Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Land Mine in Atlanta

I AM writing this in Lagos on Tuesday afternoon, March 4, 2014, about 36 hours to the international friendly match between Nigeria and Mexico. That dateline is important, not only because of the time difference between Lagos, Nigeria and Atlanta, Georgia in the United States where the match will be played (kick-off time 8.30pm, Wednesday March 5 in Atlanta is 2.30am, Thursday, March 6, in Lagos); the dateline is equally important because of the likely aftermath of the game and what it portends for Nigeria’s outing at the 2014 FIFA  World Cup finals in Brazil about 100 days hence.

I have a big hunch that a dangerous land mine awaits the Super Eagles in Atlanta. Something tells me that this friendly game will go very, very wrong and throw up all manners of unfriendly consequences. I fear that Mexico may throw us into a disarray from which we may not recover before the World Cup. But I pray and hope that I’m wrong.

Analytically, this is a game we are not supposed to win. In four previous encounters, we have never beaten the crafty Mexicans at full international level. Even though all the encounters have been close, Mexico hold the advantage with a 5-4 penalty shoot-out win at the  Intercontinental Cup in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1995); a 2-1 win at the US Gold Cup in Dallas (also 1995); followed by two 2-2 draws in France (2007) and Houston (2013). History therefore favours the Mexicans to snatch another narrow win over Nigeria or pull off at least a draw.

On current form, Mexico also hold the edge. They are number 21 on the current FIFA monthly world rankings, while Nigeria is far behind at number 47. Upsets do happen in football when the lower-ranked team triumphs, but this rarely happens without the underdog boasting some fundamental credentials such as match fitness and readiness, team cohesion and unity.
Unfortunately, these qualities are lacking in the Super Eagles at the moment.

Since Nigeria qualified for the World Cup last November, many of our key players have struggled for regular playing time at their clubsides. Victor Moses has been kicking his heels on Liverpool’s bench, Mikel Obi faces serious competition for his midfield holding role at Chelsea and Kenneth Omeruo has had to drop a division to Middlebrough in search of playing time. Omeruo’s central defence partner, Godfrey Oboabona, has been in the news in recent times for scoring own goals in Turkey rather than keeping the goals out. The friendly against Mexico promises to be tricky for the quartet as they seek to rediscover their form and confidence.

Ironically, it is the exact opposite for returning skipper of the side Joseph Yobo. The Norwich new centre-back has been in regular club action, but he’s been out of the Eagles set-up for more than a year, so some international rustiness may be expected. Things could be even worse for Ramon Azeez, Imo Ezekiel and Michael Uchebo who have been called up to the senior team only for the first time. There could be butterflies in their tummies, all adding up to a less than impressive team performance by the Super Eagles.

Friendly games are actually meant to try out new players and new tactical systems, so a “less than impressive performance” or even a defeat shouldn’t be cause for too much worry. But with the underlying distrust in the ability of coach Stephen Keshi to lead the Eagles to the World Cup coming to the fore again in recent weeks, a disjointed performance against Mexico (friendly or no friendly) may be construed as a validation of official apprehension about the technical crew.

And we may yet witness the tsunami that has been threatening to hit the Super Eagles in the countdown to the Mundial.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that we may not have heard the last about the planned shuffle in the Eagles technical crew. The “friendly” game against Mexico may yet precipitate  some “unfriendly” consequences. But again, I hope I’m wrong.

Ike Uche’s Exclusion
WHILE Victor Moses is sitting on the bench at Liverpool, out-of-favour striker Ikechukwu Uche has continued to score the goals for Villareal. Many soccer fans are therefore upset that Stephen Keshi has continued to overlook the Spain-based hit-man.

I understand the frustration of the fans. Here we are complaining that our key players are not getting enough playing time. But the one that is getting playing time and scoring the goals, Keshi has refused to call him up.

 To be frank, if I was Keshi, I would bring Uche back into my team based on his current form. But then , we mustn’t undermine the coach if he says he has issues bordering on a player’s discipline or lack of it.

I recall that even Uche was widely reported to have said that his goals may not be enough to win back his place in the Eagles. He must know then that he has a serious issue with Keshi which has not been sorted out.

