Between last Saturday and Thursday morning, the World Cup has turned on its head. Things are moving at a dizzying pace.
The boys have been separated from the men, and the field of the ‘warriors’ is becoming clearer.
The results of the various matches now reveal that the differences in the strength of the teams in the world are getting smaller and matches are harder to predict.
As the group matches end this weekend, it is more evident that the field is wide open for who wins the 2014 World Cup. The South American countries are upholding the tradition that every South American World Cup is won by one of them. Incidentally, the number of those that still believe that Brazil will win it is dwindling. The Brazilians have not been totally convincing; Colombia are playing absolutely brilliantly; Holland look awesome; Messi is on a rampage, and on course to become the greatest player that ever lived, should he lead Argentina to win the World Cup; and, of course, Nigeria’s improbable ‘threat’ of becoming Africa’s first winner of the trophy lurks remotely in the distance.
Babatunde Fashola, the Governor of Lagos State, was right after all. What the Super Eagles needed after their first match against Iran was to shake off the effect of stage fright. Within a week, the team grew from the jittery bunch that disappointed many of their fans to one that has gradually become the pride of Africa.
I have been right also to still maintain my bet firmly and recklessly on the Super Eagles even though it is clear to all that the team is made up of averagely gifted individual players, but great athletes, full of fighting spirit, power, pace and unpredictability that could see Nigeria (as players’ agent ‘ambassador’ Fujah put it) ‘wobbling and fumbling’ but winning till the end of the championship! In this game you do not have to necessarily play better than the opposition to win! That’s the stuff Nigeria is made of!
Cameroun, Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana have been dumped out. Algeria are through to the second round. Nigeria have lost three times to the Argentines in their three World Cup meetings in 1994, 2002 and 2010. But in this latest loss, Nigeria put up a gallant performance that has become one of the most entertaining in the ongoing championship.
At the same time, Nigeria have been lucky. Against Bosnia and Herzegovina, the elements took sides. Through the referee’s poor judgment a goal was denied the Bosnians, which reviews later indicated was good. Nigeria then scored a goal that could have been easily denied for Emenike’s seeming pulling down of a defender before crossing for Odemwingie to slot in. The ball also deflected back to the field, in the last few seconds of the match, what could have been deflected into goal for a Bosnian equalizer! So many things happened that could have changed the course of the match but did not. The truth is that every team deserves that kind of occasional good luck to survive.
The Super Eagles played better in the Bosnian match than they did against Iran, even though many Nigerians were left mentally exhausted from the gripping tension of the second match. Retired General Dominic Oneya, the former Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, summed it up when he announced after the match: ‘these people go kill me o’. He departed Brazil the following day to watch the rest of the World Cup from the distance and comfort of his Chicago home!
Then, trust Nigerians, they arrived Porto Alegre, past performances forgotten, confident that the Eagles would defeat Argentina. But by the time they saw the intimidating ocean of Argentines that had come to watch Messi’s magic, the prayer line changed. They started praying for Bosnia to defeat Iran in order for the Super Eagles to survive!’
I have never experienced anything quite like the scene in the terraces during that match.
The 48,849-capacity Arena Estadio Beira-Rio stadium was filled to the brim with Argentines! The fifty or so, members of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, led by Rafiu Ladipo, plus the other 200 or so Nigerians that followed the team, were like a drop in the sea. They simply disappeared into the Sky-blue and White of Argentina. This renowned band of African supporters have been silenced here in Brazil.
This World Cup has been a nightmare for them. They traveled by road for 34 hours to and from Curitiba, for 60 hours to and from Cuiba and for 34 hours to and fro Porto Alegre for the matches. At each of the venues, they were denied the use of their drums and trumpets, and their voices have been effectively drowned by the louder cheers of vociferous Brazilian fans routing for the Super Eagles in the terraces. The Nigerian Football Supporters Club would definitely learn useful lessons from their experience here, and design new and more acceptable ways to FIFA to support their national teams in future.
Nigeria have arrived in the second round of the World Cup again, the third time in their history. They will be playing against France within the next few days.
This is an opportunity for Nigerian football to serve up another historic moment – get to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, at least, for the first time.
