Heroes

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by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 22nd 2015)

AFCON 1980 Triumph

35 years ago today, I was one of sixteen young Nigerian football players that walked onto the turf of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos full of nerves, but exhilarated by the atmosphere and the expectations of my nation. Nigeria had never won the African Cup of Nations.

The tournament started in 1957. It was time for us to take our place at the summit of African football for the first time. A crowd of some 100,000 Nigerians packed in a 60,000 capacity stadium like sardines to witness our attempt to create history.

Making History

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90 minutes of football later, driven by the passion of a hundred million other Nigerians, the goal was achieved. The Green Eagles played beyond their capacities and soared high above the Desert Warriors. In doing so, we destroyed the invincibility of an Algerian team that was at its peak – an obviously more experienced and probably even better team than the Eagles.

Remember that just two years later only larceny of the most shameful kind could rob that Algerian team of World Cup glory. The eventual World Cup finalists West Germany and Austria contrived in the Disgrace of Gijón to fix a result that saw both progress to the second round at Algeriaʼs expense. It was one of the worst moments in World Cup history, but it showed how big a threat Algeria was and how good a team they really were.

On the night, Nigeria could not be stopped, having come through some really difficult early matches. We played our best match of the championship, scored the highest number of goals and won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in our country’s history.

Duty
The President of Nigeria at the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, led the sea of Nigerians that physically watched the event live at the stadium. As young men, we were over the moon. We had worked very hard and prepared well under the guidance of professional sports managers and administrators. Nigeria had well-established sports institutions, a clear sports policy, a clear strategy and vision for sports development.

We saw ourselves as ambassadors and patriots serving our country willingly in answer to our nationʼs call to duty. Our victory in 1980 was the culmination of a process that started in 1976 when the national team went to Dire Dawa and against all odds returned with bronze medals for the first time in our history. That was the impetus needed to aim higher and we did. In that spirit, we went to Ghana for AFCON 1978 and reinforced our confidence.

Cometh the Hour!

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When 1980 came and the event was held in our country we believed we had to win and were ready. The preparations were hard but meticulous, driven by our single-mindedness to be part of history. The entire country was involved on March 22, 1980. It was a day none of us that played in that match will ever forget. We soared like eagles – super-eagles.

In the end, hard work: good luck, the people’s support, our government’s commitment, all paid off. We won. And we were deservedly rewarded well without any solicitation by us. Football in Nigeria had never been the same and would never be the same for us any more.

Celebrations
This day, 35 years after that victory, I can still play back in my mind almost every minute of the final match – the blaring trumpet of the late musician Zeal Onyia marshalling Nigerians to the great battle, the vociferous singing of 100,000 Nigerians at the stadium, and the rampaging supercharged Green Eagles with humble me scoring a brace and coming closest to winning the continent’s best player award that year.

It was a day when the elements had no choice but to side with the eagles, and to provide Nigerians with the cause to truly celebrate. 35 years after that victory, the heroes of 1980 are still remembered by most Nigerians. Six of them have passed on to the beyond – Muda Babatunde Lawal, Best Ogedegbe, Okey Isima, Alloysius Atuegbu, Martin Eyo and Tunde Bamidele.

The rest are alive and kicking, not by our strength, but by the Grace of God, grateful for the opportunity of life, and of that day, March 22, 1980 when our names were written in Gold in the archives of African football.

On behalf of all 22 of us, including Emmanuel Okala, Sylvanus Okpala, Felix Owolabi, Shefiu Mohammed, John Orlando, Frank Nwachi, Christian Chukwu, Ifeanyi Onyedika, Henry Nwosu, Moses Effiong, Charles Bassey, Godwin Odiye, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, Adokie Amiesimaka and me, I use this opportunity to say thank you once again to all Africans for their support and love, which since 1980 has occasionally still been showered lavishly on us.

Segun at Wembley

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 2nd 2015)

Dramas

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The quarter-final matches of the ongoing 2015 AFCON lived up to expectations in terms of drama. Ghana’s match against Guinea was a stroll in the park. Following that performance the Black Stars now look almost set to break the over three decades jinx of not winning Africa’s most coveted football championship. Their next match is against hosts Equatorial Guinea, but the way that they reached the semi-finals will not have been lost on Avram Grant or his side and hopefully CAF too.

The other matches were brutal physical contests that rendered impotent any talk of serious football tactics. The most refreshing aspect of the matches is the avalanche of goals that came tumbling down from the plateau of earlier mediocre performances made worse by poor finishing in front of goal. In the past few days the floodgates have opened and the drizzle of goals has started to pour down.

