Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Memories of Marseille

WHENEVER the talk is about the FIFA World Cup draw, what readily comes to my mind is my experience at the France ’98 World Cup draw in Marseille, south of France on December 4, 1997. It was the coldest night I have ever experienced in my life.

FIFA had decided to conduct the draw ceremony in a football stadium for the first time. France, the host country, granted Marseille the honour of being the historic site. The Stade Velodrome, home ground of Olympique Marseille Football Club, was packed full with 38,000 spectators, with about a billion television viewers watching from around the globe. The weather that night must have been at sub-zero degrees during one of the most brutal winters in Europe.

The Super Eagles of Nigeria were one of the 32 teams that had qualified for the 1998 World Cup finals. It was the first time that number (32) would play at the finals as the previous finals had welcomed between 13 teams (1930 in Uruguay) and 24 teams (most recently in 1994 in USA).
France ’98 was only Nigeria’s second appearance at the World Cup following an impressive debut at USA ’94 and a remarkable gold medal win at the Atlanta ’96 Olympic Games. The whole world was therefore on the look-out for the Nigerian team at the draw in Marseille. Reporting it for Complete Sports was a big deal.

I flew into Paris on Wednesday, December 3, 1997 and made the south-bound trip to Marseille on the day of the draw. There were a number of other Nigerian sports journalists covering the assignment but the few that I recall vividly are Kunle Solaja (then of The Guardian newspapers), Danusa Ocholi (The Champion) and Onochie Anibeze (Vanguard). Everyone was excited as we went through accreditation. But our excitement soon turned into despair when it was show-time.

FIFA had arranged an exhibition football match to precede the draw. A “Best of Europe” selection led by Zinedine Zidane faced a “Best of the World” selection led by the world’s best player at the time, the Brazilian Ronaldo of Inter Millan. Nigeria’s Nwankwo Kanu (also at Inter at the time) was listed amongst the “world” team but he didn’t eventually feature due to an injury. It came to pass that Ronaldo scored twice and created the three other goals as the world team defeated Europe by 5-2.

By the time the final whistle went, yours truly and my colleagues from Nigeria were already freezing in the press tribune. A famous Yoruba proverb says “there’s no standing and no sitting for a man that swallows a mortar.” In the Stade Velodrome that night, there was no standing and no sitting for a poor journalist caught in the cold. When I stood, my legs froze; and when I sat, my buttocks froze. Whatever I did, my ears and hands were frozen anyway. There was no place to hide.

I had obviously not paid enough attention to the weather forecast and I had travelled without adequate warm clothing. By the time the World Cup draw that brought me to Marseille got underway, I was practically crying as water dripped endlessly from my eyes and nose. Yet I was determined to witness the draw live. I told myself that I hadn’t come all the way from Nigeria to watch the event on television!

Joseph Blatter (FIFA secretary general then; now president) conducted the draw after Senegalese singer Youssou N’dour sang a World Cup anthem. Blatter introduced German legend Franz Beckenbauer to pick the balls from the goldfish bowls and it was he (The Kaizer) who plucked Nigeria into Group ‘C’ with Spain, Bulgaria and Paraguay.

Obviously, I couldn’t wait to dash into the media centre to escape the bitter cold the moment the final pick of the draw (Colombia) was made. To my dismay, I found an army of African (not only Nigerian) journalists that had fled the stadium mainbowl huddled up together in front of television monitors watching Blatter making his closing remarks.

When I asked one of my Nigerian colleagues (name withheld) why he withdrew to watch the draw on television instead of covering it LIVE, he said: “My brother, this cold fit kill person. Abeg, I’m not here to do a live report and then be pronounced dead!”

European Teams for Eagles

l HOPE Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles will get two European teams in our group at the 2014 World Cup draw holding in the Brazilian city of Bahia on Friday, December 6, 2013. History shows that Nigeria has fared better against European group opposition as all four of our previous World Cup wins have been against European teams namely Bulgaria (3-0 in 1994 and 1-0 in 1998), Greece (2-0 in 1994) and Spain (3-2 in 1998).

Although we also lost group matches to Sweden (2-1 in 2002) and Greece (2-1 in 2010), the fact that we have never beaten a South American team in the first round makes them very unattractive to me. We lost thrice to Argentina (2-1 in 1994, 1-0 in 2002 and 1-0 in 2010) and Paraguay (3-1 in 1998). Particularly now that the World Cup is taking place on their continent, the South American teams will enjoy tremendous support and will be highly motivated. So, I say “No” to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the first round. But I don’t mind if we get Germany or Spain or Italy or England or Portugal.

