Chelsea held by Schalke

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar )September 17th 2014)

Held

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Captaining Schalke04 in the absence through injury of World Cup-winner Benedikt Höwedes, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar latched onto Julian Draxlerʼs through-ball to beat Thibaut Cortois. Huntelaarʼs strike just past the hour equalised Cesc Fàbregasʼ controversial opener after 11 minutes. The Spanish midfielder fouled Max Meyer and then linked up with Hazard to put the Blues ahead.

Croatian referee Ivan Bebek waved Schalkeʼs protests away and booked Huntelaar for his. To some it was poetic justice that Fàbregas appeared to be fouled in the build-up to Schalkeʼs equaliser and that Huntelaar scored it.

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The Legend Returns

Without a win so far this season Schalke faced a hard task, but emerged from Stamford Bridge fully deserving the point they won by holding José Mourinhoʼs in form Chelsea. Didier Drogba got his first start since his return to Chelsea two years after playing a vital role in bringing the Championʼs League trophy to Stamford Bridge. The Ivorian was off the pace, but having played in China and Turkey for the last two seasons that was to be expected.

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Drogba spurned chances to add to Chelseaʼs lead. Five minutes into the second half, Nemanja Matić dispossessed Huntelaar and passed to Hazard who switched ball from left to right. Willian pulled the ball back across Ralf Fährmannʼs goal, but Drogba couldnʼt connect. Ten minutes later Eden Hazard,, poised to become one of the highest earners in football aged just 23, put Drogba through. The striker should have scored, but a heavy touch made the angle harder than it should have been and Drogba shot wide.

Nip and Tuck

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Ten minutes before half time Fàbregas spurned a golden opportunity to add to Chelseaʼs lead. Branislav Ivanović set him up, but the former Arsenal prodigy shot over the bar from near the penalty spot. The former Tottenham Hotspur and AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boataeng drew a save from Belgian international Thibaut Courtois from 20 yards out midway through the first half.

The impressive Draxler ought to have levelled just before half time as he carved a swathe through Chelseaʼs defence before shooting wide. He wanted a corner that never came.

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Ten minutes into the second half Hazard was on the end of a move begun by Matić. It involved Fàbregas and a one-two with Drogba before Hazard shot wide. Shortly afterwards Boateng drew a save from Courtois from a 35 yard effort and John Terry thought he had a scored a stunner rather than earn the booking that Bebek gave him. Draxler shot with just under 20 minutes remaining required a decent save by Courtois and Hazard tested Fährmann again in the final ten minutes as well as spurning another chance to take all three points.

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Opening Round

Meanwhile, a late equaliser in Slovenia gave Celticʼs conquerors Maribor a point after Naniʼs late strike gave Sporting Lisbon the lead. Juventus beat Malmö 2-0 after Carlos Tévez scored his first goals in the competition since leaving Manchester United. Olympiacos beat last seasonʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid 3-2. Liverpool left it very late – a Steven Gerrard penalty – to beat Bulgarian newcomers Ludogerets Razgrad. Real Madrid put recent woes behind them, by thrashing Basel 5-1. André Villas-Boasʼ Zenit St Petersburg defeated Portuguese champions Benfica 2-0 in Lisbon and Monaco beat Bayer Leverkusen 1-0.

Arsenal prop up Group D after Jürgen Kloppʼs Borussia Dortmund beat them 2-0. Anderlecht drew 1-1 with Galatasaray in Turkey. Jérôme Boatengʼs injury time strike gave Bayern München a 1-0 win over Manchester City, while AS Roma thrashed CSKA Moscow 5-1. Gerard Piquéʼs goal was enough to ensure that Barçelona beat APOEL 1-.0 while Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax drew 1-1.

The champions of Belarus BATE Borisov were taken apart by Porto 6-0. French-born Algerian international Yacine Brahimiʼs hat-trick makes him the leading scorer in this seasonʼs Championʼs League so far. Ukraineʼs Shakhtar Donetsk held Athletic club 0-0 at the San Mamés Stadium.

