Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How Madrid Made Messi Shine

SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY million people from 185 countries around the world were reported to have watched last Sunday night's latest installment of the El-Clasico drama series between Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga.

After 94 pulsating minutes inside the famous Santiago Bernabeu, Real's home ground, it was Barcelona that ran away with a 3-2 victory, thanks to their talisman Lionel Messi who scored two of Barca's goals, the second coming from the very last kick of the game.

Truly, it was another master class performance by the little Argentine which predictably set the football world drooling again about his genius. But rather than Messi, I think the Real Deal last Sunday were Real Madrid for giving us the opportunity to see and enjoy a truly spectacular game of football.

Putting Messi's performance into perspective, the truth is that he didn't execute any skills that we hadn't seen him do before with wanton regularity. His first goal for Barca when he darted into Real's central defence and took out two opponents with two swift moves before slamming a low drive under the goalkeeper was a typical Messi move.

His winning goal in the last second of the game was even more straight-forward as he arrived late at the edge of the Real box to slot home after three of his teammates had done all the hard work to set him up for the goal. In fact, Messi's younger compatriot, Paulo Dybala had scored a similar goal for Juventus less than two weeks before in the first leg of the European Champions League quarter-final in Turin when the Italians defeated Barcelona 3-0 to knock them out ultimately.

What made the second Messi goal against Real special was not the technical execution, but the context and the history surrounding it. It was Messi's 500th goal for Barcelona; it reignited the 2016/2017 La Liga title race between both rivals; and it was scored at the ultimate enemy territory, Santiago Bernabue, which was stunned into silence, except for the pocket of Barca's travelling fans.

All these drama which made the game a spectacle wouldn't have happened had Real Madrid not played a big starring role. Thanks to coach Zinedine Zidane, Madrid filed out with a clear intent to win and therefore left Messi free to roam in midfield and in attack. After Real captain Sergio Ramos was red-carded for a double-foot challenge on Messi with Barca already 2-1 ahead in the second half,

Zidane threw in James Rodriguez who grabbed a surprise equalizer for 10-man Real to peg the game back to 2-2 with five minutes remaining in regulation time. At that stage, you would think Real would lock up their defence, take the one point from a drawn game and keep their place at the top of the table with another game in hand. But Zidane asked his men to press for a winner and that proved costly when Barca snatched the ball and counter-attacked deep into added time.

Even then, Marcelo of Real had a chance to terminate the counter with a “professional foul” on the rampaging Sergie Roberto of Barcelona. A simple tag on the shoulder would have brought the Spaniard down and fetched the Brazilian defender a yellow card at the worst. The resultant free kick in Barca's half of the field would have been the last act of the game and it would have ended at 2-2. But Marcelo generously (and regrettably, he would think) allowed Roberto to run through and the end result was a quick exchange of Barca passes, the last of which fell into the path of the advancing Messi of all people! Keylor Navas in the Real goal stood no chance.

Contrast Zidane and Madrid's “generosity” (some would call it tactical “naivity”) with the impregnable defensive tactics that Juventus adopted to stifle Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the Champions League just a few days earlier, then you would understand why neutral fans should be “grateful” to Madrid for the spectacle that we saw at the Bernabeu. Juventus were so solid that their coach Massimiliano Alegri boasted that Barca would not have scored even if the match was played for ever. How can 650million fans experience a spectacle from that kind of approach?

Unfortunately for Barcelona, most teams in La Liga play like Juve (defend in numbers, then counter attack) when they face Barca and that is why Messi, Neymar and Suarez have struggled for goals, in some key games. If other La Liga teams were as bold (or na├»ve!) as Real to go toe-to-toe with Barca in every game even with one man down, Barca would have won the title even long before now. But as things stand, despite Barca's victory last Sunday, the La Liga title is still Madrid's to lose. If they win or draw their game in hand and match Barcelona's results in the remaining games of the season, they will be  Spanish champions.

Messi Versus Ronaldo Latest

AFTER last Sunday's showdown, there can be no argument about who the current best individual player on the planet is between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Before the game, Ronaldo was riding high. Last summer, he won the Europeans Championship with Portugal, while Messi lost another Copa America final with Argentina. Last January, Ronaldo won his 4th Ballon D'Or while Messi could not even show up at the ceremony. And last week, Ronaldo became the first player to score 100 European Champions League goals, grabbing a hat-trick against Bayern Munich as Real advanced to the semi-finals, while Messi shot blanks against Juventus as Barcelona crashed out of the competition.

