Friday, June 11, 2010

Good Luck, Super Eagles

FOOTBALL is both an art and a science. The artistic elements are the dribble runs currently epitomised by World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, the deft step-overs of Cristiano Ronaldo; the ball juggling of Ronaldinho; the control of Arjen Robben; the passing of Xavi Hernandez; the movement of Andres Iniesta; the free kicks of David Beckham; and the goal-scoring of Diego Milito.

These artistic elements and their purveyors in contemporary football that I have listed are by no means exhaustive. Indeed, the arts and artists of the beautiful game will also include Austin Jay-Jay Okocha’s over-head flips; Diego Maradona’s slalom runs and Marco Van Basten’s bicycle kicks. But if we get stuck in with the artists, this article will derail from its objective.

Over then to the scientific elements of the beautiful game. Remember that I said at the start that football is both an art and a science.

The scientific elements are currently best exemplified by the genius of Jose Mourinho; the counter attacking of Inter Milan, the grafting Wesley Sneijder; the solidity of John Terry; the set-pieces of Greece; the long throws of Fulham; the ghosting runs of Tim Cahill; the organization of South Korea and the game-reading of Lars Lagerback! Again, this list is not all there is to the scientific elements of football, but it does provides a platform for us to proceed with our discourse.

Whereas football as an art form is spontaneous and unpredictable, the game as a science is planned and predictable. It is a fusion of both elements that make the game so intriguing. You know what to expect, yet you don’t!

The foregoing introduction is to prepare the minds of Nigerians for what to expect (or NOT expect) as the Super Eagles touch down in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup finals. It has taken FOUR YEARS to get here, since we failed to qualify for the 2006 finals in Germany. The journey has been long, the road has been rough and the race has been tough. But finally, the Eagles have landed in the Rainbow Nation.

We are all quite familiar with the story. Berti Vogts. Shaibu Amodu. NFF sink and swim. “Heart attack football.” Presidential Task Force. Jumbo bonus. Tunisia. Mozambique Fear of elimination. Kenya. Obafemi Martins. Last minute qualification. The Last Supper, Angola 2010. Fumbling and wobbling. Third Place. The Sack. Guus Hiddink? Giovanni Trappatoni? Lars Lagerback! 44-man list. Video Games. 30-man list. Saudi Arabia. Colombia. The final 23. South Africa here we come. The Eagles have landed!

What a big and embarrassing shame it would have been had Nigeria failed to qualify for this first World Cup on African soil. Can you imagine it? For the “Giant of Africa” not to have been part of the biggest show ever in Africa? Tufiakwa!

lEXPECTEDLY, all the talk in town presently is about the Super Eagles final 23-man list for the World Cup. There are disagreements here and there about some of the lads that Lars Lagerback has included in his final squad. But anyone who read my prediction on the list last week would not have been caught by surprise. And that was even BEFORE I visited the team at their training camp in Essex on the outskirts of London last week.

When I finally visited the camp and spoke to Lagerback, I knew that my prediction would nearly come to pass in full. It is not rocket science. Football is simple science.

All the five players (Bassey Akpan, Terna Suswan, Victor Anichebe, Peter Utaka and Brown Ideye who scored lowest in my ratings (80 per cent each) got the axe. All the lads who scored 90 per cent and above were picked except Onyekachi Apam (injury) and Ike Uche (poor form).

Meanwhile, I had also predicted that one BIG NAME STRIKER would get the chop on account of injury/poor form and it happened to be Ike Uche. Furthermore, all six midfielders made the team as predicted. But there was no room for home-based goalkeeper Bassey Akpan.

My head scored Akpan 80 percent and slated him for elimination but I still gambled on his selection because I thought Lagerback may want to please Nigerians by including at least one home-based player in the squad. It turned out that my head was right and my heart was wrong.

In my opinion, Akpan’s dropping is the clearest evidence that Lagerback did not select his squad on sentiments. A third goalkeeper is usually the safest spot in the squad to put a player you are not likely to use because World Cup historical statistics show that the third keepers are hardly ever used. If Lagerback didn’t bow to sentiments on Akpan, he certainly didn’t on anybody else.

A number of commentators have expressed surprise, even disappointment at the inclusion of Nwankwo Kanu and Yakubu Aiyegbeni but it’s not the fault of these senior players that Ideye arrived late in camp; that Anichebe got injured; or that Peter Utaka did not measure up in training. We mustn’t drop senior players just because we are tired of seeing their faces. It is the junior players that must work harder to earn their places.