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Roller-Coaster

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (September 17th 2014)

The Prodigal

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Suspended indefinitely by the Ghanaian Football Federation after an altercation with the Black Starsʼ coach James Kwesi Appiah that saw him sent home from the World Cup, Schalke04ʼs German-born international Kevin-Prince Boateng must wonder whether it was worth reversing his decision to retire from international football and whether he made the right decision pledging his allegiance to the Stars rather than Germany.

Boateng was a former German youth international left Brasil early. Meanwhile his half-brother Jérôme was part of Germanyʼs World Cup winning team. The brothers have faced each other in World Cup matches twice. Four years ago Kevin was a hate figure in Germany when a mistimed tackle on Michael Ballack put the then German captain out of the World Cup. Boateng apologised to Ballack, but criticised both the German FA and national team manager Joachim Lõw. Ballackʼs international career ended controversially.

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Uncompromising

Boatengʼs disciplinary record has been troublesome, but the box to box midfielder deserves credit too. He moved to AC Milan in 2010 and made headlines for all the right reasons. Within 14 minutes of coming on as a substitute against Lecce, he had bagged a hat-trick, only the second by a substitute in Serie A

He also led the five main leagues in sendings off in 2012-2013 averaging one every six games. before deciding to leave Italy for Germany and Schalke 04. Boateng decided to change his international allegiance from Germany to Ghana. It was approved in May 2010, causing him to miss the Black Starsʼ run to the final of the African Cup of Nations in Angola.

In November 2011 he retired from international football, citing the effect of long distance travel. He was just 24 and once again missed the African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and also South Africa in 2012 and 2013. He played in two World Cu campaigns, but his indefinite suspension suggests that he will never grace Africaʼs top competition – the next edition takes place in Morocco next year.

Uncompromising on the pitch Boateng proved himself an implacable opponent of racism too. During Italyʼs mid season break in January 2013, Pro-Patria, then in Italyʼs fourth tier played against AC Milan. Their fans racially abused Boateng who booted the ball into the stands and walked off the pitch in protest, followed by his team-mates. While some criticised him for walking off the pitch other praised his stand. Clarence Seedorf, then playing for Botafogo in Brasil thought Boatengʼs reaction played into the hands of racists.

They should just be identified and kicked out of the stadium,” Seedorf said. “Leave the 90% that were enjoying the match and finish the game. If Boateng was able to identify the whole corner, you just kick the whole corner out, That is how I think it should be handled Walking away? Yes, you send a signal. But this has happened more than once and I donʼt think it really changes all that much. We are just empowering that little group with their behaviour to make this mess”.

Among those who took to Twitter to support Boateng were Rio Ferdinand, Vincent Kompany and Patrick Vieira. “If the stories about KPB walking off the pitch with teammateʼs (sic) after being racially abused are true, fair play to him..well done #UefaStandUp”, Ferdinand said at the time.

Manchester City captain Kompany fully supported both Boateng and his then club. “Act of racism against Boateng during Milanʼs friendly” Kompany tweeted. “How about becoming extremely intolerant towards racist idiots”? UEFA has adopted penalties for racist conduct as did FIFA, but the problem persists despite close calls to a walk off previously – notably Samuel Etoʼo and Marc Zoro.

They need to be told I can only salute Milanʼs decision to leave the pitch”, Kompany tweeted. “Also noted that the majority of the fans were completely supportive of the players”.

Vieira, working with Manchester Cityʼs youth structure at the time, which he retains despite his subsequent promotion to reserve team manager, was vociferous in his support of Boateng. “It was brave of Kevin Prince Boateng to do what he did today, and it was the right thing”, Vieira said on Twitter. “We need to stand up and stand together. Well done”.

Boateng was appointed to FIFAʼs Anti-Discrimination Task Force under the CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb. He presented his proposals earlier this year. Boateng also became an ambassador for the United Nations against racism in March 2013. He told FIFA President Sepp Blatter that he recognised that he was wrong to walk off the pitch, but that strong action needed to be taken.

