The Concrete Test

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 18th 2015)

Rewarding Success

Are Ireland minnows any more? Despite losing some of their best players to England – understandably lured by the desire to play Test cricket, they still manage to produce good cricketers. They have beaten England and Pakistan and this week added the scalp of the West Indies after chasing down a target of over 300.

They should have won more comfortably than they did, but with an easy victory in sight they had a wobble. Theyʼll learn from it. Well, they will if the International Cricket Council (ICC) give them the chance to.

One of cricketʼs greats Michael Holding wants Ireland to be fast tracked to Test Match status. They need it if they are to develop. Letʼs not forget that it took decades for the West Indies to turn from outclassed minnows into one of the most dominant sides cricket has ever seen.

Convenient Memories

India were terrible at first and South Africa were not in the same class as England and Australia. New Zealand were awful too at first. And the swash-buckling Sri Lankans were no different. They too had a rocky start – look at them now. Two of the greats of cricket are in their swansong. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara will go down in history as greats – not just of Sri Lankan cricket, but of cricket.

So letʼs ignore the convenient memories that focus on Zimbabwe and Bangladesh – the most recent additions. They still need time to learn and adapt to Test cricket and Ireland will too. Thatʼs no reason to deny Ireland the chance to grow. If cricket is to appeal beyond its traditional support base it must give the ʻlesserʼ nations a seat at the big table.

Ireland is cricketʼs most important test of that currently. Do we want to see another Netherlands? The potential was there to develop Dutch cricket less than a decade ago. A sensational victory against England in the Twenty20 World Cup in 2009 demonstrated that there was talent in Dutch cricket. They developed in that format, but not in the longer ones.

The Netherlands lost their ODI status last year after holding it for 8 years. Canada lost theirs too, but the biggest surprise and waste was Kenya, which had held it since 1996 – the same year they surprised the mighty West Indies. But none of these nations got to take the next step – nor were they developed for it. They still havenʼt been. The price was stagnation and then regression.

This must not happen again with Ireland. Almost five years ago we spoke exclusively to one of Irelandʼs stalwarts – still – Ed Joyce. His thoughts on Irish cricket were illuminating and coming very soon!

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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.

Kalusha Bwalya 2

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.

Coaching Legacy (Part Two) – Archive

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 27th 2010)

Retaining

When Charles Kumi Gyamfi took his young team to Tunisia expectations were high in Ghana, but not elsewhere in Africa. The young coach had won the tournament on home soil in 1963. So what? Now he had to take his rebuilt team to North Africa and deliver again. Gyamfi proved himself an exceptionally good coach – an African legend – during that tournament.

The Black Stars retained the trophy, but the African team of the decade never got to keep an African Cup of Nations trophy. They threw away the best chance they had through petty political interference that involved the disgraceful treatment of a football icon, but that was in the near future. Ghana’s Football Revolution was ready to be exported to the rest of Africa after the Black Stars success in 1965.

We win the cup in Tunisia and we wanted to stay here and celebrate, but Dr Kwame [Nkrumah] tells us that we had to go to Kenya”, Gyamfi told us. “He wanted us to play there – show the Kenyans – what went on in Tunisia, so we went to play there. We played against the Kenyan national team. In fact, before we left we were not happy about it, but once Kwame Nkrumah had said it, we went there”.

Exporting the Revolution and African Unity

The trip showed the importance of the revolution. Celebration could come later, but first the revolution had to be exported. “Really we are going there to enjoy ourselves”, said Gyamfi. “We had to go there to court opinion and play against Kenya, so that we get their friendship”. It was far more than just a match, although the Black Stars put on an exhibition of football, which was not what Nkrumah had intended.

When we got to Kenya we played in front of the Kenyan people”, Gyamfi said. “Jomo Kenyatta himself was waving to us and totally happy. We beat them 13-0 – 13-0”.

