Soccer Talk By Mumini Alao:
THE FIRST TIME Nigeria qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals in 1993 (ahead of the finals at USA ’94), I was right in the thick of the action.
As editor of Complete Football magazine at the time, I travelled extensively with the Super Eagles coached by Clemens Westerhof and captained by the late Stephen Keshi. It was on the eve of our final qualifying game away to Algeria that I coined the nickname “Goalsfather” for the late Rashidi Yekini (which became accepted worldwide) when I interviewed him at the lobby of the Eagles hotel in Algiers.
The following day, Friday, October 8, 1993, the Eagles filed out, needing only a draw to book their place at USA ’94. It was a very cold night but our right winger Finidi George soon warmed up the Nigerian contingent in the sparsely-filled stadium with a 20th minute goal. We needed a draw, but now we were heading for a win. Everything was nice and sweet until Algeria’s Ahmed Zerrouki equalized with a header in the 70th minute.
Suddenly, the whole atmosphere changed. The home fans who had been cheering the Eagles and booing their own team changed tune. They began whistling for a second goal. Their team responded by attacking in droves and came close several times to grabbing the winner. Those final 20 minutes plus ‘injury time’ were the longest and scariest in my entire journalism career. An Algerian winner, though they had nothing but pride at stake, would have snatched the group’s World Cup ticket from Nigeria and handed it to Cote d’Ivoire instead.
Happily, the Eagles held on to the 1-1 draw and made history by qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup
Fast forward 24 years to Saturday, October 7, 2017.. I was not at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo when the current Super Eagles coached by Gernot Rohr and captained by John Obi Mikel beat Zambia 1-0 to qualify Nigeria for the Mundial for the sixth time since that historic debut at USA ’94. I watched the game on television but I have heard many commentators and fans talk about the tension that they went through. Tension? What tension? Ask anyone else who was there in Algiers in 1993 and they will tell you the true meaning of tension.
I wasn’t in Uyo for the Nigeria-Zambia game for several reasons. One, after nearly 30 years on the job, I have vacated day-to-day reportorial duties to a new generation of brilliant writers at Complete Sports newspaper (the successor to Complete Football magazine) just as the Eagles have shed their old feathers for new ones.
Second, I could have still gone to Uyo just for the fun of it but my superstitious side got the better of me. I hadn’t watched any of our previous qualifying games live, and I didn’t want anyone accusing me of bringing “bad luck” to the Eagles should anything go wrong!
On a serious note, the main reason I didn’t bother to make the journey to Uyo is that, unlike the suffocating, knife-edge situation that we found ourselves 24 years ago in Algiers, I was confident this time around that the current Eagles would beat Zambia and seal the World Cup ticket with a game to spare. I said so in this column last week, and so it turned out. I wasn’t tensed at all, knowing full well that the game wasn’t our last chance to qualify anyway. I was very relaxed about the Eagles because the team had won my trust with their performances in previous games and I had great confidence in Gernot Rohr’s tactical acumen.
My reading of Rohr’s tactics against Zambia is that he combined the virtues of caution and patience, despite Nigeria’s advantages of playing at home and parading the more experienced players. Caution in the sense that early on, the Eagles didn’t try too much to play the ball out of defence. Any mistake doing that could result in conceding possession to the quick Zambians who could take advantage. And if Zambia scored first, the resultant tension and anxiety that would envelope the stadium would have unsettled our boys. Zambia would have subsequently locked up their defence, frustrate our players and probably scored a second goal on a counter-attack. It was crucial for Nigeria to not concede the first goal so we had to be cautious.
Caution was complemented by patience. The virtue of patience last Saturday was that the Eagles had to wait till the second half for their goal which came via the boot of super-substitute Alex Iwobi. As the match wore on and the Zambians got desperate for the goal that they needed more than Nigeria, they left spaces at the back which the more experienced Eagles stars eventually exploited.
Overall, I give Rohr full credits for a well executed game plan. Zambia may have caused us a few moments of anxiety including putting the ball into our net for a ‘goal’ that was rightly disallowed for offside; and rattling goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa with an isolated long range shot, but those were nothing close to what the Eagles suffered in 1993. In the end, last Saturday’s victory was fully deserved.
At the start of these 2018 World Cup qualifiers, regular readers would remember that I predicted in this column that 13 points would guarantee Nigeria a ticket to Russia. I then challenged the Eagles to collect those points before their last game away to Algeria so that we wouldn’t have to experience the tension of 1993 all over again.
Not only did Gernot Rorh and his boys achieve both objectives, they did it in grand style. Congratulations to all Nigerians. Russia 2018, here we come.