Yes, I recall that two European teams (Italy in 1994 and Denmark in 1998) accounted for our World Cup elimination twice before, but those were in second round matches. In first round games, we do have a good record against the Europeans and I will say bring them on plus another team from Asia or North/Centra America. 

Altogether, Nigeria has played 14 games in four World Cup final appearances. We have won four, drawn two and lost eight games. We scored 17 goals and conceded 21. Let’s hope we can improve on that record at Brazil 2014.

My final word to all Nigerians ahead of the World Cup draw is that whichever teams we are drawn against, our expectations in Brazil must be realistic and modest. For a team that did not win a single match in its last two outings (2002 and 2010), setting a semi-final target in 2014, though not impossible, may be rather too ambitious. Good luck Nigeria!

Nigeria Walk in Circles

GOING through my archives on the France ’98 World Cup draw reminded me that Nigeria has been walking in circles for a long time. The shenanigans that preceded the 1998 World Cup finals were the stuff of action drama movies.

As at the time of the draw in December 1997, the Super Eagles had no coach as we (I confess I was deeply involved at the  time!) had sacked the Frenchman Phillipe Troussier who qualified us. Before and after the draw, the dominant issue was who would replace Troussier.

On my way from Marseille to Monaco to interview Victor Ikpeba who had just been announced as the African Footballer of the Year 1997, I ran into Bora Milutinovic who would later grab the Eagles job ahead of the Atlanta ’96 Olympic team coach, Jo Bonfrere. Bonfrere was invited to Nigeria by the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) ostensibly as the anointed candidate. But by the time he arrived from Holland, the Nigerian Presidency under General Sani Abacha had decided to hire Milutinovic. When the Serbian quit unceremoniously after the World Cup, Bonfrere returned in 1999 to lead the Eagles to the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations.

I have recalled this game of musical chairs to illustrate what we would have got ourselves into again if we went looking to replace Stephen Keshi. Thank God that nightmare has been nipped in the bud.

Maigari Floors Ogunjobi

NIGERIA Football Federation (NFF) president Alhaji Aminu Maigari won the first round of a simmering contest with former NFF secretary general Chief Taiwo Ogunjobi last week in Warri, Delta State when he successfully got the NFF Annual General Assembly not to discuss Ogunjobi’s 10-year imposed ban by the executive committee.  Ogunjobi had been hoping  on the assembly to raise the issue and overturn his ban. But NFF technical committee chairman Chris Green had hinted me beforehand that the matter would not be discussed because Ogunjobi had filed a notice of appeal and so it turned out.

Having lost round one, Ogunjobi will likely lose round two because the NFF Appeals Committee that will hear his appeal according to the statutes will be constituted by, wait for it, the executive committee led by the same Maigari! Ogunjobi might therefore be compelled to pursue his appeal further to the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

The provision of the statutes is not of Maigari’s making. I recall criticizing the sweeping powers being reposed in the NFF president when the statutes were being put together under Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima’s chairmanship. Ogunjobi was secretary general at the time and he was also an executive committee member during the tenure of Alhaji Sani Lulu that succeeded Galadima.
My argument at the time was that the way the statutes was designed, incumbent NFF presidents would be impossible to beat in an election because of the near-absolute powers they had. Indeed Galadima and Lulu were heading for their second term against the popular wish until the Federal Government truncated their plans.

Maigari is only a beneficiary of the statutes designed by Galadima and finalised by Lulu which gives the NFF president so much leverage to become immovable. Provided that Maigari doesn’t run foul of government, coupled with the good results he has recorded so far, I would think his second term in office is secured.

As for Ogunjobi, it suffices to say that Maigari has him cornered at the moment. He may have to negotiate his political ambitions in order to clear his name of the allegations that led to his lengthy ban. Afterall, he and Sani Lulu reportedly provided the platform that Maigari used to emerge as NFF president three years ago when they presumably  were allies.

Amaju Pinnick’s Status

DELTA State Sports Commission chairman, Amaju Pinnick, was nominated as a member of the NFF Electoral Committee last week with the grapevine suggesting that he may be picked as chairman by other members of the committee.

Award-winning sports journalist Toyin Ibitoye of Channels TV quickly pointed out that Pinnick may not be eligible to serve on the committee at all because he is a “government official” which the statutes clearly disapproves.

In order to avoid next year’s NFF elections running into legal pot-holes like some in the recent past, I hope NFF lawyers will advise the executive committee appropriately on Pinnick’s status.

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