Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013: Here We Go...

THE YEAR 2013 is only a few days old, but it’s already better than 2012. This time last year – first week of January 2012 – the Federal Government had announced the total removal of subsidy from the pump price of fuel, and sent the whole country spinning on its head.

For those of us in the sports industry, 2012 was already guaranteed to start on a bleak note, with Nigeria’s non-participation at the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea. The year was expected to get even worse with Nigeria’s absence at the football events of the London 2012 Olympics later in the year.

Government’s sudden decision to remove the fuel subsidy therefore worsened an already bad situation as the general strikes and nationwide protests that followed crippled the country and knocked many businesses out cold. It was only by providence that others survived the post-fuel subsidy protests, especially many in the sports sector.

By contrast, year 2013 is starting on a strongly positive note. In spite of some contrived media speculations about the intentions of government, fuel subsidy remains intact and so the year is not starting on a riotious note like 2012. The Super Eagles have equally booked their ticket to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, so the Nigerian sports sector is in bouyant and expectant mood. Whether the Eagles go on to win the AFCON trophy or not, 2013 is already a better year than 2012. What will make 2013 excellent for me football-wise is if the Eagles top a “good” performance in South Africa with a qualification ticket for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.

While SOCCERTALK was on break in recent weeks, I had the privilege to sit back and read other commentators analyse Nigeria’s chances at the Nations Cup. I was amused by Chief Segun Odegbami’s frank prediction that the Super Eagles will NOT win the Nations Cup which apparently fetched him some angry mails from fanatical Nigerian fans, forcing him to “pray” for a miraculous Eagles victory! Amen? Amen!!!

But the view that I have found most instructive was the one expressed by former Eagles coach Jo Bonfrere. Talking to Complete Sports in an interview, Bonfrere suggested that Nigeria’s priority in 2013 should be how the Super Eagles will qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. I can’t agree more.

Nigeria have been lucky to draw a relatively weak first round qualifying group which also involves Kenya, Nambia and Malawi and we currently top that group after two rounds of matches. If we consider that 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana and 2012 AFCON winners Zambia have been drawn together, we will indeed realize how lucky the Eagles –– without a clearly defined first team yet –– have been. But there will be little to choose when all the 10 group winners are drawn against each other to determine the five teams that will represent Africa at Brazil 2014. It will be a tough battle indeed. Whether our “emerging” Eagles get a World Cup ticket or not may yet determine whether 2013 will be a happy year for Nigerian football.

Let’s hope that we start 2013 with an “impressive” performance at the Nations Cup, and end it will a World Cup ticket in the pocket. Good luck, Nigeria.

My AFCON Favourites

LAST WEEK, I tipped Zambia, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana as three countries likely to win the 2013 AFCON ahead of Nigeria. Here’s why...

Zambia: The Chipolopolo have always been a handful for Nigeria for as long as I can remember. At the 1982 finals in Libya, Zambia smacked Nigeria 3-0 in a group game to send us out of the tournament (Nigeria had earlier beaten Ethiopia 3-0 in our opening game that year. Incidentally, all three are grouped together again in 2013).

In 1985, it was Zambia that stopped Nigeria from qualifying for the 1986 Nations Cup, drawing 0-0 in Lagos and winning 1-0 in Lusaka. In 1994 when we finally won the Nations Cup for the second time with our Golden Generation Super Eagles, Zambia led by Kalusha Bwalya pushed us all in the way in the final before succumbing 2-1 to Emmanuel Amuneke’s two goals.

The last time the two countries met at the AFCON in 2010 in Angola, the Zambians completely dominated the Eagles with their pacy play and we were only lucky to escape with a draw before we won on penalties.

This year, Zambia are playing as defending Champions with their confidence high. Their winning team from 2012 is very much intact while Nigeria has been “rebuilding.” Zambia’s major strengths are their team  cohesion and movement at great pace, two factors Nigeria lack and find difficult to cope with. The odds therefore favour Zambia to dominate midfield play and punish a hesitant Eagles defence.

Cote d’Ivoire: By my reckoning, the Elephants are currently the strongest team in Africa and should have been champions at AFCON 2012 but for fate that intervened on the side of Zambia. I have a very strong feeling that the Ivoriens will finally fulfil their destiny in South Africa. Didier Drogba and Co. showed the stuff they are made of when they blew a highly-rated Senegalese side to pieces during the qualifiers. Commentators have said age is catching up on this Ivorien team but they are still my first pick to be champions at last. Nigeria will have to stop them to be champions themselves. It won’t be easy.

Ghana: The Black Stars hold a psychological edge over Nigeria having beaten the Super Eagles twice the last two times they met at the Nations Cup: 2-1 in the quarter- final in 2008; 1-0 in the semi-final in 2010. Yet, of all our three major rivals in 2013, I see Ghana as the team Nigeria has the greatest chance to upset because of our “local rivalry.” So, bring them on, although it would be very tough.