Segun at Wembley

Integrity

The match with the least number of goals, between hosts Equatorial Guinea and Tunisia now threatens the integrity of the competition. Indeed, in the opinion of my friend and co-journalist, Satish Sekar, the main feature writer of Empower-Sports magazine, CAF’s reaction to the referee of that very controversial match Rajindraparsad Seechurn will impact, one way or the other, on the rest of the championship and even beyond.

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For a team that was still under suspension for fielding an ineligible player in an earlier competition, it was highly suspicious why CAF swallowed its pride, disregarded the consequences of treating its own punitive measure as a minor inconvenience and awarded the hosting rights to Equatorial Guinea – of all the countries that showed interest to host it.

It was a step too far for Satish. He normally attends the African Cup of Nations and had planned to go this time until Morocco withdrew and the tournament was moved to Equatorial Guinea. Remember that Morocco had withdrawn from hosting the competition only a few weeks before due to the Ebola virus scare, and CAF had sought for an alternative volunteer host country.

Satish believed that awarding the tournament to that nation was simply wrong – it rewarded an ineligible country for cheating. To maintain integrity in football, especially in these times when corruption and more has reared its ugly head in the beautiful game, CAF had to maintain its ban on Equatorial Guinea.

Lack of Pedigree

That’s how this small Central African country, without any deep or rich pedigree in African football, became last-minute participants in the championship, replacing Morocco. And it should be remembered that Equatorial Guinea has only ever qualified as hosts – never on merit on the football field. In 2012 they had earned their spot as legitimate hosts. This time they were not eligible, because they had fielded an ineligible player and been rightly punished for that transgression.

For some observers CAF was setting itself up for a possible disaster by ignoring their own rules. Last Sunday night that fear became real. The rest of the world outside Africa is watching to see what happens next. I did not watch the match. I was high above the Sahara desert heading to Europe at the time. By the following morning the reports of that ignoble match were everywhere.

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Fiasco

The highlight of the reports was that the Tunisian players had chased the Mauritian referee after the match and were going to assault him but for the intervention of security personnel. Also, George Leekens, the Belgian coach of Tunisia, affectionately known as the Carthage Eagles, was so outraged that, at the press conference after the match, he described the officiating of the match as the worst in the 45 years of his experience in football.

I quickly rang up my friend, Satish Sekar, who had been following the matches with a microscopic lens. He would be neutral and give me a professional perspective. Satish was scathing in his remarks, to say the least. A football purist he dislikes poor officiating and the failure to use technology to correct bad or even mistaken decisions with a passion.

Highway Robbery

This is the worst case of highway robbery – in football – I have ever seen”, he said. “Dick Turpin (the notorious 18th Century highway robber) was hanged for less! What happened was simply unbelievable. CAF made a mistake. Why did they take the match to Equatorial Guinea? In the first place they were ineligible because they were under a ban by the same CAF for fielding an ineligible player”.

Me at FA Cup Final

Satish believed that a disaster would follow that decision. Incredibly the hosts had complained previously that CAF did not want them to progress. But what of Seechurn?

The referee was either completely appalling and incompetent, or, the match is a set up”, Satish said. “It is hard to believe anyone could be that bad. It wasnʼt just one bad, or even terrible – there were several. The Tunisians were robbed. It is even more painful for them because they had a good chance to win the cup and had done enough to win in normal time”.

The phantom penalty was a terrible decision made even more sinister in appearance by the timing. The hosts were on the way out when a blatant dive resulted not in a deserved yellow card, but a penalty. Adding insult to injury Seechurn refused to enforce the laws of the game in extra time as well and tolerated outrageous time-wasting at every opportunity once the hosts had taken the lead.

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The decent thing for CAF to do is order that the match be replayed”, Satish said, “but I know that will never happen. But they need to do something about a referee with such a dodgy record. Information is now readily available about the man’s record in previous matches too. CAF and the championship’s integrity are at stake. That referee should be sent back home in disgrace”.

A catalogue of ʻErrorsʼ

Satish went on to provide a vivid description of what happened at the tail end of a match that the Tunisians had wrapped up in normal time, and how they were robbed with some disgraceful and dubious officiating. If indeed, the situation is as bad as Satish, Leekens and many others here in Europe describe, why has CAF not done anything publicly to sanction the referee?