The question is: has Uche made any move to sort out his differences with the coach? If the answer is no, then Keshi is right to stand his ground.

In football management, the coach is NOT right all the time, but he still must have his way all the time for discipline to prevail in the team. If the coach’s employers are not satisfied with his decision, they have the power to sack him. But they have no power to impose any player on him, no matter how good.

Keshi has  reportedly told the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to choose between him and Uche who will go to the 2014 World Cup. Based on his achievements in the last two years, I would say Keshi has earned the right to be respected and to be bullish in matters like this. He couldn’t have made himself any clearer!

The Latest League is Here!

A FEW years ago, 2011/2012 to be precise, Nigeria organized one of the longest running football league seasons ever witnessed in world football. That season ran for a mind-boggling 13 months before Kano Pillars eventually emerged as champions.

This weekend, we are in contention again for a place in the Guinness  Book of World Records by starting, (hopefully!) the most delayed football league season in history. The Nigerian 2013/2014 Premier League season is about to start on Friday, March 7, 2014. Hurray!

There are several reasons for this sorry state of affairs. The last (2012/2013) season ended late as usual. Then, the club managers got into a tussle over control of the league with the League Management Company (LMC). Thereafter, the LMC introduced registration conditionalities in accordance with FIFA and CAF club licensing rules, which saw many clubs running from pillar to post. Some of the rules have been relaxed or even postponed, but at the time of writing this, I got news that most clubs were still not ready and the league kick-off may be postponed yet again! I hope not.

Despite the lateness, though, the clubs are not willing to embrace an abridged season to regularize our soccer schedule because of the selfishness of managers who don’t want their state government sponsors to half their budget. And so, we continue the charade year after year with the result that our clubs wobble and fumble out in the continental competitions. (Just last weekend, Enyimba lost 2-1 at home to Real Bamako of Mali in the CAF Champions League after Kano Pillars were knocked out in the first round).

I am aware that the LMC is trying hard to knock the clubsides into line, but with government revenues dwindling and budget delays reaching a crisis point this year, we may start seeing some government-sponsored teams folding up. If the club managers don’t get realistic and pragmatic, many of them will soon find themselves (and unfortunately, their players) out of job.
Considering that the 2014 FIFA World Cup takes place in June/July and the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers will start immediately after, and run till November, the football  calendar is so tight that the only reasonable option for our belated 2013/2014 season is to be abridged to three months only, so that we get it out of the way quickly! We can then start the 2014/2015 season on schedule in September 2014.

A word is enough for the wise.

Excitement At Onikan Stadium

WHILE the Nigeria Premier League (NPL) is struggling to start, the lower tier Nigeria National League (NNL) is  heading for Week 5. I was at the Onikan stadium last week for the Group ‘B’ match between Stationery Stores of Lagos and Shooting Stars of Ibadan. While the quality of the game left a lot to be desired, the atmosphere was electric as football fans trooped out to cheer two of the oldest teams in Nigerian football. Stores, meanwhile, won the game 2-0.

On a personal note, I found it gratifying that my last week’s article in Soccertalk inspired many people to attend the game. Some of them, including my colleague Felix Okugbe, told me they came after reading the promotional piece titled, “El-Clasico of Western Nigeria.”

Once again, I will like to thank Mr. Segun Adenuga for providing the historical information for the article. I salute also Mr. Bernard Niyi Kpade, a 76-year-old die-hard Stores fan who came to the stadium against his wife’s advice and, due to my mix-up of his transport route, didn’t get back home until 10pm!

The Stores/3SC clash reconfirmed one fact: Nigerian soccer fans still love to watch live football and, given the right circumstances, they will leave the comfort of their homes to go and watch their beloved teams at the stadium.

FEEDBACK
Re: Stores versus Shooting
Dear Mumini. What a beautiful reminder you wrote on our Super Stores FC in Complete Sports. I pray and wish that the return of our Darling Team will suffer no distruptions again by the grace of God, and the support of “awon omo Eko gidi.” But you left out some notable names like- Muyiwa Oshode, Haruna Ilerika, Yakubu Mambo, Rahman Gibrine, Yomi Peters, Sunday Ineh, Sule Mohammed, Tanko Ayuba, etc. Thanks so much for what you did with the write-up. – Bernard Kpade, Secretary Stores FC,1988-1993.

