Football to the Rescue

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by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (April 4th 2015)

President Turns Defeat to Victory

If you are not an African this may not interest you, but it should. Nigeria has just had its presidential elections. Nothing and no one in the African continent is immune from its import and effect. So permit this excursion into the political sphere for once.

Thanks to football Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) performed the greatest miracle of his life last Monday night. He must have recited a prayer verse I picked up from reading Neale Donald Walsch many years ago: ‘May the moment of our greatest challenge become the moment of our greatest triumph’.

From the brink of the worst moment of his life, one simple single act catapulted GEJ, the outgoing President of Nigeria, from the first incumbent President to lose power in Nigeriaʼs history to the pinnacle of glory and greatness. His action in conceding defeat so graciously last Monday night was like pouring water upon a raging inferno.

Legacy Secured

The moment President Jonathan called up General Muhammadu Buhari, his political opponent in Nigeria’s presidential election, and congratulated him for winning it and thereby wresting power from him, the unprecedented tension that had gripped the entire continent for several months up until that moment, was completely doused. Jonathan had become a respected statesman on the international stage.

All the talk about a possible break up of the country with catastrophic effect to the continent through the massive violence expected to take place in several parts of the country no matter the outcome of the election, evaporated into thin air. The fight went out of all Nigerians.

Everyone had been apprehensive about the election and its aftermath where the only visible option was a promised fight-to-the-finish by the side that loses. So acrimonious and bitter were the campaigns that the entire country was under the siege of fear.

Footballʼs Example

In recent write ups I had been advocating that both sides drew lessons from football where life is an endless series of contests producing both a winner and a loser almost every time, and both sides accept the verdicts graciously in order for another match to be played another day. That is the definition of sportsmanship.

I had appealed to the political contestants to allow the same kind of spirit that had given football the power to produce winners and losers without recourse to violence, irrespective of the differences that may exist between them, to permeate the elections. The contestants may not have even read my articles, but looking back at what has now panned out, it is as if President Jonathan feasted on my message.

In a most shocking but pleasant development, however, even before the last votes were collated and announced, GEJ went ahead to demonstrate uncommon sportsmanship. He phoned his main challenger and congratulated him on his victory. This is new political territory in Africa. It is uncommon practice – almost heard of.

A Change had to Come

True, Nigerians were fed up with a system that had impoverished them for 16 years and were yearning for a change and a new leadership. How to achieve this change became the most intractable challenge in our political history. The apparent credibility of the election, despite the avalanche of flawed processes and malfunctioning equipment, was the major factor that helped to unlock the chains of its integrity.

The umpire of the election also displayed courage, transparency, incorrigibility and neutrality, despite his being the appointee of the president and the leading contestant. Sport won at the end of the day. The ‘handshake’ conceding defeat by the president doused all the national and international tension.

Statesmanlike Exit

With that single act President Goodluck Jonathan rewrote the closing chapter of his place in Nigeria’s political history. From the brink of going down as the worst president in the history of Nigeria, his act of Sportsmanship has raised him to the pinnacle of greatness as a true patriot and statesman.

When the subject on how to be a winner is to be taught in political classes, Jonathan’s concession phone call and speech would find adequate space for mention. Those of us in sport have always known that, ultimately, you do not have to come first to be a winner.

The founder of the Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, put it slightly differently in the Olympic charter at the inception of the modern Olympic Games that there is greater glory in participation than in winning. Ben Johnson as well as many other athletes in his academy of cheats can testify to that, having learned the consequences the hard way.

Meanwhile, President Goodluck Jonathan wrote a new chapter in African history – one that Laurent Gbagbo could and should have written. Gbagbo has destroyed the legacy he should have had, but Jonathan has won plaudits and cemented his own legacy. He reminded the world that in politics, as in sports, winning is not really about coming first.

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Glorious Defeat, but USA Finally Embraces Football

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 1st 2014)

Belgium Defeat America the Brave

Everton goal-keeper Tim Howard set a World Cup record of 16 saves in a heroic losing effort against Belgium tonight. The excitement flowed as the USA were beaten 2-1, but the nation finally got excited about football and made headlines for all the right reasons after the notorious Chuck Blazer affair. Even President Barack Obama was watching.

Neither Kevin de Bruyne, nor Chelseaʼs seemingly permanently on loan Romelu Lukaku had set the World Cup alight to date – Lukaku lost his place to Liverpool target Divock Origi – but they found a way past the record-breaking Howard in extra time. They had the assists on each othersʼ goals too.

Lukaku replaced Origi at the end of normal time. His run down the right flank and pull back for de Bruyne broke to his team-mate. De Bruyne shot across Howard to finally beat the American keeper.

In the last minute of extra time in the first period of it de Bryune found space on the left before threading it through to Lukaku who blasted it past Howard at the near post.

But the Americans refused to give up despite Lukakuʼs strike. Substitute Julian Green – one of the German-Americans recruited by Klinsmann – was brought on for the second period. He was put through by Michael Bradleyʼs chip and volleyed powerfully past Thibaut Courtois two minutes after coming on.

The young Belgian keeper who has spent the last three years on loan at Atlético de Madrid has yet to lose for his country.

The Formidable Last Barrier

Howard began his assault on the record books with less than a minute played. De Bruyne surged forward before finding Origi. The 19-year-old Lille strikerʼs shot was saved by Howard with his legs at the expense of a corner. It proved to be the first of many, some far easier than others. Both de Bruyne and Eden Hazard had efforts more akin to practice than the greatest stage.