Have the Tunisians become the scapegoats, the sacrificial lamb needed to make the competition respectful and justify CAF’s decision to bring the competition there? Only if Equatorial Guinea continue to win will spectators fill the stands that have so far been full of empty seats at all venues except where they are playing.

The referee’s penalty kick decision was an undeserved gift. Even television replays have shown that there was no offence committed deserving of a penalty kick. What is clear, however, is that the end of the road is near for Equatorial Guinea. Their hopes of winning it all should end when they meet Ghana next.

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Defining Moment

It will be a great injustice if a team that has played some of the poorest football in the championship, has no pedigree, which got to this stage with the help of a dodgy referee, gets to the final and possibly wins it. Ghana are favourites to get to the finals where they are likely to meet old foes Côte d’Ivoire.

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However, a hard match against DR Congo stands between Hervé Renardʼs team and the final. A Ghana versus Côte d’Ivoire would truly be a terrific final, a befitting climax to a dramatic feast of African football – a repeat of the 1992 final, during which the Elephants beat the Black Stars on penalties. It may also restore some badly needed integrity to this edition of the African Cup of Nations.

Africa’s Finest

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 7th 2015)

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Prestigious African Footballers

Football without super stars is like tea without sugar. We are in the season of celebrating the super-stars of African football – the players whose light has shone brightest in the football constellation. Tomorrow the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will elect its winner of the prestigious African Footballer of the Year Award for 2014.

The event, which takes place in Lagos has become very significant for the players because it shoots their status and profile sky high onto a new pedestal of respect and prosperity. It can earn players moves to glamorous clubs, or in some cases boost their wages and prestige. It also raises the profile of African football outside the continent.

Surprises

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In the final list of five players for the 2014 award there are a few surprise inclusions. The first is Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama. It is not common to find goalkeepers listed for the African award. If it were not so, there is no reason why Vincent should not have been listed, or have even won the award, in 2013.

His stellar performances in the French league for Lille FC, and for Nigeria during the African Cup of Nations, leading the Super-Eagles to only their third triumph has earned him more than enough credit to merit an indisputable place amongst Africa’s best players. But goalkeepers tend to be overlooked. Just look at what happened last year.

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The belated observation made by a few of us – myself included – who commented on his omission last year may have precipitated the present attention on him (and possibly on other goalkeepers in the next few years).

Keepers

Goalkeepers occasionally used to be nominated, but their contributions have been neglected in awards. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since the last one was even nominated, let alone won. Before Enyeama’s recent nomination the last goalkeeper to be considered – and he did not win it – was Joseph Antoine Bell of Cameroon in 1989.

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And before Bell, the last keeper to be nominated was Zaki Badou – recognised by CAF in 2006 as one of Africaʼs best 200 players over the previous half century. Badou is the current manager of Morocco. It is his second spell in charge of the Atlas Lions. Sadly Moroccoʼs decision to refuse to host the African Cup of Nations has denied him the opportunity to shine.

Badou is one of Moroccoʼs greatest ever players. In 1986 Badou won the African Footballer of the Year Award, then by France Football Magazine. CAF organised its own award in 1992, which competed with the France Football Magazine award for two years (from 1994 onwards only CAFʼs award remains).

Badou played in Spain for RCD Mallorca and proved that his 1986 award was no fluke. He moved to Spain that year. Badou won the prestigious Zamora Trophy – the award for the La Liga goalkeeper with the lowest goals to games played ratio – for the 1988-89 season. As a manger he had success with his former club Wydad in Morocco and took the Atlas Lions to the final of the 2004 African Cup of Nations. Badou has pedigree.

Zaki Badou at Press Conference

Shamefully Overlooked

However Cameroonian great Thomas Nkono showed that goalkeepers who excel can be rewarded. Nkono won the African Footballer of the Year Award twice – 1979 and 1981. Sandwiched between his triumphs was my best year in this competition. I came second to his Canon Yaoundé team-mate and strangely unheralded (outside of Africa) Cameroonian great Jean Manga-Onguéné.

I canʼt complain as he led his team to the Cameroonian League title and African Champions Cup. Badou was not the first Moroccan keeper to win the award. Chabab Mohammédiaʼs Ahmed Faras beat African legend Roger Milla into second place in 1975.

Segun at Wembley

The good thing is that Vincent Enyeama’s nomination has reawakened interest in the performances of African goalkeepers, which has often been overlooked in favour of strikers or midfielders.

