Making The World Go Round

Editorʼs Note

The final of the Europa League will take place in Warsaw a couple of months from now. We covered Polandʼs bow at hosting a major football even and look forward to returning to see how football has helped to develop Polandʼs infrastructures on and off the pitch. Here we republish an article on how politics and football collided with football playing its part in fostering political change.

Derek Miller

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 4th 2012)

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Collision Course

A recurring theme in Euro 2012 was the desire to keep politics out of football. But why? Euro 2012 took place in two countries that know better than most that football and politics, especially liberation theory politics, most definitely do mix.

It was ironic to hear one of Poland’s greatest ever players Grzegorz Lato make that plea.

Lato knows how important the history and politics were back in his heyday as a player and also now. He remembers the 1982 World Cup in Spain well, having had a good tournament. Politics and football didn’t just mix then, they collided full on. Poland and Argentina bore testimony to that on and off the pitch.

The Mix

I don’t want to mix politics and sport”, Lato said. “I had several matches, especially in 1982 during the World Cup in Spain. We were in a group with the Russians and political aspects were very important during those times also”.

That’s not only an understatement, but somewhat economic with the truth. Those were very important times for Poland. Poles living abroad brandished their Solidarność (Solidarity) banners and placards. They filled the stadiums with their protest and defiance of the Polish junta led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski for Poland’s matches.

Damned Junta

Jaruzelski replaced Edward Gierek as Communist Party leader in December 1981 and imposed martial laws, clamping down on Solidarność, putting its leader Lech Walęsa under house arrest. The junta tried to destroy a popular movement and take advantage of football, but it had underestimated both the power of football and the desire of Polish people to be free of the shackles of an oppressive and deeply unpopular regime.

It also tried to censor the political protest made during the matches, thereby underestimating the power of football. Those demanding political change in Poland made far better use of the sport as a mechanism for political change than the then government of Poland.

Failed Junta

Ultimately the junta failed, but in 1982 a good Polish team inspired by the political events in the stands secured third place. Meanwhile, the junta reacted to the impromptu demonstrations by ensuring that Poland’s World Cup matches were broadcast with a delay that allowed it to cut out the Solidarność protests.

But it was too late. Poles already knew from the first match that politics had entered the world of football to great effect in support of political and human rights for them. Both players and Polish people could not claim to be unaware of what had happened.

The junta may have hoped to profit from the success of the team in Spain, but the Solidarność protests ensured that it could not steal the glory of a remarkable achievement by the players.

The collision had occurred and did so in a country that had only recently emerged from a debilitating dictatorship and had undergone an attempted coup just a year earlier.

In 1986 Jaruzelski was told by the then leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, that he would not intervene in Polish affairs, forcing the General to negotiate with Walęsa. Four years later Walęsa succeeded Jaruzelski as President of Poland.

Added Spice

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I don’t like politics to get into this”, Lato said as 1982 had added spice – a match against the old enemy, Russia, then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But would Lato or any of those complaining about politics and sport mixing object to the political protests of 1982 at the football in support of Solidarność and Walęsa?

I’m looking at the context of the history of Polish-Russian relations from another perspective. This [Euro 2012] is just a sporting competition. I have played against the Russians three times. During the Olympics we won 2-1. We lost 4-1 in Volgagrad and we had a 0-0 draw in Spain, so we are staying away from the politics. We are not interested in all those issues created by mass media. We are not interested in politics”.

A Force for Change

But why not? Politics can change the world. Football also can change the world for the better. Why shouldn’t they combine to do that, for example by opposing and even stopping wars as Didier Drogba did in la Côte d’Ivoire and Seydou Keita tearfully tried to do for his country Mali in this year’s African Cup of Nations? If football cannot and should not do that, then shame on it!

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So, coming from Lato this plea to keep politics out of football is strange. ‘Communism’ in Poland collapsed just eight years after the Solidarność matches in Spain. Lato was there in that different era and knows that politics and football collided for the greater good.

In the independent Poland that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union – a process that football played a part in – Lato became a Senator and later the President of Poland’s FA, the PZPN. Both were political positions. How can he credibly say that politics and football do not and should not mix?

The Real Fireworks Begin Now

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 30th 2015)

Easy Gone

Segun at Wembley

The Indomitable Lions are out as the boys are now being separated from the men in AFCON 2015. As a result, I have also lost my bet about who will win the tournament. Truth be told I did not think they had the capacity to win the tile, but being the ‘gambling’ man, I had put my kobo on Cameroon to beat the odds and ‘steal’ the title.

I failed because, last Wednesday, on a dramatic night that left much of Africa breathless with excitement, drama, suspense and a little controversy, my young hard-working Indomitable Lions were halted.

