Thursday, February 6, 2014

‘Golden Bronze’ To Start The Year

I DELIBRATELY timed the resumption of SOCCERTALK for today, the first week in February, 2014 since the column went on break in December, 2013.

I wanted to resume on a celebratory note, my calculation being that Stephen Keshi and his home-based Super Eagles would surprise us again by winning the 3rd African Nations Championship (CHAN) which was concluded last Saturday in Cape Town, South Africa.

About this time last year, Keshi and the main Super Eagles delivered a pleasant surprise by winning the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) also in South Africa, en route to what turned out to be a truly remarkable 2013 for Nigerian football. But no thanks to our perennial rivals Ghana who eliminated our home Eagles in the CHAN semi-final, what we are starting 2014 with is a bronze medal, following the Eagles’ 1-0 defeat of Zimbabwe in the tournament’s match for third place.

However, the bronze medal is not a bad beginning. Recall that Nigeria started also with two bronze medal wins at the 1976 and 1978 Africa Cup of Nations before we finally struck gold in 1980.
We again had to settle for several silver medals (1984, 1988, 1990) and another bronze (1992) before stricking our second gold in 1994.

And more recently, we actually became bronze specialists in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010  (“Golden Bronze” medals we called them) before striking gold again in 2013.

If history is anything to go by, the bronze medal at our inaugural CHAN appearance will lead us to strike gold in a few years’ time. We must believe.

As I have a lot of catching up to do with so many events that took place while this column was on break, I will only summarize my impressions about the just concluded CHAN in a few sentences as follow:

1. The tournament is good for the development of Africa-based footballers and Nigeria’s first participation has opened our eyes to what we missed by not qualifying for the first two editions won by Congo Democratic Republic (2-0 versus Ghana in the 2009 final in Ivory Coast) and Tunisia (3-0 versus Angola in the 2011 final in Sudan). We mustn’t miss out again!

2. With the benefit of hindsight, it is a good thing also that the Nigeria Football Federatio (NFF) reversed its earlier decision to withdraw from the tourney due to lack of fund. Henceforth, we must find the money on time and be fully prepared!

3. I recall vividly how Nigeria squeezed through to the finals just ahead of Cote d’Ivoire, after holding the “local” Elephants to a goalless second half in Abidjan when one more goal for the hosts would have knocked Nigeria out for a third straight time. We must avoid such close shaves in future!

4. Despite several home-based Eagles like Godfrey Oboabona and Sunday Mba having gone abroad since our qualification, Keshi’s ability to raise a relatively new team within a  very short period even when our domestic league was on break speaks a lot about his coaching acumen. No wonder he is the current African Coach of the Year!

5. Nigeria’s ability to bounce back from a 3-0 first half deficit to eliminate Morocco 4-3 in the quarter-final (Miracle of Cape Town) showed that our home boys are also made of stern stuff. Well done, boys!

6. While it is gracious to salute our boys for returning home with the bronze medal, my frank assessment also is that they had no business losing that semi-final to Ghana. The Ghana team in my estimation was quite ordinary and we should have seized the chance to score one back on our bitter rivals especially after they were reduced to 10 men. But I must admit, they were lucky!

Having said all that, I add my voice to the well-deserved praises that the player of the tournament, Ejike Uzoenyi, has been getting. It’s no surprise either that Keshi has reportedly listed him as a near certainty to make the squad to the FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil in June.

My final word on CHAN 2014 is to thank Libya for helping us stop Ghana from lifting the trophy. Sincere apologies to my Ghanaian readers, but the truth is that we are always envious of each other’s achievements. If we can’t win a trophy, we don’t want Ghana to win it either!

Ike Uche Throws Down The Gauntlet

SUPER Eagles coach Stephen Keshi is reportedly going on a well-deserved holiday this weekend after working so hard in the past several weeks, even missing his Christmas vacation in the process. When he gets back to work, however, Ikechukwu Uche will be waiting for him!