That may also explain why all of the players that have won the award since its inception (except for the goalkeepers listed earlier) have been goal scorers (strikers and midfielders). No defender has ever won the award despite the whole army of absolutely brilliant defenders in the continent’s history. If Enyeama wins it could therefore produce a change of attitude and appreciation of the finest exponents of other positions.

Surprise

Enyeama is not the only surprise on this yearʼs list. Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been one of the most underrated African players in Europe. He has been around the football circuit in Europe ‘quietly’ plying his trade and honing his goal-scoring skills and instincts. He is the son of another neglected African great. Pierre Aubameyang played for Gabon 80 times. Unlike his son he was a defender. He was the first Gabonese footballer to play in France, including for Toulouse and Nice. He is now a scout for AC Milan.

Pierre Aubameyang Snr

Pierre-Emerick came through AC Milanʼs youth structures, but was laned to various clubs in France, eventually signing for Saint-Étienne in 2011. Having established his credentials in France and when Gabon co-hosted the African Cup of Nations in 2012 he moved to Borussia Dortmund FC last season.

That transfer has changed not only his profile, but also the quality of his football, providing him the platform to showcase his immense striking prowess and nose for goals. This past year, particularly, he has matured into one of the deadliest strikers from Africa playing in the Bundesliga and in the European Champions League.

His speed and deadliness in front of goal have been phenomenal. Playing for one of Europe’s best teams along with other world class players has surely sharpened the edge to his game. He is attracting raving reviews, lots of attention, respect and accolades.

Coming from a small African country that does not win anything in the continent surely has reduced his direct impact in Africa, but that didnʼt stop Liberiaʼs George Weah and Maliʼs Frédéric Kanouté winning in 1995 and 2007, it would not surprise me if, purely on the strength of present performance, he is acknowledged in a year that few Africans have really been exceptional.

Surely, in terms of ability and his contribution to the ongoing success of his Borussia Dortmund – despite the wretched start to this seasonʼs Bundesliga that Jürgen kloppʼs team are enduring – week in week out, he stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the other nominees.

Another Surprise

My compatriot Ahmed Musa is another surprise inclusion. He is a regular in CSKA Moscowʼs team. Musa showed his talent in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011 – a tournament graced by several talents on their way to becoming important names in football. West Bromwich Albionʼs Saido Berahino made that trip too. Joel Campbell hasnʼt delivered for Arsenal, although he has impressed on loan and is a mainstay of Costa Ricaʼs national team also appeared in that tournament.

Real Madridʼs James Rodríguez and Isco, Atlético de Madridʼs Koke and Antoine Griezmann, Liverpoolʼs Philippe Coutino, Tottenham Hotspurʼs Erik Lamela, Benficaʼs Nelson Oliveira (just loaned to Swansea City for the rest of this season and Chelseaʼs Oscar and Mohamed Salah, among others. Musa held his own in this company even then and he has developed since then.

He is one of the fastest footballers in the world with the uncanny ability to outsprint defenders. His finishing and crosses could be inconsistent and that has often reduced his overall impact. His performances for Nigeria during the 2014 World Cup and during the AFCON 2015 qualifiers stood out as one of the more consistent in a field of erratic strikers in the Nigerian team. However, his chances of winning the 2014 African award are slim considering that the next two players in the list may be just ahead of him in terms of impact for their club and country.

The Lifetime Achievement Candidate

Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan could have won the African Best Player award already if he had not been playing his football in the same era as Didier Drogba, Samuel Etoʼo and Yaya Touré. One after the other, these three players have completely dominated the African football scene in the past decade.

Samuel Eto'o

It is clear that a player had to be exceptionally gifted to break their grip on the title. That’s the reason why even extra-ordinarily talented players like Nigeriaʼs Jay Jay Okocha and the Black Starsʼ Michael Essien did not win it.

Asamoah Gyan has resurfaced again in CAF’s list even as he has moved in the past three seasons to establish himself as one of the best players ever in Asian football history. But Asia is not Europe. Gyan held his own in England at Sunderland before forcing a move to the Middle-East. Playing in an obscure league for a completely unknown club called Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates does not help his cause. It may cost him the award again.

Nevertheless, some people think he played some of his best football during the 2014 World Cup, scoring two goals and becoming the African player with the highest number of goals in the history of the World Cup, one goal ahead of the legendary Roger Milla. Another factor in Gyanʼs favour – perhaps the most important this time – would be because selectors may already be developing Yaya Touré fatigue.