Welcome

Last season Boateng completed the most dribbles in the top five European leagues. He is now an integral part of Schalkeʼs plans. Ghanaʼs decision to dispense with his services is the German clubʼs gain. Tonight he returns to England for his clubʼs opening fixture in the Championʼs League against Chelsea, weeks after playing a friendly against his former club Tottenham Hotspur.

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He was given a warm reception by Spurs fans. “Obviously itʼs a mark of respect and I think Kevin obviously did a very good job here”, Tottenham Hotspurʼs German international Lewis Holtby said. “Otherwise the reception wouldnʼt have been that good. I think itʼs good for him and itʼs good to see Tottenham fans being so positive”.

In the absence of Schalkeʼs captain the World Cup-winning German defender Benedikt Hõwedes, the responsibility on Boateng is even higher. “Heʼs a great player, a great personality, so heʼs very important for us and we are very happy that heʼs in our team”, Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta told us.

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Making History

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (September 17th 2014)

Injuries

Hit by injuries German outfit Schalke04 face in form Chelsea in the first match of Group G of the Championʼs League at Stamford Bridge tonight. Schalkeʼs injury list is problematic too, headed by their captain Benedikt Höwedes, fresh from this summerʼs World Cup triumph. “Of course, itʼs very difficult if you lose your captain and from a central defence berth and itʼs also a very difficult situation”, Schalkeʼs manager Jens Keller said. “Weʼve still got a little bit of time to think about what our solutions are and what options there are for us”.

A morale boosting result against Bayern München was tempered by the injury crisis. The loss of Höwedes being the hardest blow. “I donʼt know how long heʼll be missing for”, Keller said. “Heʼs a very important player for us. Heʼs very confident now having won the World Cup and weʼve got lots of games ahead of us, two games a week, so weʼre hoping it wonʼt be too long”.

Their left sided defender Dennis Aogo agreed. “It depends whoʼs actually missing”, the sometime midfielder said. “In this case itʼs our captain, but weʼve got quite a few players missing. Itʼs not easy for us players, but we have to try and compensate and we have to try and cope with that situation whereby the players that are on the pitch, maybe theyʼve got to take on a little bit more responsibility. We canʼt just sit here and say weʼre sorry for ourselves, we have to give our best on the pitch and try and compensate for that”.

Familiarity

“I donʼt think weʼre under any more pressure than we are every year you know, because being a club like Chelsea this is our eleventh consecutive season in the Championʼs League”, Chelsea Director and Club Secretary told us. “You know weʼve been in the semi-final about eight times and two finals and also people expect us to be there or thereabouts every season, so weʼre always under that sort of pressure”.

Chelsea played Schalke last season too – a season that ended poorly by Chelseaʼs standards without a trophy. Nevertheless Chelsea were there or thereabouts and are the favourites of Group G. “I think that Chelsea will definitely have a say in this competition and are a very, very good team and they showed that last season and theyʼre showing it this season as well”, Keller said. “Weʼve learned that mistakes get punished. Weʼve learned that home and away last season and theyʼre a top team and now with the new acquisitions theyʼve got, even more a top team”.

Barnard recognises that Chelsea got a draw that they should progress from. “I think this time round when you look at our colleagues from the Premier League and the groups that theyʼre in, I think people are saying we got the better of the draw … in terms of the opposition, but weʼre not taking lightly our group”, he said. “Weʼll be playing Schalke, and Schalke we played last year in the group stage. Hopefully we can repeat those performances”.

A Tough Ask

Meanwhile, Aogo agreed with his manager. “Well of course in Germany, weʼve seen that heʼs had a great start to the season, but itʼs not just him”, Aogo said of on fire new Chelsea signing Diego Costa. “I mean the whole teamʼs doing really well. Not for nothing are they number one in the Premier League. Weʼve just got to give our best”.

Aogo knows that Schalke face a difficult task. Shorn of top players through injury the burden is higher on the others. “Weʼre playing against some of the best players in the world”, he said, “so we donʼt really need any extra motivation. Last season we actually started very well. Maybe weʼve got to be a little bit more clever in the way we play, but what is there to say against us having a good day and competing at the highest level?”