All that is to say that I wasn’t surprised by Lagerback’s final choices. It really wasn’t difficult to pick the likely 23 based on the 3-7-7-6 ratio of goalkeepers – defenders – midfielders – forwards which I used last week.
And it is that scientific approach that I am adopting again as I take a peep into what awaits Nigeria in South Africa.

Here we go…

Between Hope And Expectation
lEIGHT years ago as Nigeria prepared for the 2002 World Cup finals in Korea/Japan, I wrote an article with the above heading in which I analysed what should be the reasonable hopes and expectation of Nigerian fans when the Super Eagles faced the world in the Far East.

In our World Cup group that year were Argentina, England and Sweden. I used 10 indices to analyse Nigeria’s chances and concluded that the Super Eagles would NOT advance beyond the first round. They did not. That is the science of football: predictable.

However, I had also predicted, using the same indices, that Argentina would win our group that year. They also did not. That is the art of football: unpredictable.

The indices of analysis that I adopted that year were as follows:
1. World Cup predigree
2. Recent World Cup experience
3. Outcome of previous confrontations between the group opponents
4. Quality of players
5. Quality of team
6. Manner of World Cup qualification
7. World rating by neutral observers.
8. World ranking by FIFA
9. Element of surprise
10. Element of luck

I scored the teams between four and one marks in each category. Overall, Argentina had 31 marks, England 23, Sweden 19 and Nigeria 18. While Nigeria “lived up” to my expectation by finishing last in the group, Argentina were a big shock crashing out in the first round as well.

Lars Lagerback who was coach of Sweden in 2002 has since revealed, while being interviewed for the Nigeria job last March, how he analysed the strenghts of the opposition in Korea/Japan and successfully plotted a qualification ticket for his team that was lacking in individual talents. Nigeria’s greatest hope going to South Africa 2010 lies in the taciturn Swede repeating his scientific magic of 2002.

I have used nearly the same indices that I used in 2002 to analyse Nigeria’s chances ahead of South Africa 2010. I have only replaced “previous confrontation” with “quality of coaching” (number 3) and I have also replaced “element of surprise” with “quality of preparation” (number 9). I have again scored each team out of four marks in each category. Here is the overall score for each team…

Argentina Nigeria Greece S/Korea
1. World Cup pedigree 4 2 1 3
2. Recent W/C Experience 4 2 1 3
3. Quality of Coaching 1 4 4 2
4. Quality of players 4 3 3 3
5. Team quality 2 2 3 4
6. Qualification 2 2 1 4
7. World rating 4 2 3 1
8. World ranking 4 2 3 1
9. Preparation 3 1 3 4
10. Element of luck 1 1 1 1
TOTAL 29 21 20 21

lONCE again, my analysis table suggests that Argentina (29 marks) will win our group in South Africa and this, again, is not rocket science because all the statistics are there to back this ascertain. As Lagerback admitted during an interview at the Eagles hotel last week, Argentina are the strongest team in our group “on paper” (he emphasised) and it is for them to lose first place.

Nigeria (21 marks), Greece (20) and South Korea (21) are virtually tied for the runner-up spot in the group and it will be interesting to see who nicks the second qualifying ticket in the final analysis.

Frankly speaking, I was surprised to see Nigeria tying with South Korea after adding up the marks since the total score was NOT premedidated. I actually thought the Eagles would score the lowest as in 2002 but the Lagerback factor (4 marks) helped in pushing our total to 21. Maybe our team is not as hopeless as first thought, afterall.

Depending on our results against Argentina and Greece in our first two games, our final game against South Korea on
June 22 may be a winner-takes-all to determine who will join Argentina in the second round. But that is not writing off the Greeks because the gap between them and us on the analysis table is virtually non-existent. We have a fight on our hands if we are going to scale through to Round Two.

The objective of this whole exercise is to provide soccer fans with an INFORMED OPINION on what to expect from the Super Eagles in the first round of the World Cup. It is NOT a prediction of what will happen, but an analysis of what is likely to happen. It is not based on sentiments, but on the facts available about each team.

Good Luck Eagles

lAT THIS MOMENT, with the World Cup finals kicking off in less than two weeks and Nigeria’s opening game against Argentina due in roughly 10 days’ time, what any genuine fan of the Super Eagles should be wishing the team is “Best of Luck”.

