only at the club and age-grade levels with the pendulum of victory swinging either way.
Nigeria were, however, better placed on the pecking order of African football having finished third at the 1992 Nations Cup finals in Senegal. Ironically, both teams lost to the same side – Ghana – at the championship, Congo in the quarter-finals and Nigeria in the semis.
The Super Eagles took just 24 minutes to confirm their superiority in this World Cup tie when hit-man Rashidi Yekini fired home a free-kick from 25 yards after Congo’s Jean Tsoumou had fouled Samson Siasia. The goal stunned the home fans as well as goalkeeper Samba Brice who was left stranded as the ball whistled past him into the net. But for poor marksmanship on the Nigerian side, they could have been more than a goal up at half time as they completely dominated the game.
The Congolese, however, came in stronger in the second half with the introduction of their Senegal ’92 hero Pierre Tchibota who replaced injured skipper Yvonne Okembe. They came close to getting an equalizer when Eagles skipper Stephen Keshi handled the ball in the Nigerian area, but centre referee Alain Monguengui from Gabon failed to spot the foul.
Irate home fans rained missiles on the pitch in protest of Monguengui’s officiating and held up the game several times. The Red Devils also pushed the Eagles to the limit in search of an equalizer but the solid Nigerian defence held out for a 1-0 win.
After the game, angry home fans held the Eagles hostage in the stadium for about an hour and then pursued them through the streets as they made way to their hotel. The Nigerian team owed their lives to the local police who shielded them through four kilometres of hostile neighborhood and kept the murderous mob at bay with an endless bath of tear gas.
Back at the hotel, the Eagles packed their bags and left straight for the airport where the Okada flight was waiting to return them to the safety of Lagos.
Everybody on the flight praised Stephen Keshi for his foresight and right-winger George Finidi would later write in his World Cup diary: “The Congo experience was our toughest during the World Cup qualifiers.”
A point called Pointe Noire
This reporter could not see much of this tiny Congolese coastal town because of the shortness of my stay which spanned about 30 hours only.
My retinue was strictly airport-hotel-stadium-hotel-airport and that was that. From the much I took in from an aerial view as the Eagles Okada plane made to land, however, Pointe Noire came across to me as a modest African settlement with a good industrial presence.
The Aeroport du Pointe Noire is more of an air-strip than an airport, while the Stade du Pointe Noire, venue of the match, is a small stadium with a patchy pitch which, under normal circumstances, should not have been venue of a World Cup game.
Congo’s main stadium in the capital Brazzaville was unsafe for use and that was how the locals of Pointe Noire got the privilege to be part of the World Cup festival.
But they nearly turned it into a large funeral!
DATE: Sunday, December 20, 1992
TIME: 4.00 pm
VENUE: Stade Du Pointe Noire, Congo
EVENT: Africa World Cup qualifiers, First Round
LINE-UPS: NIGERIA: Alloy Agu, Uche Okafor, Ben Iroha, Uche Okechukwu, Stephen Keshi, George Finidi, (Friday Ekpo 84th), Mutiu Adepoju, Austin Eguavoen, Precious Monye, (Taofik Malik 84th), Samson Siasia, Rashidi Yekini.
CONGO: Brice Samba, Amurice Ntoumou, Celestal Mouyabi, Florent Baloki, Mbele Tsoumou, Yvonne Okemba, (Pierre Tchibota 46th), Sylvain Moukassa, Ange N’gapy, Francis Makita, Akiana Richard, Buity Rowland.