Despite the mounting problems Keller remains optimistic too. “Well Iʼm a very positive person”’ Keller said. “Youʼve got to remember that anything is possible in football. Also when we played against Bayern Munich people said we didnʼt have much a chance there and we showed what we could do there, so anything is possible; thatʼs what Iʼm saying”.

The ‘Monster’ called FIFA

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (September 6th 2014)

Same Old Problem

Segun at Wembley

This must be the worst period in the history of Nigerian football. I cannot recall a time quite like this: domestic football has grounded to a halt; the Super-Eagles are in tatters, losing scandalously by 3-1 at home to Congo in an AFCON 2015 qualifier – the first such defeat in a competitive match in living memory. The national team coach, Stephen Keshi, has been in a running battle with his employers over a contract that may now never materialize following the manner of the Congo defeat and a serious crisis has engulfed the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) following disputed elections to the Executive Committee. The problems are pouring!

Headless Chickens

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The tragedy is that no one appears to fully understand what to do in order to ride the raging storm of the chaos everywhere. As a result, there is panic and confusion everywhere, fuelled by the threat of an international ban by FIFA. Yes, FIFA again!

They appear every 4 years, invited by warring federation officials during what should ordinarily be a simple act, a straightforward electoral process into the board of the NFF that degenerates into a convoluted, incomprehensible conundrum. The elections have become a dangerous political power tussle to control the lucrative position of President of the Nigerian Football Federation.

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In the past 10 years a ‘game’ has been mastered by successive incumbent presidents intending to perpetuate themselves in office, FIFA-style. The ‘game’ effectively sidelines the real owners of clubs, disenfranchises the public, bars the law courts or ignominiously disregards their decisions, handicaps security agencies and ensures that government’s involvement is anathema.

Unfortunately, the government fights back every time to stop them because it claims that ‘he who pays the piper dictates the tune’. The incumbent runs to FIFA claiming interference in its affairs and FIFA threatens the country with an international ban should the government not back off. But in Africa, no one fights governments and wins. So, crisis!

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The Stick

Having tasted an international ban once in the past and seen its devastating effect on the people, the entire country of some 180 million Black and proud Africans now catch cold every time FIFA ‘sneeze’. FIFA have put the fear of God in all Nigerians. Nigerians are quivering in submission to the threat hanging menacingly around their neck like the fabled Albatross.

Every 4 years they keep repeating the same question: how has an election into the board of an agency of government, established and funded almost entirely by government and run by a handful of ordinary Nigerians hand-picked by government, become such a convoluted, confusing process that brings the entire country to its knees at election time? Some things obviously do not add up. Something is wrong with the system and the process.

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In the past 10 years elections into the board have become disruptive, an international humiliation and detrimental to the progress of Nigerian football. In 2014 we are about to tread that path again. We already can see the devastating effect of the present crisis in the disastrous outing of the Super Eagles on Saturday and the grounding of domestic football in the country.

Catastrophic

Football is a team game where every department of the game has to contribute to the maximum for the team to perform well and to win. So far, in the absence of administrators that can provide the physical and psychological incentives and motivation for the players to win, the Eagles played one of the worst games by any national team in Nigeria’s history. This must stop.

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As the national team prepares to confront Bafana Bafana next week another disaster looms. FIFA must ease off its pressure on Nigeria and not stampede the country into another badly organized election that would do more harm than good to the country. FIFA know that the NFF has always been an agency of the federal government. It knows that the NFA Act 101 exists. They know that Government funds the secretariat of the Federation and all competitions.

In almost 60 years of knowing this they have not suspended Nigeria for this ‘breach’ because that is how things are in this part of the world. So, why would FIFA be interested in the local elections into the NFF board? Why should Nigerians be reduced to a bungling bunch of school children as a result of FIFA’s seeming interference?