The last set of matches at the group stage were always going to be very critical, particularly since the games had been extremely close since the championship started with very few goals and too many drawn encounters. Remarkably, 10 of the first 16 matches ended in draws with an overall average of less than two goals per match.

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Jockeying for Position

Group D of the championship has been particularly interesting because of the way the position of second team to qualify in the group had to be decided. La Côte d’Ivoire ended as undisputed leader. The Indomitable Lions finished bottom of the group. Guinea and Mali had ended with exactly the same number of points, goal difference and goals scored. There was nothing between them.

One day after the matches, ballots were drawn in the boardroom and Guinea won. That has now generated fresh debate over the propriety of such a rule that takes the process of winning away from the field to the boardroom.

Many football purists, myself included, now suggest that such decisions should be based on a process that must start and end on the field of play, and not by the drawing of lots. I believe the issue will be looked at again after the championship by CAF. But that was not the only drama of the last group matches. Each group had plenty of it own.

Decided

In Group A, as predicted, Equatorial Guinea, even as hosts, struggled, rode on the back of unprecedented local crowd support, won only one match. That was enough to see them join Claude le Royʼs Congo as the two teams from the group. Congo were the best and most consistent team. They were well organised, played robustly and defeated both Burkina Faso and Gabon.

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Group B was also very closely fought. Also, only one team won a match in the entire group. Tunisia defeated Zambia. All the others matches ended in draws. Cape Verde were not the same team that caught everyone’s imagination in 2013. They drew all three of their matches. DR Congo also drew all their three matches but scored one goal more to edge out Cape Verde on goals aggregate. Zambia were a shadow of the victorious all-conquering 2012 African champions. They were the only team that lost a match in the group.

It is in Group C that there was the greatest drama on the field of play. This was the only group that had teams winning and losing matches, and with plenty of shocks and surprises. The results in this group confirm that football is not mathematics. Surprisingly, Ghana lost their first match to Senegal. Shockingly, after their World Cup heroics, Algeria defeated South Africa, but lost to Ghana and Senegal could only draw with South Africa.

At the wire, dramatically, Ghana that were at the bottom of the table with South Africa going into the last match, having surged to the top after a pulsating match that saw them oscillate from the brink of defeat to earn a clear victory over a determined, hard-fighting but porous Bafana Bafana.

The South Africans are now left totally confused about what to do with their football to take it to commanding heights. They are left wondering how things that looked so bright going to Equatorial Guinea could suddenly turn so dark in the end.

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Senegal had comfortably and confidently topped the group going into the final set of matches, but suddenly found themselves losing out completely after a dramatic defeat by the Desert Foxes in their last match. When the final whistle was blown they were out, and their conquerors, Algeria, were in with Ghana.

But the drama did not end there. Who was the group leader? It took careful interpretation of the rules of the competition to determine who came first in the group. Ghana emerged finally as group leaders. Algeria that had the same number of points but higher aggregate of goals (having scored more goals in the other matches), but they came second.

It was the result of the match between Ghana and Algeria, which Ghana won, that clinched it. In my humble opinion, the aggregate of the goals should apply ahead of the result of the match between two teams in a group competition – it is a mini league after all, so all the matches played should count first.

I have already looked at the drama in Group D where, as in group B, only one team won a match – Côte d’Ivoire. The team they defeated on the final day of the group matches, Cameroon, were instantly knocked out.

Mali and Guinea could not be separated, not by points, or goals, or even the result between them. That’s why lots were cast and Guinea ‘won’ to join Côte d’Ivoire into the quarter-finals, leaving behind a fuming and disappointed Malian team. However, the dust of the group stage matches has settled.

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Narrowed

The gap between the traditional African football ‘giants’ and the rest has narrowed. Predicting the outcome of matches is becoming increasingly more difficult these days. This is very good for the game. Having said that, somehow, only a few of the traditional ‘giants’ are still firmly in the race for the title.

Of all the teams only two have won the championship more than once. Ghana has won it 4 times in 1963 – their first appearance – retaining it in 1965 before losing in the final to Congo-Kinshasa (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The Black Stars, as Ghana are affectionately known, won it for the third and fourth times in 1978 and 1982 respectively.

The Black Stars lost in the finals of 1992 to Côte d’Ivoire and to Egypt in 2010 the last of three successive triumphs for Egypt – the Pharaohs have been deposed, failing to qualify for the last three editions of the African Cup of Nations. Ghana have reached at least the semi-finals in the last five editions. DR Congo, masquerading as Zaire then won it for the second time in 1974. Zambia were the beaten finalists then

Four quarter-finalists have triumphed once – Congo in 1972 at Mali’s expense, Algeria defeated Nigeria in 1990, Côte d’Ivoire in 1992 and Tunisia beat the intended hosts of this edition Morocco in 2004. The others – Guinea and Equatorial Guinea – are new kids on the block.