Some of us might have been unimpressed with the overall management of the team by the Nigeria Football Federation; we might have been unhappy with the removal of erstwhile coach Shaibu Amodu; and we might have been disappointed by Lars Lagerback and his final squad selection. But we now have to put all that aside and back OUR NATIONAL FLAG all the way.

On my visit to the Eagles camp in Essex last week, I saw a group of players who are determined to make their country proud. The team has it’s limitations, we know, but we can’t blame these players for not trying.

I had a conversation with deputy captain Joseph Yobo and he was very confident that they would do their very best.
“Sometimes, you guys (journalists) think you want this World Cup more than us. But we are the footballers and I can tell you that we want it more than you. We know what it will do to our careers if we do well. We are self-motivated,” he said.

Lagerback confirmed that the commitment of the players couldn’t be better. “I am very happy with their attitude,” he said during an interview conducted by Qasim Elegbede and Kayode Thomas while I looked on. Later, I chipped in to ask about what he planned to do with the team’s worrying lack of ability to take advantage of set-pieces. The Swede assured me that he had a plan but he wasn’t going to reveal it so that he doesn’t alert his opponents. Finally, I asked him about what he expected to see in last Sunday’s friendly against Colombia before setting out for South Africa. He said he was going to concentrate on the forward play.

Unfortunately, I had to return to Nigeria earlier than planned last weekend and I couldn’t go to Milton Keynes for the Nigeria – Colombia again. However, I saw a bit of the second half on AIT and, happily, there was a slight improvement in the general play compared to the tepid performance against Saudi Arabia. Haruna Lukman’s equalizer in a 1-1 draw ensured that the Super Eagles remained unbeaten in 2010.

Clearly, Lagerback and the Eagles are playing catch-up with their preparations and they have a mountain to climb at the World Cup. It will be a difficult task but then it is in times of difficulty that a team needs it’s 12th player the most.

YOU, the fans are the 12th player of the Super Eagles. Now that our boys are out there to fly our flag, let us be united behind them.

The Nigerian Spirit
lEX-INTERNATIONAL Segun Odegbami was at his fanatically optimistic best last weekend in Complete Sports. Even when he couldn’t explain or defend himself with any scientific or artistic facts, he would still tell you that Nigeria will become the first African team to win the World Cup. The choice is yours to believe or not to believe.

Surely, no one can accuse Odegbami of being ignorant about football. So, how could he say Nigeria will win the World Cup when all the “facts” suggest the contrary. The answer is simple: The Nigerian Spirit.

In truth, the “Nigerian Spirit” is probably the Super Eagles biggest weapon in South Africa. It is the “never-say-die” spirit which resides, not only in our footballers, but in YOU and ME as well.

The Nigerian Spirit is indefatigable. It is stubborn and resilient. It is what keeps us going as a nation even in the face of all our vicissitudes like rampant corruption, power failure, broken roads, unemployment, etcetra. It is the Nigerian Spirit that got us voted as the “Happiest People in the World” despite our desperate living conditions. It is the spirit that has kept the Nigerian House standing many years after Karl Maiers wrote his book “This House Has Fallen.” (The Nigerian house, that is).

Unfortunately, that spirit doesn’t come to the fore all the time, and that is why we have paid severally for our lack of planning and foresight as a nation. But when it does come to the fore, the Nigerian can be the best in the world in any field of endeavour no matter his circumstances.

If the Super Eagles strike the Nigerian Spirit in South Africa, our opponents are in trouble. If they don’t, we are in trouble!

Lulu Grabs 2nd Term!
lNFF president Alhaji Sani Lulu Abdullahi may have wrapped up his second term in office for another four years even before the 2010 World Cup kicks of in South Africa.

Most soccer fans and stakeholders are expecting the NFF elections to hold in August. But grapevine has it that the guidelines for the vote stipulate that nominations for the post of president will close even before the Eagles conclude their first round matches in South Africa. The calculation is that even if the Eagles do not perform well at the Mundial, it would have no effect whatsoever on the likely outcome of the elections.

Presently, Lulu is the only candidate known to have publicly declared interest in the NFF presidency and he has already been endorsed by the required number of delegates from the zones. Any new candidate coming into the race will find it hard to secure the required endorsements before deadline expires as all the State FA chairmen will be the guests of the NFF in South Africa at that time. Lulu could then end up running for the office unopposed in August.

While all attention is focused on the World Cup, the NFF have been tidying up the election guidelines to the apparent advantage of the incumbents. As things stand presently, Lulu’s chances of winning a second term are 99 percent. Lucky guy.

1 comment:

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