The second half opened as the first had with a Howard save. Dries Mertens headed de Bruyneʼs cross at goal and Howard tipped over. Meanwhile, Courtois was not really tested. Their first shot on target came after 20 minutes. Clint Dempseyʼs run and interchange with Bradley resulted. Unfortunately the ball stuck under Dempseyʼs foot as he shot, so it was saved by Courtois.

With less than 20 minutes of normal time remaining a mazy run by substitute Kevin Mirallas, but was poked away as he was poised to shoot. It broke to Origi whose shot was saved by Howard. With 15 minutes remaining Hazard tracking back broke up an American attack and unleashed a quick counter-attack. Origi passed to Mirallas on the left of the area. Mirallasʼ shot across Howard was saved the immense keeper with his feet.

Three minutes later Howard was at it again denying Hazard after a superb run and pull back by Mirallas that was touched back to the Chelsea midfielder. Hazardʼs shot was powerfully parried by Howard. With six minutes left Origi shot powerfully from just outside the area, but Howard easily tipped it over. An end to end counter-attack started and finished by Vincent Kompany resulted in yet another save by Howard.

Despite being finally beaten after three minutes of extra time Howard pulled more saves out of the hat denying Lukaku after 6 minutes to concede yet another corner that Belgium failed to profit from. With ten minutes gone Hazard released Lukaku on the left of the area, but yet again Howard blocked at his near post. Belgium tried the right with a nice flick by Hazard releasing Mirallas, but his shot could not beat Howard..

Lukaku was in the mood for more. He latched on to a long clearance and beat both Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler to get his shot off from the left of the area only for Howard to deny him again with his left foot. Howard was simply imperious tonight.

Attack and Counter-attack

Both teams attacked and counter-attacked. While Belgiumʼs had greater quality, the USAʼs defence and Howard held firm. De Bruyne was profligate, although he created chances too. After 25 minutes an excellent move on Belgiumʼs left culminated in Jan Vertonghen squaring it for Marouane Fellaini to tap in, but DaMarcus Beasley had other ideas and cleared with Origi wondering why Vertonghen did not pull it back for him instead.

With just under an hour played Hazard released Origi on the left of the area. Origi got to the goal-line and pulled it back for Dries Mertens who tried something fancy that almost came off – a subtle back-heeled flick went just wide. Further attacks created chances for Origi, Hazard and even Kompany, but perhaps the best of normal time fell to the Americans. After pressing in the final third Geoff Cameron lofted it into area. Jermaine Jones nodded it to right where substitute Chris Wondolowski was clearly onside, but wrongly flagged. He was played onside by Alderweireld, but missed badly from 7 yards out, shooting well over Courtois and the bar – he had to score, but didnʼt. It could have been so different.

They had a chance to tie when the excellent DeAndré Yedlin crossed from the right for Wondolowski to nod back to the right for Jones who struck it with the outside of his right foot. It went just wide. Still the Americans refused to give in. After 23 minutes Michael Bradleyʼs inventive free-kick was touched on by Wondolowski to Dempsey, but Courtois was huge and blocked Dempseyʼs close range effort. The USA certainly added to this World Cup and will be missed. Belgium go on to play Argentina in the quarter-finals, but football has arrived in the USA at last.

 

More Despicable People and the World Cup (Part Four) – Archive

Editor’s Note:

With the World Cup just days away, we publish these articles on the abuse of football’s most prestigious tournament again. They are particularly timely as Brasil has been polarised by hosting the tournament. Demonstrators will once again take to the streets in major cities throughout the country to demand social changes – ones that should have been delivered after last year’s Confederations Cup.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 18th 2008)

Atrocious

Isabel Martínez de Perón succeeded her husband Juan as President of Argentina on his death in 1974. She was far from a great leader and paid a high price for a catastrophic error of judgement – promoting the ambitious future despot General Jorge Videla Redondo. Perón presided over the successful bid that finally brought the World Cup to Argentina after many attempts and dashed hopes.

But Perón would not get to bask in popularity of the tournament, or the success of the team. Videlaʼs coup ousted her from power and ushered in a vicious military dictatorship, which murdered, disappeared and tortured its own citizens, leaving thousands of victims and a legacy of brutality that the country is only now beginning to come to terms with.

Videlaʼs dictatorship also kidnapped the children of its victims to be raised mainly by military people or other supporters. The consequences of the litany of crimes committed by Videla and his cronies are only now subject to limited redress, but some are impossible to resolve as young people have grown up with false identities denied their true origins. In some cases the clock cannot be turned back.

Cynical Manipulation

Videla had learned from history. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini knew the power of football and exploited it in 1934. Videla followed suit, overseeing the most contentious World Cup since 1934. Videla left nothing to chance. He spent extravagantly on the World Cup – resources the country could not afford. And in return he expected nothing less than the trophy. He got what he paid for by hook and by crook.

Argentinaʼs first World Cup triumph had the effect Videla wanted. It distracted the attention of the Argentinian nation from their economic woes and the terrors of the Dirty War briefly. The Argentinian people celebrated like there was no tomorrow, but sadly, thanks to Videla’s atrocious régime there were only a few tomorrows for too many people.

Despite the brutality of his dictatorship, Videla was allowed to use the tournament to try to present a positive image of himself to the world. To their eternal shame FIFA facilitated that abuse of their tournament and world leaders shamefully continued to allow a vicious tyrant to commit atrocities with impunity.

Football had a chance to stand up for ordinary people – the lifeblood of the sport. Sadly, FIFA and the sport failed to do so and the Dirty War continued – a war a bestial junta waged on its own people. Some things are far more important than the World Cup, even if it was Argentina’s turn to host it.