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At the moment the whole country is frozen in dread. FIFA, the ‘monster’, is lurking in wait to clamp down on Nigeria because of a faulty electoral process that can be fixed internally without the menacing threat of a sanction by FIFA. Instead, FIFA must help the country to look into its peculiar situation and challenges, and advise on a way out, not put an axe to their head and watch the country’s football go to ruins!

Fearless?

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (September 7th 2014)

Facts

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Facts have a habit of being pesky, especially when trying to defend the seemingly indefensible. Englandʼs performance against a far from impressive Norwegian line-up was poor. Victory by a single goal at home while hardly testing the Norwegian goalkeeper Ørjan Håskjold Nyland was uninspiring and did not bode well for the test to come on Monday, a far better Switzerland, who impressed at the World Cup.

Hodgson, a former manager of Switzerland knows the strengths of the Swiss. England needed a confidence-boosting victory to take to the Alpine nation. Hodgson talked Norway up, describing them as good opposition – better than Perú – but there was no disguising the fact that Norway was ranked 53 in the world for a reason and were rebuilding too.

Hodgsonʼs Plea

Although his annoyance seized the headlines Hodgson had valid points too, but not in his defence of Englandʼs performance, which was quite frankly drab. Switzerlandʼs new manager Vladimir Petković, who succeeded Ottmar Hitzfeld will have seen little to instil fear in him prior to Mondayʼs qualification tie in Basel. However, the old guard has retired, or been retired and the new breed will take time to settle in.

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Some of these players are top-class players in the making, but the players are in the making”, Hodgson said. “You canʼt play five or six games for England and be a regular at Liverpool for six or seven months and then be David Beckham. You canʼt be Phil Jones with all the injuries he has had and nail down a place in the Manchester United first team and then become John Terry. You canʼt be Jack Wlishere, who has lost all that football through injury and then all of a sudden be Bryan Robson. Letʼs be fair on all of these things. Thatʼs all I am asking”.

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Nevertheless, with the players available to him England should be beating Norway comfortably.

They were humiliated 6-0 by France just before the World Cup and face a difficult task qualifying for the Euro2016 despite the expansion from 16 to 24 teams.

Denial

Norway was a team that England should have beaten comfortably. Thereʼs no disguising that fact, however much Hodgson wanted media and fans to believe that England had beaten a good team with a performance to match. It simply wasnʼt the case.

If we had played badly, if a lot of players had had really poor performances, if the quality of our passing and our movement was nothing like I wanted to see and if our defending wasn’t as compact, aggressive and organised as it was for large periods, I would be the first to say so”, Hodgson said. “But I am not going to say it’s not that, just because we had a bad World Cup”.

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An uncomfortable fact was that despite the possession and even domination that Hodgson pointed to in his defence of the performance Joe Hart, captain for a few minutes, after Rooney was substituted, was the busier keeper, twice denying Joshua King with good saves. Norway was a pale shadow of former glories, but Hodgson was having none of it.

You have just seen an England team dominate for 45 minutes against a good opponent – an opponent thatʼs hard to beat and you have seen them work very hard to create chances”, Hodgson said. “Donʼt hit me with statistics. Two shots on target? Donʼt give me that one. What about the ones they threw themselves in front of? We had that much possession and you talk about two shots on target. The performance was quite good”.

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The Long Hang-Over

Fresh from a disappointing display at the World Cup, Hodgson needed a good performance to regain the trust of fans. It wasnʼt forthcoming, but Hodgson defended thought that England had in fact played well. There was a lot of euphoria before the World Cup”, he said. “Allow me to be excited about what they can do and allow me to stand up and say I think my team played well at a press conference when I think they have”.

It didnʼt convince, but Hodgson was far from finished.

We were getting 75,000 people to see us play Perú, who, with respect, were nowhere near as difficult an opponent as Norway and now we have 40,000”, Hodgson said regarding a match that had simply failed to entice support after what was considered a poor showing in the World Cup.

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Belligerent

The normally mild-mannered and softly-spoken Roy Hodgson had had enough. Sensing stinging criticism coming the England manager got his retaliation in. The facts showed that only two shots on goal registered. Wayne Rooneyʼs goal from the penalty spot and Danny Welbeckʼs shot from about 15 yards out, which Nyland saved.