There can’t be many times when such a result earned the winners displeasure, but Nkrumah was not happy. In fact, he was very displeased and demanded that the Black Stars understand the importance of their mission to Kenya – to help build African unity.

Dr Kwame Nkrumah told us that he didn’t tell us to go and dismantle Kenyan football and therefore we knew that Kenya was not finished for us”, said Gyamfi. “We played a second match against Kenya and give them a chance to play, so we drew with them in the second match. He didn’t ask us to go and destroy Kenya. It was a friendly, just to bring all of us together. All of these things were important”.

Robbed

Ghana would soon be robbed of the fruits of the Football Revolution. A CIA inspired coup d’état in February 1966 overthrew Nkrumah, outlawed his Convention People’s Party, and set about reversing his policies.

A statue of Nkrumah was dismembered in the violence that accompanied his overthrow and ushered in a cycle of coups, counter-coups, weak governments and yet more coups. It now stands to the left of his mausoleum – a permanent reminder of the violence and cost to Ghana of the coup.

Nkrumah dreamed of returning to power, but that never happened. His health began to fail rapidly after a kidnap attempt in the Guinean capital Conakry failed to capture him, Guinean President Ahmed Sékou Touré and the gifted liberation struggle leader of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, Amílcar Cabral. It had been organised by the Portuguese dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano.

Knowing that he was dying Nkrumah asked military dictator General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong to be allowed to return to die. His request was refused and Nkrumah died in exile in April 1972, just months after Acheampong seized power in a coup.

Following assurances given by Acheampong, Nkrumah’s remains were returned to Nkroful – the village of his birth and buried there – until the Nkrumah Mausoleum was completed in Accra.

Nkrumah’s Football Legacy

Nkrumah’s legacy is a complex one, especially in Ghana, but it is acknowledged and celebrated throughout Africa and even in his country now. The Football Revolution that Nkrumah helped to initiate is also appreciated now. As Gyamfi acknowledges it played a very important role in developing and fostering African unity.

It played a very, very big part in Ghana at this time, because football is something that you have to keep enjoying when playing”, said Gyamfi. “In Kenya we enjoyed every minute. I enjoyed it; my colleagues enjoy it too. Those who are spectators also enjoyed it”. But it couldn’t last. “A lot of things went wrong after he [Nkrumah] was overthrown”, said Gyamfi. “I went away. They wanted to play for money and things went wrong”.

Ghana – the sole African survivor in the 2010 World Cup – has been adopted by all of Africa. The vuvuselas now hail the Black Stars as Africa’s team. This World Cup is seen by Africans as their tournament. The support Ghana receives in South Africa is a legacy of the Football Revolution. “It brings us all together”, said Gyamfi, “and it was by getting all these things that we bring Africa together. We put a lot of effort and strength and devotion into it”.

The Betrayal

Nevertheless, coaches including Gyamfi would soon feel the brunt of the counter-revolution. Nkrumah’s blueprint was shamefully thrown away and African achievements were denigrated once more. Coaches and administrators were not trained abroad or within the country and gradually their skills were lost as they were not passed on to the next generation.

Dependency on foreign coaches crept back into Ghanaian football and the strong national team and league that Ohene Djan built was frittered away. The Ghanaian FA was held to ransom by foreign coaches, who did not understand Ghana or its football culture. Ghanaian coaching and administrative skills would have to be learned again from scratch. It was a recipe for failure and the counter-revolution delivered that with gusto, but first the revolution had to be destroyed.

The roots of the revolution were so strong that it took years to totally dismantle. A chronic lack of investment in football, coaches and human resources sent Ghanaian football to a decade-long slumber. But despite the lack of investment and disastrous short-sightedness, the Black Stars were too good to bring instant failure – that took time.

Ghana reached an unprecedented four consecutive finals of the African Cup of Nations between 1963 and 1970. It is no coincidence that shorn of the full influence of the greatest coach the country ever produced they lost the two finals they contested after the revolution was betrayed.