In the past few months, Uche has been on fire, scoring regularly for Villarreal in the Spanish league. At the last count, he already had twelve goals to place him fifth in the Liga scorers’ table. For Uche, there’s no better way of making a statement of intent to break back into the Super Eagles since he was dropped in the aftermath of his poor showing at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations Final.

If other players can follow the Uche example, Keshi will have a beautiful dilemma on his hands selecting his final 23 for Brazil. That would be good for Nigeria.       
During the recent January transfer window in Europe, several players had to move in order to get regular playing time and improve their chances of getting selected by their national teams. Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea to Middlesbrough) tops the Eagles list while Joseph Yobo (Fenerbache to Norwich) is also desperately looking for a way back in. It promises to be a tough contest indeed.

In the past, players have been known to enlist the support of the media to sing their praises or simply lobby their way into the World Cup squad. I doubt if such a strategy will cut any ice with the Big Boss. Watch this space.

Mikel Gets Pound of Toure Flesh

lMIKEL OBI came out on top last Monday night when his Chelsea Football Club confronted Yaya Toure’s Manchester City in an English Premier League top-of-the-table clash (bar Arsenal).

Although the Nigerian midfielder was only introduced in added time to run down the clock while Toure played the entire 90 minutes, the fact that Chelsea emerged victorious at Etihad Stadium must have pleased a lot of Nigerian fans who were disappointed when CAF crowned Toure as African Footballer of the Year 2013 under our noses in Lagos to deny the home boy Mikel who finished a distant runner-up.

I was at the colourful award ceremony organized by the sponsors GLOBACOM last month at the Eko Hotel and Suites with my son, Abdulmueez. To be honest, I knew that Yaya deserved the title more, but I couldn’t help wishing that Mikel would get it anyway. Admittedly, I am patriotically biased, and I hope a Nigerian player will finally win it for us this year.

Meanwhile, the City-Chelsea game is still trending and all the talk is about the tactical masterplan deployed by Jose Mourinho to inflict City’s first home loss of the season. I salute Chelsea’s rampaging performance (they could have won by a margin wider than 1-0) but I think they were also helped a great deal by the absences of Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero from the City line-up.

At the start of the season, my tip for the EPL title was City. Mourinho and Spurs coach Tim Sherwood at various times have also described City as the favourites for the title. Despite last Monday’s set-back, I’m sticking with the Citizens to be crowned champions in May. But they would need their best players to stay fit and healthy to achieve that.

As for “my Liverpool”, Kolo Toure’s “perfectly weighted pass to Victor Anichebe” (quoting BBC Sport) last Saturday which gifted West Brom an equalizer is symptomatic of our prospensity for self-destruction. I just pray that David  Moyes continues to break all the unbeaten records that he met at Manchester United so that Liverpool’s fourth place finish can be assured.

An Arsenal fan joked recently that United are digging for oil and they might still be going further down the table in order to strike it! I have no objection whatsoever.

Looking at the tight race for the top, for fourth place and the even tighter battle at the bottom, it promises to be an unforgettable season in the EPL.

Rocking With the Veterans

ONE of my most enjoyable outings while this column was on break was a lunch date that I had with the members of the Nigeria Sports Veterans Association (NSVA) the day after the GLOBACOM/CAF Awards in Lagos.

Led by former WAFU president, Chief Jonathan Ogufere, the NSVA is a community of senior citizens in Nigerian sports with membership coming from former sports administrators, senior journalists, retired referees as well as accomplished athletes. I was invited to a reception organized by the body in honour of Alhaji Aminu Maigari, president of the Nigeria football Federation (NFF) for all his accomplishment in 2013. Maigari was full of appreciation.

Sitting with the veterans was a fascinating and humbling experience for me as many of them are old enough to be my father. It also made me reflective as I pictured myself becoming a veteran in the years to come.

I thank Paul Bassey, secretary of the group, for inviting me to an afternoon of great camaraderie. I hope Manchester United truly strikes that oil!

To all Soccertalk readers, I say a belated happy new year. It’s nice to be back on the beat.

“If history is anything to go by, the bronze medal at our inaugural CHAN appearance will lead us to strike gold in a few years’ time. We must believe.”


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