I canʼt put that right because I canʼt turn the clock back, but what I can do is analyse what I have seen and judge that through my eyes, and not judge it because someone is going to tell me: ʻWell, you only had two shots at goalʼ, because for me, that is absolute f*****g b******s; Iʼm sorry”, Hodgson said.

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Even if there were shots that were blocked England have to deliver better against such teams, but Hodgson refused to accept that the performance was below par. “You have seen us work very hard to create chances”, he said. “You have seen players get in behind defenders in wide areas and miss crosses and, yes, I am not terribly happy about that. I would have liked the crosses to be a little bit better. I would have liked two of three of those shots to get past the blocking player and whiz past the goal. I would have liked Daniel Sturridge’s magnificent effort, from that wonderful pass, not to land on the roof of the net”.

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But that shot didnʼt go in. The crosses were not as good as they should have been and shots were blocked and the performance was not up to the standard expected.

I saw a 10-to-15-minute period in the second half when I thought we were nowhere near what I wanted to see. I thought we lost the aggression in our defending and we didn’t attack anywhere near as well. Joe had to make a good save from a corner, and Norway almost scored again from a Gary Cahill back-pass. But we saw a different system then. We changed it around and I saw some very positive moments”.

The Falcons set to fulfil Pelé’s prophecy!

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (August 28th 2014)

Were you Watching?

Segun at Wembley

Did you watch the finals of the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup last Sunday night (August 24th)? If you did, I welcome you to the future. I believe that what happened in Montreal, Canada, between Germany and Nigeria was a preview of the future – the emergence of an African team good enough to become world champions in the beautiful game of football.

Sir Walter Winterbottom, England’s youngest and longest-serving national team manager, and, later, the legendary Brazilian striker, Pelé, had predicted that an African country would win the World Cup before the end of the last century.

That forecast did not come to pass at the highest level of the game. African countries became global champions only at junior levels, with the credibility of some of the victories in doubt because of issues about the true ages of the supposedly ‘junior’ players. At age-group levels older players have a physical and mental advantage that can make the difference between winning and losing matches.

A Hard Struggle

Whereas the age-group competitions were established for the purpose of building a more solid foundation for football at grass-roots level, and specifically to narrow the huge gulf between developed and developing football cultures, African countries saw it as an end to achieve at a junior level what they could not at the senior level.

Africa’s football was considered of such low standard that, for a long time, only one spot was allotted to the continent in the World Cups, both male and female. The African teams were admitted only to make up the numbers and serve the purpose of political correctness.

For the first forty years of the World Cup, Africa was not deemed of even one automatic place at the World Cup. They had to compete in the World Group. They got their automatic place in 1970 after boycotting the 1966 edition. Morocco, hosts of the next African Cup of Nations, were the first team to qualify for the World Cup from Africaʼs group

Improvements

The situation has improved significantly in recent years. With increasingly better performances Africa now has more slots in global competitions, but even that has stagnated. Africaʼs World Cup (2010) was a disappointment and Algeria and Nigeria apart, so was the latest edition. The Quarter-final barrier remains in tact.

Generally, however, one area that had suffered ‘neglect’ and, definitely, inadequate attention has been the women’s game. Africa, in particular, for years, did not put up high performances in female football. The sport suffered adversely from the consequences of cultural, religious and traditional restrictions and taboos. As a result the level and growth of female football at domestic levels in most African countries has been low and limited.

At grass-roots level, particularly in schools, there is hardly any female football played. The pool of exceptionally gifted ones is also very shallow. The few countries that have been participating in international championships have done so against the backdrop of very poor funding, neglect and little public attention.

Progress

That’s why any little achievement by the teams must be celebrated and well acknowledged. Africaʼs men have failed to break the quarter-final hoodoo in the World Cup, but Under-20s football is a different story with Ghana leading the way. In 1993 Brazil beat them in the final 2-1. Four years later they placed fourth. In 1999 Nigeria hosted the tournament and Mali came 3rd – the best of the African effort. Two years later, in Argentina, Ghana placed 2nd again and Egypt came third.