Dominant

Yaya Touré has been so dominant in the midfield where he plays for his Club and for his country that it will surprise no one should he get the award for the fourth consecutive time. Without question he is the most gifted African player of this generation – tall, powerful, elegant, graceful, skilful, deceptively quick, technically proficient and masterful on the ball. He is the only African player in FIFA’s list of the world’s best 20 players in 2014.

This season he has not played quite up to the level of the previous season but he is still dominating every midfield, dictating and controlling play, and delivering deadly ‘poison’ of goals whenever he finds himself in the periphery of the oppositionʼs goals. Also he has returned to form for Manchester City at just the right time for the selectors to notice.

CAF and its President Issa Hayatou may sentimentally want a new face to adorn the award and to break the monotony of another Yaya Touré victory, but on form and achievement he is the best of the candidates. He deserves to clinch the title of Africa’s best footballer again.

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A New Experience

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (December 6th 2014)

Return to Tunisia

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I am definitely outside my comfort zone – in a strange environment, amongst stranger people. I’m back in Tunisia – a country that has pleasant memories for me – but this trip has nothing to do with football. I have not read any newspapers or watched any news channel on television since I arrived here a week ago.

Tunisia is a French and Arabic speaking country and there are no English speaking news channel such as CNN, BBC, or even Aljazeera, etc. on television here. Although there is a channel that shows some sports, including some football matches and analysis, that too is in Arabic and only once did I see a recorded Barclays Premier League match with Arabic commentaries.

So, do not blame me if my column this week has nothing of my regular comments and analysis on football matters. Having said that, permit me and enjoy me tell you a little of my experiences.

Memories

In the past one week I have been in Tunisia. The last time I visited the North African country was some 20 years ago on the occasion of the 1994 African Cup of Nations. The Eagles won the championship,Tunisia ’94 then, marking the second time Nigeria won the prestigious African competition.

The first time was in 1980.1 In that same year, 1994, the Green Eagles were re-christened Super Eagles, and qualified for the first time to represent Africa as one of Africa’s five representatives to the 1994 World Cup. So, I have very fond memories of Tunisia, which was unlike any other North African Arab country I know. Although it is a Muslim country, it does not shove religion in the faces of visitors.

So, from my visit 20 years ago I remember Tunis, Souse and also Carthage – a city rich in history and culture that Rome owed its emergence as a world power to and which could not be fully erased from history despite Romeʼs best efforts.

Segun at Wembley

A footballer at the 2014 African Basketball Championship

I did not know about Sfax then. But here I am in the city attending the 2014 African Basketball Club Championship for Women in my capacity as consultant to one of the two Nigerian clubs at the championship, the First Bank Basketball Club. The team is known as the Elephant Girls.

Seven days in Sfax have been some sort of education and also baptism for me into the world of international basketball. It is a world that I find completely different from football. It is simpler and less political, even though it also not without its own idiosyncrasies and intrigues.

In the past two years I have been involved in basketball as well as footbball. This is my first international trip with the current national women’s basketball champions of Nigeria, and make no mistake, they are serious contenders for the African title here in Sfax.

I am learning pretty fast. I am interacting at close quarters with some of Africa’s top female basketball players and administrators;. I am observing how the championship is run, meeting with those that run it and exchanging information and views about the differences and similarities between football and basketball administration. I am sharing experiences and expectations; observing the teams and sharing their moments of joyful celebration as well as painful losses.

In short, with all its headaches (and there are a few) this trip has provided me the opportunity to peep into the world of basketball.

The Sfax Experience

Sfax is a large seaport situated some 270 kilometres east of Tunis on the Mediterranean coast. I am told it has the largest fishing trawlers in Africa and has the world’s second largest deposit of Phosphate. However, for some reason Sfax is dusty. The entire city is covered always in white dust blown probably from the desert located to the south.

There is a regular pall and smell of tobacco in the air. It is everywhere. As our guide, Mahmoud, told me, (I guess he may be exaggerating) about 90% of all adult Tunisians smoke heavily. That’s probably why there is no law prohibiting smoking anywhere in Tunisia, public places inclusive.

The hotel we are staying in must be one of the most polluted places in the world. You need to see and experience it to understand what I am talking about. Every corridor, the restaurant, the lobby, the lounges, the bar, everywhere is filled with the reeking smell and fumes of cigarette smoke. It assaults the eyes and nostrils everywhere you turn to.

Marginally Worse

There is, however, one other place worse than the hotel – the indoor sports hall of the CS Sfax Sports Club – venue of the ongoing African Women’s Basketball Championship. Although it is a massive beautiful edifice with excellent state-of-the-art facilities, the place has little ventilation and, so, regularly suffocates with the acrid smell and fumes from tobacco consumed freely within this enclosure.