Others: The common cliche in contemporary world football is that there are no minnows in the game anymore. This is very true, but when the chips are down, the boys will still be separated from the men.

North Africans Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have always been technically superior to Nigeria. But the Eagles can muscle their way through them on a good day, something that is impossible against equally strong West Africans Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Host country South Africa will be fired up by home support, but Nigeria are their boogey team and we can cope with their fragile exuberance. I can’t see any other country capable of winning the AFCON outside the eight I have mentioned so far in this article. So, if Nigeria truly wants to aspire to be champions, the remaining eight countries (Mali, Ethiopia, Cape Verde, Angola, Niger, Togo, Congo DR and Burkina Faso) must be despatched as “minnows” when our paths cross. It’s as simple as that.

Barca – Class Is Permanent

AT THE TIME of writing this, the Super Eagles were preparing to face Catalonia in their first warm-up match for the Nations Cup finals. According to Wikipedia, Catalonia (or Catalunya) is an autonomous community of Spain comprising of four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. It’s a community of 7.5million people and its capital city is Barcelona. That is why the famous FC Barcelona are referred to as the “Catalans.”

FC Barcelona players form the majority of the Catalonian team because most Barca players themselves are from the Catalan region, the leading lights today being Carles Puyol, Gerald Pique, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets. The Eagles might as well have been facing FC Barcelona without Lionel Messi. It should be interesting to see how Stephen Keshi’s boys fare against the best “team” in the world.

FC Barcelona’s domination of the Spanish Primera Liga so far this season has underlined one fact: that is, Class is permanent. Last season, Barca were overthrown as La Liga champions by a Real Madrid team that played out of its skin. The fact that Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and company have been unable to sustain that tempo this season means they obviously over-exerted themselves both physically and mentally to overthrow Barcelona.
And having achieved the “impossible” last season, they have been left completely deflated by the sheer extra-ordinary effort.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have kept on playing exactly the same way as last season, even with a change at the helm. They have been out-playing and out-scoring their opponents virtually effortlessly. They have not been over-exerting themselves physically or mentally. They have been performing naturally and automatically like the well-oiled machine that they are.

Rather than sneer at Real Madrid or, for that matter Atletico Madrid and the other teams in La Liga, we should actually commiserate with them because they are seemingly in an unequal battle. Turn by turn every week, these other clubs are up against football immortals who can be extinguished only when the fire inside them burns out naturally. But with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol recently signing new, extended contracts with Barca, the frustration is not about to end for Mourinho and the rest of La Liga.

Whatever is the outcome of the Super Eagles adventure against Catalonia cannot be a thing of shame. For this generation of Barcelona players who dominate Catalonia, class is permanent.

Fresh Impetus For The League

THE RECENT INAUGURATION of an interim management committee for the Nigeria Premier League (NPL) headed by Honourable Nduka Irabor has raised fresh hopes amongst stakeholders that the league is about to experience a rebirth.

What we have always needed are people with the right ideas to galvanize the domestic league. Apart from Irabor, two other members of the interim committee that I am convinced also fit that description are the lawyer, Shehu Dikko, and Lagos FA chairman Seyi Akinwunmi. I mean no disrespect to other committee members but these are the three that I know either personally or by reputation. I am confident that they will do a very good job.

That is not under-estimating the task at hand, however. Clearly the most difficult assignment for the committee will be how to resolve the tussle for the league title sponsorship rights between telecom giants MTN and GLOBACOM. The logjam already has serious political and legal dimensions, so it won’t be easy to resolve. But I wish the committee luck, for our collective sake.

As for enforcing league rules on club management, players’ welfare, appointment and management of referees, disciplinary matters and other historically contentions issues, the committee should have little problem as long as it applies the rules fairly. The biggest problem that the sacked board led by Victor Rumson-Baribote had was its questionable credibility. If the interim management members can insulate themselves from being simultaneous contractors to NPL, their credibility will be protected. Here, I will suggest that any member seeking to execute projects for the NPL for a fee, no matter how good, should be asked to resign his appointment.

Meanwhile, I will also suggest that we run an abridged 2012/2013 football season to terminate in May or June 2013, while preparing for a full 2013/2014 season to start unfailingly in September 2013. The abridged 2012/13 season should feature only half of the fixtures for a full season (19 weeks instead of 38) in which case each team may not play twice against every other team. The computer will determine the abridged fixture and whichever team you get to play or avoid during the 19 weeks, that’s your luck.

We can therefore conclude the 2012/13 season on schedule without resorting to exhausting mid-week matches for teams that travel to far-flung match venues mainly by road.

1 comment:

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