In 2005 Nigeria lost to Argentina in the final. Morocco were beaten by Brasil for third place – the second time two African teams reached the semi-finals. No African team, let alone two has achieved this in the main event. In 2009 an African country, Egypt, hosted the Under-20 World Cup – the second African nation to do so and an African nation won a World Cup for the first time – Ghana. They placed third four years later.

At Under-17 level Nigeria’s boys are the most successful in the world, with four titles, including the inaugural event at Under-16s in 1985. They won again in 1993, sandwiched between Ghana’s triumphs. They won again in 2007, losing the next edition in the final to Brasil two years later before winning again last year.

Breaking the Barrier

Africa’s men and boys have won World Cups at youth level, but never before have our women been the best in the world at any level. That’s why we must celebrate the most recent African achievement – Nigeria’s Falconets. Nigeria’s female teams, since their first appearance in 1991, have been the most successful in the continent and have represented Africa more times than any other country. Close observers have seen a slow but steady progress of the Nigerian female teams.

The major tipping point appears to be the FIFA Women’s Under-20 championship of 2010 in Germany. The Nigerian girls played against the host nation in the finals of that competition. Although they lost by 2-0 the occasion marked Africa’s best performance in all categories of female football until that time.

Two years later in Japan, Nigeria repeated their remarkable ascension of the ladder of global football by getting to the semi-finals of the same championship and losing narrowly to the USA, a country with the best record in female football at all levels. In the last two championships, therefore, Nigeria has been up there amongst the best in the world. Last Sunday, Nigeria sounded notice of fresh ambitions, when the country met Germany again in the 2014 finals.

To play against the world’s current best footballing nation in the final, and match them ball for ball, tackle for tackle, and only narrowly lose by one goal scored by 20 year-old Lena Petermann after extra time, is confirmation that Nigeria has truly arrived at the apex of female football in the world. Petermann impressed me too. She has the knack of scoring important goals – match-winning ones. She also scored the winner in Germany’s opening match against the USA and a stunning goal which beat France in the semi-final.

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The Best Player

Nigeria produced in the 2014 championship the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot award winner, the highest honour for the best player and the highest goal scorer in the championship. Both awards were won by one person, a Nigerian, Asat Oshoala, an authentic new female footballing genius!

In a match that Nigeria could have won in regulation time but lost in extra time, the world was privileged to glimpse the real possibility of an African team winning the World Cup at the highest level! What I saw that night is the clearest indication yet that an African team is about to fulfil one of football’s most anticipated predictions.

The Future Beckons

The next FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place in 2015 in Canada. I can already picture the Nigerian national team, the Falcons, a mixture of some of the girls from the present Under-20 team and remnants of the best of the old Falcons, who are now, like the finest wine, much better with age. That combination will be ‘lethal’.

The Nigerian girls in Montreal were spectacular. They displayed all the typical characteristics of Nigerian male players and more – physical strength, mental toughness, athleticism, great skills and (their greatest asset) uncommon fighting spirit. This team can play with such power and pace that most opposition will find it hard to deal with. They will play as if possessed with some spirit, fighting and contesting for every ball as if their lives depended on it.

With a little bit of improvement in the technical area, the girls will be ready to take on the world and do what the men have failed to do – win the World Cup for the first time. That way, Walter Winterbottom’s prediction half a century ago, and Pelé’s, a little bit later, would finally be fulfilled.

Well done magnificent Falconets!

Drab

by Satish Sekar at Wembley Stadium © Satish Sekar (September 3rd 2014)

Below Par

There was more excitement in the normally unflappable Roy Hodgsonʼs press conference than on the pitch tonight. Hodgson was terse in his defence of a dreary performance with few positives. Nevertheless, Hodgson, true to form, found positives. The obvious were the displays of Man of the Match Raheem Sterling and his Liverpool team-mate Daniel Sturridge.