It is often packed with thousands of cigarette-smoking spectators whenever CS Sfax Sport Club, is playing. In one week I must have involuntarily inhaled more cigarette-fumes into my lungs than I have done in the totality of the rest of my life. It is that serious. This totally negates the health intentions of sports.

Something Different

Beyond that, Sfax is really different. Here, no one uses seat belts whilst driving their cars. There may also be no enforcement of restrictions about answering mobile phones whilst driving, as everyone’s driving with a handset in one hand. Cars are parked randomly everywhere.

Despite being a predominantly Muslim country alcohol is available in every hotel bar.

Credit and debit cards are only sparingly used, if at all, and in my experience, only in the banks. The Internet is not easily accessible. I hope all of this is limited to Sfax.  

When we attended an official reception for the heads of delegates of all the participating countries at the championship, the entire programme was conducted in French and Arabic. No one interpreted for those that did not understand either of the languages and no apologies were offered. Yet there were participants from Nigeria, Kenya and Angola.

Life in Sfax is leisurely. The unofficial clothing of the people is jeans. Two out of every three Tunisians (male and female) wear jeans on a regular basis. It is everywhere. This simple act itself tells a lot about their liberal society. There are hardly any security personnel visible around the town. We are told there is no need for them.

Finally, the championships we came for itself has been excellent and the matches competitive, particularly with the addition of professional players in all the participating teams. The practice is that when clubs qualify for the African championships they are allowed to recruit a certain number of professionals from outside their country to strengthen them. That way the standard of the matches is higher and sponsors are attracted.

First Bank Basketball Club has three Nigerian players from the USA. They are making a big impression here and have been great ambassadors of the sport. The championship ends this Sunday. It’s been a truly new and different experience, I mean, for a footballer to experience life in the world of basketball.

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1Odegbami played a vital role in the success of 1980. He was Nigeriaʼs best player and scored 2 of his teamʼs goals against Algeria in the 3-0 triumph, which resulted in Nigeria winning the African Cup of Nations trophy for the first time. He was rewarded with the captaincy. He retired from international football the following year. Nigeriaʼs second title came in 1994, ending Zambiaʼs impossible dream to win the trophy months after the devastating Gabon Plane Disaster, which killed the Golden Generation of the Chipolopolo with the exception of perhaps their greatest ever player and current President of the Zambian Football Association, Kalusha Bwalya. The Super-Eagles won it for the third time last year: The Editor.

Mouthwatering

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 24th 2014)

Segun at Wembley

El Classico – Another War

This weekend there is going to be another battle of epic proportions. It will be fought between two of the biggest and most powerful ‘armies’ in the world. The battleground is the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, home of Real Madrid Football Club. The invading ‘army’ is, in my humble estimation, the greatest team ever – Barçelona FC!

Leading Real Madrid and Barçelona are with respect to Zlatan Ibrahimović and others the two greatest footballers of their generation – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. At stake are the crowns of ‘best team in La Liga’ and the ‘best player in the world’. In the past 6 years these players have held the title of the world’s best player in a vice – Messi four times, and Ronaldo twice. 2014 promises to be no different; perhaps it will be the most interesting contest yet as it is far more open than previous contests where one or other seemed the clear winner.

The Battle Lines

This season there appears to be a new edge to the rivalry between the two players. Although they both deny that their rivalry fuels their performances, the truth is that both players have drawn inspiration from each other and have shared the global limelight in almost equal measure because of each other.

Ronaldo, who always seemed to play second fiddle to Messi before the last season, needs to prove a point. Many people believe that although he was brilliant last season for Real Madrid, but in my opinion he won the title of world’s best player more because the world wanted a change from Messi. The mercurial Argentine had monopolized it four consecutive times. Did Ronaldo win because he was clearly better than the little Argentinian, or for changes sake?.

I have watched Ronaldo play this season. He has not been this sharp and focused in a long time. He is playing with a deliberate single-mindedness that convinces me that he has more than just helping Real Madrid FC to win La Liga trophy on his mind. He has ‘Messi must be beaten’ written all over his game.

Messi, on the other hand, has less to prove, but he has shrugged off the rustiness and casual attitude of the World Cup and is playing now with a lot of physicality and uncommon determination. Surely the avalanche of falling records at club, Spanish, European and World levels is propelling him to even greater heights. The list of his established and near-accomplishment records is very long. What must be noted, however, is that between them they have made goal scoring an art form.