Final Thoughts

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Finally, once again, the matches have been very competitive, hard fought, full of drama and exciting, but the standard of play, which is relatively low, must be of concern to those monitoring the development of football in the continent.

There is definitely a dearth of emerging exceptional talent from Africa as reflected in the ongoing championships. And legends of African football Didier Drogba and Samuel Etoʼo have hung up their international boots.

AFCON 2015 – Uniquely African Flavour

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

Remote Sensing

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I am watching AFCON 2015 remotely from my home in Nigeria. It has been a totally different experience. I normally attend in person if Nigeria are playing. Sadly they didnʼt qualify this time, so I am at home, missing the electricity and atmosphere of being at the venues.

I still must admit that the ongoing Championship has been a great football treat with some riveting matches defined by the athleticism of the players and competitiveness of the teams. It is very much unlike European or South American competitions that are highly technical and tactical.

This has been football with a unique African flavour – power, speed, a lot of long high balls, endless running, tight marking, fouls galore, brutish tackles, not enough creativity and surely not enough goals.

Nip and Tuck

The matches have been extremely close. Anything can still happen to change the faintly emerging picture of the first round. So far, as an indication that there are no more minnows in African football, after the first 10 matches, 6 have ended in draws. But besides that there have also been some ‘pleasant’ surprises.

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Ghana’s loss in their first match to Senegal is surely a shock. Senegal, before AFCON 2015, seemed to have been in some kind of football limbo. To defeat Ghana, therefore, is no small feat. But the Bafana Bafana is a different matter.

South Africa’s tame capitulation to Algeria in a match they could have won easily was another shocker. They had the match under full control until they lost a penalty kick that could have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion. Thereafter, they lost focus, confidence and direction, and conceded 3 quick goals to a resurgent Algeria.

The group that had 3 West African and one Central African team, produced truly very hard but very exciting thrillers. At the end of the first round of matches all the teams were inseparably tied on same points and goals – Cameroon, the Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Guinea. Also, as I predicted last week, the host nation, Equatorial Guinea, is struggling. They did not win either of their first two matches and both Gabon and Claude le Royʼs Congo are poised to send the hosts packing from a tournament they were controversially gifted at the eleventh hour.

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General observations

Considering the short time the host country had to prepare and host the championship, it is remarkable to observe that the grounds and playing surfaces are in reasonably good condition. Television coverage with commentaries and match analysis have also been of the highest quality and standards.

Technically, my first observations are that there is now an almost infinitesimal gap between African countries in terms of their football standards and facilities. All matches are now extremely close. Even the little Islands of Cape Verde have not lost in their first two games, although they have also not played with the same flair and confidence that made analysts at AFCON 2013 compare their playing style with FC Barçelona’s Tiki Taka.

Those comparisons may be gone but Cape Verde are still playing fearlessly in the championship and cannot be written off. With most of the teams there is a general lack of inventiveness. In front of goal, creating chances and converting them clinically continues to be a problem. Whereas, defences have been hard, physical and better organised, attacks have been uncreative, inconsistent and rather tame.

Star Quality

One bright star of the championship to me has been Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon. His performances in the two matches played against Equatorial Guinea and Congo (one win and one loss respectively) has thrown up an authentic ‘new’ African star. In the two matches, he stood out like the Northern Star. He has grown from the young man who had to be consoled by his father Pierre after Gabon’s exit when they  co-hosted three years ago. 

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Another star performer has been Mali’s left-footed and menacing striker, Bakary Sako. He is a player to watch as one of the potential stars of this championship. He plays for Wolverhampton Wanderers in England’s Championship the tier below the Premier League. This striker single-handedly kept Cameroon’s defence busy all night, harassing them at will, and exposing the weakness on the right side of their defence in particular.

Tarnished Reputations

Ghana disappointed their fans in the manner that they lost to Senegal. They fell to very poor tactics. The Israeli Avram Grant recently inherited the Black Stars from James Kwesi Appiah. Given their antecedents in football they are likely to rebound in subsequent matches. But the Black Stars last won the African Cup of Nations under Charles Kumi Gyamfi.