My Tweet of the Day
SITTING in front of my TV set, I was quite engaged on my Twitter handle, Mumini_Alao, as the Super Eagles grabbed the ticket to Russia last Saturday. One particular tweet however stood out among the whole lot as it snagged lots of retweets and likes from my followers. For those who missed it, here goes: “Spare a thought for Cameroun and Algeria. I hear that their “friendly match” in Yaoundé ended 2-0 in favour of the Pussycats!”
What Next For The Eagles?
THE Eagles still have that outstanding game away to Algeria to play. Although it’s now an inconsequential dead rubber, my view is that Rorh should use it to commence his preparations for the World Cup finals in earnest. He should field a strong team, although he might tweak the lineup considerably to have a look at some other players staking claims for seats on the plane to Russia.
At the time of writing this, there was talk that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) was mooting a friendly to be played after the Algeria game. That would be nice. Our target in Russia should be to surpass our previous Round of 16 record at the World Cup which means reaching the quarter final at least. Whether we can achieve that objective will be a function of our luck at the draw holding in Moscow on December 1st; and how well we prepare for the finals.
What Next From Complete Sports?
Our combined team of journalists at Complete Sports newspapers, Completesportsnige
ria.com website and Complete Sports Studios have had great fun covering the Super Eagles 2018 World Cup campaign so far.. And if the feedback we have received is anything to go by, it is certain that our readers have also enjoyed our coverage tremendously.
Particularly for the decisive last three matches against Cameroun (home and away) and Zambia (home), Complete Sports pulled out all the stops to do an unparalleled coverage. Our reporter was in Yaoundé a whole week before the second game against Cameroun, which gave us the edge as the only Nigerian media organization that reported simultaneously from Uyo and Yaoundé during the double header against the Indomitable Lions.
For the Zambia match, Complete Sports also was the only Nigerian media in Accra, Ghana to monitor the Chipolopolo’s final preparations and publish exclusive on-the-spot expose for the benefit of the Super Eagles.
To get the fans involved beyond just watching the games, our Complete Sports Studios camera crew deliberately went on a road trip from Lagos to Uyo for the Zambia game, interviewing people in many towns and cities along the way and uploading the videos on our YouTube channel. Our website also organized Predict and Win competitions where N100,000 cash was on offer for fans who correctly predicted the Eagles results against Cameroun and Zambia. To cap it all, we organized an online Selfie Challenge on social media where more soccer fans won authentic Super Eagles jerseys courtesy of Nike.
The enthusiastic responses that we have received for these initiatives have been gratifying. Many of our sports media colleagues saluted our professionalism, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) acknowledged our contributions while our readers showed their appreciation.
Most older fans actually compared our recent coverage with a similar coverage that we pioneered for the historic USA ’94 World Cup campaign when yours truly followed the Super Eagles every step of the way from their training camp in Papendal in Holland all the way to America.
Complete Sports is poised for a repeat on the Road to Russia. Watch out as we have more surprises in store for our readers. The World Cup fun has only just started!
The Joy and the Agony
THE relative ease of the Super Eagles qualification for Russia with a game to spare appears to have muted the celebration by Nigerian soccer fans. The threat posed at the start by our rivals in the Group of Death (Algeria, Cameroun and Zambia) was so comprehensively dealt with that some of us still can’t believe it! Maybe that is why our celebration has been rather understated..
However, a look at the reactions in other parts of the world aptly demonstrates the joy and agony that several countries experienced last weekend as the race to Russia reached a climax.
Iceland continued their Cinderella run in Europe by qualifying for their first ever World Cup. Traffic came to a standstill in several Egyptian cities as the Pharaohs poured into the streets to celebrate their return to the Mundial after 27 years! Panama in North America declared a public holiday after they qualified for the first time ever at the expense of USA. Argentina heaved a sigh of relief on the last day of South American qualifying after Lionel Messi single-handedly saved them from the humiliation of elimination by scoring a ticket-grabbing hat-trick away to Bolivia.
By contrast, it was extreme agony in Ghana after a disallowed goal in the last second of their game away to Uganda confirmed that the Black Stars would miss the train to Russia. War-torn Syria came very close to grabbing a remarkable Asian ticket but a goal in extra time by Australia cut short their joy. 2010 World Cup finalists Holland missed the European play-offs only by a poorer goal difference to Sweden despite beating the Swedes 2-0 last weekend. The United States of America are mourning after a disastrous qualifying campaign ensured they will not be visiting their nuclear rivals!
The World Cup race spread a mixture of joy and agony in different parts of the planet last weekend. Nigerians should count ourselves lucky that we are among the happy few.