Several great players spend a lifetime chasing after recording one hat trick. Ronaldo is about to break an all time La Liga record in that regard. He needs one more hat trick to beat the late great Alfredo di Stéfano and Athletic Bilbao maestro Tello Zarra (Tello Zarraonandia Montoya) – Marcaʼs award for Spanish scorers in La Liga was named after the Athletic Club great. Ronaldo is already in legendary company, three ahead of Messi.

The Supporting Cast?

But tempting as it is to focus on these two great players, El Classico boasts plenty more great players. Gareth Bale is the most expensive footballer on the planet, Karim Benzema is rated by no less an authority than Ronaldo as the best striker in La Liga. Luka Modrić is the cog that makes Real Madrid tick and while finding his feet in a new league Colombian heir apparent James Rodríguez has immense talent and of course thereʼs Sergio Ramos marshalling the defence too. And thatʼs just Real Madrid. Barçelona had a poor season by the their standards last term. It cost current Argentina coach Tata Martino his job. But the Catalans are no one man team. Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta arenʼt just club legends, they are football ones. Neymar is a precocious talent and El Classico is set to witness the La Liga début of former Ajax and Liverpool icon Luis Suárez. Meanwhile another duel with El Classico dimensions to it takes place this weekend too.

Van Gaal versus Mourinho

No roads lead to Rome this weekend and not all roads that will lead to Madrid either. In England Old Trafford is the place Iʼd like to be at as an almost equally important rivalry between two of the BPL’s great teams will be ignited. Manchester United and Chelsea will face off in what promises to be a match up between the coaches – two of the most experienced and renowned football managers in the world – as well as the teams they select.

Louis van Gaal will test his fledging Man U squad against a high riding Chelsea. In this encounter current form would matter little. It is the team that gets its tactics right that will carry the day. Van Gaal is going through a difficult period with his team struggling to find the old rhythm that made Manchester United the most successful team in the history of the Premiership and him one of the most successful coaches around.

Mourinho has donned his armour of confidence and loquacity, and is daring any other team in the premiership to break down his defensive tactics and, at the same time, stop his rampaging forwards. He has been trophyless for two seasons – he doesnʼt like it and seems set to take it out on opponents this season, although he insists that it is far too early to talk about titles. So, this weekend the battle line is drawn between them.

Chaos Theory

It simply would not be Nigerian football if there were no crisis, or at least one around the corner. I truly believed that with the start of the era of Stephen Keshi as manager of the national team Nigeria has seen the last of a foreign coach handling its national team. While Clemens Westerhof was a great success, letʼs not forget the disastrous appointments of Berti Vogts and Lars Lagerbäck, which cast Nigerian football into the doldrums.

We turned to local coaches, eventually settling on Keshi. I thought that Keshi’s generation, with their experiences in Europe and a little training in the coaching techniques, would kick-start the period when only qualified Nigerians would handle Nigeria’s national teams. It should have happened and it still can.

Keshi may have failed in his human relations, and may also have been slightly deficient in some of his tactics, but he surely did better than most of the foreign coaches that Nigeria hired since Westerhof. Success as a coach is measured only with the results of a team. Keshi delivered the African Cup of Nations – the first Nigerian to do so. For that he has our respect and a lasting place of honour in Nigeriaʼs football history.

It would be interesting to see which foreign coach would be hired of all the names being dangled by the media. We are waiting to see, hoping that if it happens it is not Berti Vogts Mark II. Keshi, with all his failings won laurels and went beyond what any coach, local and foreign, had ever done for Nigeria. Of his generation there are a few that could have been challenged to come ‘try their luck’.

Sunday Oliseh is an interesting proposition. His limited experience in handling a big team notwithstanding, his intellect and analytical prowess, which are acknowledged worldwide, should more than be a compensation. Check out several of the best coaches in the world at the moment led by Pep Guardiola, and you would see a trend that swings away from old, retired and tired coaches, local or foreign.

So, a foreign coach? Without great players any coach would ‘fail’. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have exceptional players in this era. Mark my words: Nigeria would soon be back to square one, looking for an indigenous coach from amongst our own.

Hail The New President

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 2nd 

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Amaju Pinnick Steps into the Storm

I was in Ghana early this week when the elections for the Executive Committee of the Nigeria Football Federation took place. From what I gather there are still a few pending issues that must be resolved before final peace, if there will ever be such a thing in Nigerian football, can be achieved.