Your article on El- Clasico of Western Nigeria was spot on. As a former goalkeeper of First Bank FC, I recall a match with Stationery Stores FC in 1977 at UAC grounds, now TB stadium where some of their fanatical fans converged at the back of the goalpost I was manning calling me many names to distract my attention and win the match. But one thing you could not take away from their fans was that their enimity was only for 90 mins, as you could walk into their gatherings the following day without being molested even if their team lost. Back then, within their fans they had the “Israelites” and “Fire 2”. What fun many Lagos soccer lovers have missed. Welcome  back, Flaming Flamingos. – A.Ibrahim Siwoku, Meiran.

Dear Alhaji, your battle cry for Stores is not accurate. It is Up Super!... Up Flamingos! Also, you left out super, super, dribbler and deadly striker, Haruna Ilerika of blessed memory. Meanwhile, Tony Igwe, alias “World 2” never played for Stores. He played for ECN (Nepa). Keep up the good job. Up Super, Up Flamingos. – Jude Ojeaga.

Mumini, I read your February 26 Soccertalk . Although I was a chronic supporter of ECN and Shooting Stars in those days, I was surprised to see your Stationary Stores list without HARUNA ILERIKA. I believe he was one of the club’s legends. Almost all the players you mentioned later moved to ECN, but he never did. – Asiwaju Oluwole Afilaka .

You ommitted Haruna Ilerika and Yakubu Mambo in the list of notable  Stores players. And for Shooting Stars, you excluded Amusa Adisa, Niyi Akande, Folorunso Gambari, Kennedy Dappah, Philip Boamah, Edith Agoye, Abdullahi Heyman, Kehinde Jeyifous, Raymond King, Zion Ogunfeyinmi, Baruwa. –

Hello Mumini, ordinarily I wouldn’t have reacted to your list of ‘selected notable players but I want to correct the record. I was a goalkeeper for Stores before Peter Fregene for African Champions Cup, Oba Cup (1967,1968) and I played for Shootings Stars before Adisa or Ogedengbe. God bless. – Femi Awoseyi now with Lead City University, Ibadan.

Hi Mumini. Thanks for updating us on the rivalry between 3SC and Stationery Stores. Almighty Allah will continue to bless you and give you more wisdom to educate us on the good old days of Nigerian football.More grease to your elbows. – Engr. Mohammed Fadayiro, Shasha-Lagos.
Up Flaming! Oga Mumini, You reminded me of the good old days. We used to trek together from Lawanson bus stop to enter molue to watch Stores matches at Onikan stadium. – Victor, Apapa.

Re: Stephen Keshi’s List

If Stephen Keshi fails to recall IK Uche, Osaze Odemwingie and Kalu Uche,  we will commence a campaign for the imposition of a technical adviser on him. Nigeria should not leave team selection to Keshi alone. Keshi was at the head of the cabal that brought our soccer down in the 1990’s. – Pst. Steve Nwabuko.

Sir, I have followed you over the years and have been impressed by your analysis on Nigerian football, You are indeed a blessing. Sir, you are not known to support the imposition of players on our coaches but the issue of Stephen Keshi and IK Uche, Osaze, etc has to be a national issue. IK had played under several coaches and there had not been an issue of indiscipline. Please intervene because we need IK for the World Cup (no sentiment attached). Keshi needs IK, Osaze, Yobo and Anichebe for Nigeria to go far in Brazil. God bless you sir! – Pst. Bayo, Surulere.

Stephen Keshi is the only coach that has said Ike Uche is not disciplined. Are Martins, Haruna, Taiwo, Kalu Uche and Adeyele also indisciplined? Keshi is playing with his job. Let Keshi take his ` inexperienced players to World Cup and he will regret it. His sentiment will destroy the Super Eagles. – Patrick Nwafor , Benin City.

Mourinho A Racist
Jose Mourinho’s comment about whether Samuel Eto’o Fils is 33 or 35yrs is to say the least RACIST. Morinho can’t make such a comment about any European player. Racism is not only monkey chants. Unsubstantiated statements about a black player is racism. CAF should charge José for racist abuse. – Pst. Steve NWABUKO.

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