Grave danger in the Congo

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (November 14th 2014)

Segun at Wembley

Apprehensions

The last time I wrote about the Super Eagles on this page I did so in fearful apprehension. It was on the eve of the AFCON 2015 qualifying match against Sudan in Khartoum. I did not feel comfortable or confident about the match at all and I said so. My fears were justified when Nigeria lost by a lone goal.

This weekend, as the Super Eagles prepare to take on the Republic of Congo, (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo) I am disturbed once again. Ordinarily, very few Nigerians will lose any sleep over the prospect of a match between Nigeria and the Congo. The last time they dented Nigeria’s record in the history of the confrontations between them is such a long time ago that it would require a microscopic search in the archives to unearth it.

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Pointe Noire

What most African football followers will easily remember is when the Green Eagles (as the national team of Nigeria was known at that time) went to Pointe Noire, took on the Red Devils in their own backyard, and came out victorious en route qualifying for the 1994 World Cup. Stephen Keshi was the captain of that Nigerian team.

Pointe Noire, venue of that match some 22 years ago, is not the easiest place to go for a match against the Congolese. The first and only time I visited Pointe Noire as a player in the early 1980s, although my team, Shooting Stars FC of Nigeria, came away with a draw, the plane that we were waiting to board at the aerodrome that served as airport in the coastal town crashed in a storm as it came to land and everyone on board was killed. I have since not returned there. Not even when Keshi and company went, saw and conquered, and I was team manager of the national team!

So, Pointe Noire frightens me. Whenever the Congolese have to win a match they head to Pointe Noire, the second largest city in the country situated in the dense rain forest of the southernmost part of the country’s South Atlantic coastline, where a combination of heat, humidity, rain and one of the worst football pitches in Africa at the time, rendered every opposition impotent.

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The Twelfth Man

The Stade du Pointe Noire, once with a bumpy grass turf better suited for horseracing, now has an artificial turf that could pose a more serious challenge for the Super Eagles. It is the Red Devilsʼ 12th man. Led by their most famous player one of Africaʼs top 200 according to CAF, François MʼPelé, the Republic of Congo boasted their solitary African Cup of Nations triumph in 1972, beating hosts Cameroun in the semi-final.

They have never freached those heights since, but the Congolese are taking a cue from Sudan that defeated Nigeria playing on artificial turf. Our reinstated coach, Keshi, does not think the playing surface is such a big deal. I do. There is something about artificial grassy turf that disturbs me. It is a pitch that requires mastering over time with special bots – a luxury the Super Eagles do not have.

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Congolese Advantage

Remember also that the Congolese are going into this match with a huge advantage. They had ‘stolen’ innocently into Nigeria some months ago, gone to the hallowed ground of the JS Esuene Stadium in the ancient city of Calabar, and handed the Super Eagles a humiliating defeat. It marked the end of an era and a major turning point in Nigerian football. Things have not been the same ever since.

That’s why I am more worried now again, even if the Super Eagles appear to be recovering from their initial stumble after the World Cup. They won their first match in their last 4 or 5 outings last month against Sudan in Abuja. But problems simmer. The NFA that should provide the incentives and the psychological boost to lift and propel the team to new heights is still mired in internal squabbles that have refused to go away or abate.

The Claude le Roy Effect

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Add to all my worries above what a reader sent to my mailbox. Before that I did not realise there was a standing relationship between Claude le Roy and Nigeria. This is Christopher Igbidenion’s mail.

Recall that it was Claude Leroy (sic) that stopped Nigeria in the Nations Cup finals in 1988 when he was handling Cameroun.

The same Claude Leroy (sic) coached Ghana in the 2008 Nations Cup and stopped Nigeria at the quarterfinals.

The same Claude Leroy (sic) is back as national coach of the Congo. He led them to defeat the Eagles in Calabar.

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He seems to have found the answer to Nigeria and will become a spoiler once again”.

Frightening realisation. These Eagles would have to play with the heart of wounded lions in order to soar over the raging storms awaiting them in the Congo. That worries me.

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