But first let me join Sepp Blatter and all other well wishers that have sent congratulatory messages to Amaju Pinnick in wishing him well in his reign as President of the Nigeria Football Association (Federation). It was no mean feat to emerge as President at the congress that was held on September 30 despite a court order that I am told directed it not to hold, as it was against a FIFA advise that the congress be held.

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The Cycle

The important thing for now is that, in spite of the faults of the electoral process that I pointed out previously, the elections came and went and a new Executive Committee has emerged. That ‘game’ is over. Despite the protestations, Amaju Pinnick will govern for the next 4 years.

After that, unless that term is used to right all the wrongs of the present, the crisis that almost consumed the country’s football will repeat itself again. You do not plant an orange and expect to reap an apple. I guarantee you, as I did in 2010, that in 4 years time, we shall go through this same cycle again, unless things change.

Without question, Pinnick deserves his victory considering his opponents. He was helped by a whole lot of other factors like where the congress was held: the political party the State belongs to, the previous zonal imbalance of power in Nigerian football and the influence of the Delta State governor and his relationship with the highest level of power in Nigeria. All were great influences on the final result.

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Without going into the details, all the other contestants should have known that for as long as the elections took place in Delta State – one of the contestants was from there – and the incumbent President was not contesting the elections this time, the chances of stopping the hurtling Amaju Pinnick train was almost impossible. That’s the nature of elections here in Nigeria. And there will be more to come.

Pinnick was the Chairman of the Football Association of Delta State – he now has to relinquish that position. That means there must be an election to determine his successor. There will also be an election for the position Executive Chairman of the Delta State Sports Commission – Pinnick must also give up tat position to remove any suggestion of ‘government interference’ that may haunt him in his relationship with FIFA. Nevertheless, Pinnick has added yet another feather to his already bulging portfolio of political achievements and offices. However, he faces huge challenges.

The Challenges Amaju Pinnick Must Conquer

At things now stand, Pinnick comes to office with his hands full of serious and, sometimes, complicated issues he has to deal with first. He will need all his wits: human relations and acute political, legal and administrative skills, to successfully manoeuvre through the minefields that lie ahead.

Somehow, he would have to find a way to stop the challenges still in court. Unless, there is a political intervention at a high level, and the courts agree to bend over backwards to allow disregard of their decisions to go unpunished, Pinnick will face a huge challenge. There is nothing new there, as it has happened previously and the last executive got away with it for the 4 years of their tenure. Pinnick may soon find that the simple decision of a high court judge in Jos, who may not even know anything about the game of football, could develop into a cancer that would make life extremely difficult for the new committee. But there are other problems too.

Besides Giwa – the football club in Jos at the centre of the problem with FIFA – there are still other aggrieved members of the last executive committee that appear to have now lost out in the battle of the last election. They are also stakeholders at different levels of Nigerian football and their grievances will just not disappear simply because Sepp Blatter has congratulated Amaju Pinnick. Far from it, he would have to appease them somehow and readmit them into the fold for him to be able to sleep with both eyes shut!

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Furthermore, he would have to take a firm stand, for good or for worse, on who has the rights to manage the affairs of the Nigerian Premier League – a situation that is confounding to everyone. The architects of that body, which is also known as the League Management Committee (LMC) and the NFF members appear to be on a collision course. Pinnick will have to resolve a situation that is unknown in the statutes of Nigerian football, while needing to hold on to the most priced possession of the members of the NFF – the Premier League. He will have to do this despite facing strong opposition. I foresee a grave crisis looming over this.

Even this is not all that Pinnick will face. There will be other issues too, including that of the future of the current coach of the Super-Eagles Stephen Keshi. I foresee a big battle of egos between Pinnick and Keshi, who will have to decide whether to fire the African Cup of Nations winning coach or retain him. The next set of matches will determine how that plays out in the beginning of what could be a turbulent relationship.

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Halting the Repetitive Cycle

Finally, I believe that unless the statutes of the Nigeria Football Federation are amended to accommodate all stakeholders on the basis of equal representation, as directed by FIFA years ago in their letter to the board headed by Sani Lulu, and are designed in such a way that every election is held with all contestants on a level playing field, and is not driven by vaulting ambition that introduces special rules from outside the statutes, the future is depressingly certain. In 4 years time Nigerians should expect a repeat of what we have all just experienced.

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Meanwhile, once again, I wish Amaju Pinnick and the rest of his Executive Committee members the best of luck in their future struggles. They will need it. Congratulations Amaju!

 

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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