“Donʼt hit me with statistics”, Hodgson snapped. “Two shots on target? Donʼt give me that one. What about the ones they threw themselves in front of? We had that much possession and you talk about two shots on target. The performance was quite good”.

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The facts told a different story. Norway is ranked 53 in the world for a reason. Before the World Cup they were thrashed by France. Their main striking threat Joshua King is struggling to make an impact at Blackburn Rovers. Contrary to Hodgsonʼs claim that Norway was a good team, the rankings are not lying in this case. Norway are not that good. In a qualifying group that contains Italy, Croatia and Bulgaria, even Norwegians talk about fighting Bulgaria for third place.

An ambitious England team should be looking to win convincingly against such opposition. Hodgson thought they were a higher quality than Perú, but were they. Perú held their own in the first half before tiring and paying the price for tiredness and notable absentees. Norway have much to prove. Their tactics were obvious – they would absorb pressure and hope to profit later.

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Hodgson gets Retaliation in

You have just seen an England team dominate for 45 minutes against a good opponent, an opponent thatʼs hard to beat and you have seen them work very hard to create chances”, Hodgson said. “There was a lot of euphoria before the World Cup. We were getting 75,000 people to see us play Peru, who, with respect, were nowhere near as difficult an opponent as Norway. And now we have 40,000”.

Rooney scores

The normally placid England manager refused to take criticism of the performance, taking great exception to a question about just two shots on goal – Rooneyʼs penalty and Danny Welbeckʼs shot from just inside the penalty area, both in the final quarter of the match.

I canʼt put that right because I canʼt turn the clock back, but what I can do is analyse what I have seen and judge that through my eyes, and not judge it because someone is going to tell me: ʻWell, you only had two shots at goalʼ, because for me, that is absolute f*****g b******s, Iʼm sorry”.

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Satisfaction?

Hodgson praised new skipper Wayne Rooneyʼs performance, although barring the match-winning goal from the penalty spot there was little to enthuse about from Manchester Unitedʼs captain. In just over 20 minutes new Arsenal signing Danny Welbeck posed more questions than Rooney. A stinging shot from 15 yards out was parried by Norwegian goalkeeper Ørjan Håskjold Nyland and after a neat interchange on the left of the area with Sturridge, Welbeckʼs centre lacked only the finishing touch.

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Bar a twenty minute period in the second half Norway was content to defend. Joshua Kingʼs header from a corner brought a fine save out of Joe Hart – heʼd been little more than a spectator up to that point, bar a slight fumble of Per Ciljan Skjelbredʼs cross/shot. King almost punished Gary Cahillʼs error on the right flank. King cut into the area before shooting from an acute angle that Hart had covered.

A sumptuous pass by Sterling found Sturridge in the area, but his lob from 10 yards out nestled on the roof of the net. Jack Wilshere and Sturridge looked puzzled either side of the interval when sent tumbling to earth by Håvard Nordtveit. Portuguese referee Jorge Sousa was unimpressed on both occasions. However, after Norwayʼs most attacking period, it proved third time lucky. Omar Elabdellaoui fouled Sterling to concede a 67th minute penalty. Rooney converted it for the only goal in an uninspiring match.

Positives

Less than half full Wembleyʼs famed atmosphere was lacking – toned down by a defensive performance. Norway came to frustrate and they did. Hoping to grab something on the counter-attack, the plan almost worked, but for Hart. Manager Per Mathias Høgmo bemoaned the naïve defending that cost his team a penalty. His concern was to boost confidence – achieved – and learn the lesson when defending against quality attackers like Sturridge and Sterling.

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In defeat they claimed a moral victory. Few thought Englandʼs display – two shots on target, Welbeck and Rooneyʼs penalty – posed any threat to Switzerland next week, but Norway showed enough to suggest that despite losing they could frustrate Italy, Croatia and Bulgaria in a harder group than Englandʼs.

But Hodgson was having none of it. Allow me to be excited about what they can do and allow me to stand up and say I think my team played well at a press conference when I think they have”, Hodgson said. He was satisfied with the performance, believing in spite of the evidence to the contrary and other peopleʼs opinions that England had played well.

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