Only Egyptʼs legendary Hassan Shehata can rival Gyamfi for the title of the greatest ever African coach. Ghanaians need no reminding that despite reaching the final in 2010 and 1992 their last triumph was 33 years ago. They are overdue, but thatʼs no guarantee. Côte d’Ivoire know that feeling too. Their only Cup of Nations success came against Ghana in 1992. Chelseaʼs talisman Didier Drogba never tasted international glory.

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With Hervé Renard in charge the Elephants have a coach who knows that winning sensation. Renardʼs new charges woke up from slumber only after they saw their awesome reputation going up in flames. They were a goal down and their best player on the night, Gervinho, was sent off.

The shock of the possibility of losing what most had thought would be a walk-over for the most-star-studded team in the continent, jolted them into frenetic action. Down to 10 players against Guinea they played like wounded lions, equalized against all odds, redeemed their reputation and restored their chances of advancing beyond the group stage.

Great Expectations

South Africa were the tamest team in the championship after the first round of matches. How could they have sloppily let go a match they had in their pockets already? After failing to convert a penalty kick that would have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion against an Algeria that looked ragged up to that point, the tide of the match suddenly turned.

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The Desert Foxes woke up, found their rhythm, and went on a rampage, scoring three times in 45 minutes to send the Bafana Bafana back to the drawing board, wondering what had hit them.

The Indomitable Lions, my wild bet to win the championship, as usual, were very athletic, hard-working and physical. At the same time they also looked very vulnerable in defence. Cameroon’s next match will show if my pre-tournament expectations have been set too high.

Observations

Otherwise, these are my further observations and analysis:

Group A

Burkina Faso, beaten finalists in 2013, will end their 2015 journey at the group stage. Congo will qualify and be joined by either Gabon or Equatorial Guinea!

Group B

Cape Verde Islands have played robustly but not as well as they did during AFCON 2013. The surprise element that they rode on in 2013 has evaporated. Now other teams take them seriously, and their road has become harder. They are likely to disembark the AFCON 2015 train at the group stage terminus.

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Zambia have not surprised anyone. They are working hard, but struggling. Without much fire-power upfront they are finding it difficult to convert the many goal-scoring chances that they create. They are a far cry from the team that excelled when last in Equatorial Guinea just three years ago. Tunisia look like the best team in the group with DR Congo a close second. The match between them will determine which team wins the group.

Group C

This is too close to call even now. The only sure thing is that South Africa will be the first to exit in the group. Beyond that anything can still happen. Algeria and Senegal have shot up to the front, but Ghana lurk dangerously, poised to benefit from any slip-ups. When they are having a good day Ghana can defeat any of the teams. Surely, there are more surprises to come in this group!

Group D

This is the group where the teams refuse to be separated. Guinea have looked sharp and focused.

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Mali have looked interesting under the tutelage of ageless Seydou Keita. Côte d’Ivoire was shocked by the result of their first match. Even without Romaʼs Gervinho, they should still have too much talent not to come through this group.

Nevertheless, I am still keeping my money on Cameroon even though they have not played with the usual panache and confidence that create champions. Like a fine wine I am hoping they will get better with every match.

The African Cup of Nations 2015 Edition

by Seun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 15th 2015)

Embarrassing

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Itʼs that time again when Africaʼs best meet to contest which team is the continentʼs best. Of course, my first statement on AFCON 2015 must be that the defending champions will not be at the championship. How come?

It is hard for anyone to understand what happened and how it happened, but the reality is that the national team that won the 2013 African football championship undefeated, that qualified for the 2014 World Cup as one of 5 African countries, and one that boasts one of the best records out of Africa in all global football competitions, will not be at the 2015 World Cup because it failed to qualify. That’s how come!

Previous

The last time Nigeria was not at the championship it was by default – for political reasons. The military government of Nigeria of then dictator Sani Abacha resented criticism from Africaʼs icon and our continentʼs modern hero Nelson Mandela. Abacha deliberately chose not to send the Super Eagles to the championship. That was in 1996.

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The boycott backfired spectacularly. The most significant effect of Nigeria’s withdrawal that year was that the path to victory was paved for South Africa, a country fresh from the shadows of apartheid, to win their first and, to date, only African Cup of Nations championship. And Nigeria was banned from the 1998 edition as well – that will have taught the South Africans!

Absence

We canʼt blame a boycott this time. So, as Africa prepares for the football party, for many South Africans, the prospect of winning again, some 19 years after, particularly in the absence of their bogey team, Nigeria, becomes a realistic challenge! After all the Bafana Bafana have recently been playing football with uncommon determination and confidence, and have posted some very decent results, including their sterling performance against Nigeria in their last qualifying match for this edition of the African Cup of Nations. That surely ranks amongst one their best performances that I have seen since 1996.