France are not Argentina. It is also not about how both teams have played so far here that matters (obviously France may have more impressive results). It is going to be a matter of football styles.
Considering the way the two teams play, culturally, I can wager that in regulation time, France cannot defeat Nigeria, not even this Nigerian team that may have the weakest bench in the entire championship! It will be a hard-fought battle, but everything points in the direction of ‘mighty’ France falling in Brasilia!
MY CONVERSATION WITH THE SUPER EAGLES TECHNICAL TEAM
I arrive the Super Eagles Campina Camp outside Sao Paolo in the evening of last Sunday with Toyin Ibitoye of Channels Television and Dr. Obi Ekennia of the Imo State House of Assembly.
I sit at the table for a very informal conversation. They are a very tight team – Stephen Keshi Chief coach; Ike Sorounmu, Goalkeeper coach; Daniel Amokachi, Assistant Coach; and Valere, trainer.
They are obviously are not so happy with the general reaction to the Eagles’ first performance against Iran. They think that people should have waited to see the other teams play before rating the Eagles so poorly.
What do people have to say again after watching Argentina struggle against the same Iran?
They are also unhappy with some fellow former international players that publicly and unfairly criticized and called Keshi names after only the first match. Players should protect their own, not expose them, they tell me.
I tell them my mission – to understand a few things better and tell them what I see from my observation post high up in the stands. Plus a few questions a few people are asking about Victor Moses, Shola Ameobi, and so on.
So, I listen and learn. I thank them for the honour of seeing me and offered just one plea.
They laugh at my next audacious ‘threat’ to prostrate to them, to take my plea seriously. They admit that they take my views very seriously and would look again at the issue before taking a decision. From the last match, I now know they did.
Finally, as I prepare to go, I tell them that my return flight to Nigeria is booked for July 3.Keshi looks at me enquiringly. Why am I also leaving prematurely? Don’t I have confidence that the Eagles can go all the way?
Keshi instructs me to go change my departure date to July 14. Although I am concerned about my fast-dwindling purse, I get the hint and will wait in Brazil to see Nigeria make ultimate history!
BEHIND THE SCENES – ASARI DOKUBO
I met Alhaji Asari Dokubo, the ‘freedom fighter’ of the South-South struggle, here at the Estan Plaza hotel in Sao Paolo. He was the last person I expected to meet.
I asked him what he was doing here. He told me he is a football stakeholder. That he has been involved in the development of youth football through his football academy located in Cotonou.
He spoke passionately about Republic of Benin where he lives.For the next few days we interacted.
He is a very interesting personality, well informed about issues in Nigerian politics.
He never shies away from discussing Nigeria at every opportunity, particularly his dis-satisfaction with the state of affairs, and how the country cannot work the way it presently is!
PAPILLO, THE KING!
Kanu Nwankwo is a big star anywhere in the world. The milling around him here has been limited since the World Cup started because not too many recognize him instantly despite his 6ft 4inches frame.
But on the day Nigeria played Argentina in Porto Alegre, after the Nigerian match, a few Argentine fans recognized him, and all hell was let loose.
Thereafter, a very large crowd of Argentines followed him through the two kilometres distance from the stadium to where our buses were parked. We had to abandon him to his fate as he was led by this massive crowd cheering him and singing out his name through the streets of Porto Alegre, like a king!
IBITOYE AND OMERUO
At the Eagles camp in Campina, I witnessed an incredible scene I must share.
Kenneth Omeruo, one of my players of this championship, walked into the lounge to see someone.
Toyin Ibitoye, sports presenter extraordinaire on Channels Television, who was sitting beside me saw Kenneth, called him aside and told him he had a personal pledge he had to redeem.
He had been so impressed with Omeruo’s performance during the Iran match that he promised himself he would give the young man a token to show his appreciation, he pleaded that the young man accept his widow’s mite.
Toyin Ibitoye then put his hand into his pocket, brought out a hundred dollar bill and handed it over to a bemused and utterly confused Kenneth Omeruo. Kenneth humbly and respectfully accepted the gesture and thanked him profusely.
It was such an unbelievably humble act that I brought out my camera and attempted to capture the moment.
It was so momentous that I told them that they had made my day, demonstrating in that little exchange between them, humanity, humility, generosity and love at their very best! Wow!