From January 17th 16 African countries will congregate in Equatorial Guinea and a lot of eyes will be trained on the Bafana Bafana as they attempt to win their second Nations Cup. A look at the road they have to travel indicates that it will be very rough and tough. They are nestled in the same group with two of the current best football countries in Africa – Ghana and Algeria. For South Africa it may be easier to climb Mount Everest without a guide than to emerge unscathed from that group.

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Back to Nigeria briefly!

In two years, the Super Eagles have plummeted from the highest peak of African football, to the lower rungs. In the course of that tragic situation, Stephen Keshi the most successful indigenous coach in the history of the Nigerian football has fallen from grace to grass with scandalous defeats and performances that once looked remote, but have become a reality for Nigeria.

So dispirited have most followers of Nigerian football become that there is little interest in the championship. Having said that the 2015 championship will still commence this weekend and the Oracle will still peer into the crystal ball for what the immediate future holds for each of the countries.

The Oracle

Group A – Equatorial Guinea, Congo, Burkina Faso and Gabon

This is a very unpredictable and a relatively cheap group in terms of the antecedents of the countries. The only reason that Equatorial Guinea will emerge from this group is because, as hosts, they will ride on the back of home support to struggle and emerge.

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Congo will fight hard but will fade out in the second round. Burkina Faso, through hard work and endless running had their best chance of winning the championship two years ago when they went as far as the finals before being knocked out by the fire-power of Nigeria. Since then, they seem to have lost some of the fire that made their performance very refreshing and exciting the last time.

Gabon has never been such a great football country in Africa as to give any one of the serious contenders any sweatTheir only hope rests with Pierre Aubameyang. From previous records the striker in devastating form for Borussia Dortmund FC may not replicate that form in the championship. One man does not make a forest.

Group B – Zambia, DR Congo, Tunisia and Cape Verde

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Zambia in 2015 are not the same team that dazzled everyone only two championships ago. I donʼt expect them to recreate the magic they provided when last they were in Equatorial Guinea – great memories aside. 2012 was their time. It was fitting that they won the Cup of Nations for the first time in Gabon – the scene of the worst disaster in Zambian and African football, but this is not Gabon and a lot has changed in three years.

DR Congo have invested a lot in their domestic football, an investment that is yet to fully reflect in the national team. They remain dark horses even though the great coach Claude le Roy has left. Tunisia, as usual will play well, defeat the weak African teams, but falter against the West Africans. With none in this group they may succeed and emerge from the group.

Cape Verde are the hardest to predict. I do not really know what to make of this team. Two years ago we saw them display some of the most entertaining and brilliant individual football at AFCON 2013. In 2015, Africa should be ready to dance and celebrate some delightful football again.

Group C – Ghana, Senegal, Algeria, South Africa.

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What a group! This, indeed, is the Dream Group, not the Group of Death. The group includes Ghana and Algeria two of Africa’s current strongest teams. Algeria, put up Africa’s best showing at the 2014 World Cup. They appear to still be in great shape. On paper they may actually be favoured to win the championship, but against Ghana and South Africa they have equally formidable opposition.

Without question this is the group that will attract the greatest attention. I do not see Senegal emerging from this group. Ghana have the experience and maturity. Algeria have a good young team in great form. South Africa are riding on fresh enthusiasm and adrenalin. Separating them will be a huge challenge.

Group D – Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali and Cameroon

Three West African teams come against the only team from Central Africa in the group.

In qualification, Cameroon look very exciting with several new and younger players replacing Samuel Etoʼo and some other aged players. They will emerge from here.

The other three West African teams will slug it out. I think that even without the recently retired Ivorian great Didier Drogba, they still have the leadership of Africaʼs best player Yaya Touré. Coached by recent AFCON winner Hervé Renard, Côte d’Ivoire will justify their placement as the highest ranked African team – they will stop Mali and Guinea from joining Cameroon.

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Snowy

Finally, on to my crystal ball. As I gaze into it, I see that it is misty and murky – there appears to be snow on it! Nevertheless, summoning the spirit of Tiresias, I see the following happening. I will be placing a bet as usual. Blind Tiresias has inner sight – the best seer ever. He saw that coming.

I am putting my money not on Algeria that looks to have the best team, or Côte d’Ivoire that appears to have the most mature team and superstar players, or even Ghana that may have the most complete team, but on Cameroon. New, immature, no Samuel Etoʼo, and in a relatively difficult group, Cubs or not and in the absence of Nigeria, Iʼm still backing the Indomitable Lions.

Let AFCON 2015 begin!

Segun at Wembley

The Falcons set to fulfil Pelé’s prophecy!

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

Were you Watching?

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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!