I suspected that Messi, even if he wouldn't admit it, would have been jealous of Ronaldo's recent rising profile and would be determined to make a statement that, on the same pitch, he (Messi) was still the best of the two. Therefore, I was not surprised to see him all over the pack, dictating play in midfield, dragging his markers back and forth, firing shots from every angle, drawing the foul that fetched Sergio Ramos the red card, and driving the knife into Madrid hearts with the winning goal in the final second of the game.
By sharp contrast, Ronaldo struggled to make an impact throughout and was completely out-shone by his rival.

I would say that my pre-match suspicion about Messi's psychology to “make a statement” was confirmed when he held up his jersey to the Madrid crowd after scoring the winner. He turned the back of the jersey to the fans, showing them the name on it: Messi.

I wish I could get into his mind at that very moment to steal what was there and report it as a world exclusive. But I will make a fine guess here. Messi must have been saying in his mind: “Just in case you're in doubt, yes it's me; I am Messi, the best player in the world!”

Who Can Stop The Old Lady?

MY FAVOURITE club in the Italian Serie A are AC Milan. I started following them in the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were dominant in Italy and in Europe as well. The super stars of that era were Milan's three Dutchmen Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten. Together they led the Rossonerri to several Serie A and European Cup triumphs
As a demonstration of my support, I have paid a couple of visits to the magnificent Giuseppe Meazza stadium in San Siro district of Milan.

Unfortunately, Milan have fallen on hard times in recent time, no thanks to the troubles of former owner and ex-Italian president Silvio Berlusconi. He has finally sold the club to Chinese investors and we the faithful are hoping for a resurgence, amen.

In the meantime, Juventus have taken over as the team to beat in Italy. They have won the last four Serie A titles and are on course for a fifth successive title this season. And, last week, they knocked out the mighty Barcelona of Spain 3-0 on aggregate to book their place in the Champions League semi-final where they will face Monaco of France.

Last Sunday, Juventus slammed Genoa 4-0 as they continued their march to the Serie A title. Their closest rivals, Roma, responded with their own 4-1 away victory at Pescara to keep the points gap at eight with five games to go.

The question everyone is asking in Italy is “who can stop Juventus?” Fifth-placed Atalanta are the next opponent hoping to find an answer to that quiz on Friday this week as Juve play early in order to have more time to prepare for their Champions League semi-final against Monaco next week. You don't want to miss the Serie A action until the title is decided.

Hats Up To Dalung

MINISTER of Sports Solomon Dalung deserves commendation for accepting wise counsel on the guidelines for the Sports Federations Elections released by his ministry penultimate week.
This column recommended to him last week to extend the tenure limit for presidents of the federations from two terms to three terms of four years each. I also suggested that incumbent presidents rather than being disqualified, should be eligible to test their popularity in free and fair polls, despite being on the executive of international federations.

Incidentally, Dalung was on Segun Odegbami's Sports Parliament on NTA Network TV on Thursday night where he was similarly advised not to do anything contrary to International Olympic Committee (IOC) Charter. Less than 24 hours later on Friday, the minister met with the leadership of the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC) to announce the amendment to the election guidelines as suggested in this column and on the floor of the Sports Parliament.

Now all is set for the elections to hold on May 30 tentatively.
One other thing, though. Can the decision to limit the tenure of our federation presidents to three terms be gazzetted by the Federal Government? I ask this question because, in four years time, Dalung will not be in office to enforce the resolution and I fear that sit-tight presidents will seek to blackmail whoever is the new sports minister by citing again the IOC Statutes on “non-interference!” Can Dalung ensure that this and other resolutions are properly documented and standardized to avoid future manipulation? Over to you, Mr. Minister.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Politics of Sports Federations Elections

THE FOUR-YEARLY ritual of elections into the governing boards of Nigeria’s sports federations is here again. And with it has come the usual controversy.

Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung, set the ball rolling last week when he announced the “approved guidelines” for the elections scheduled for June 2017 at a “stakeholders” meeting in Abuja. The most contentious aspects of the guidelines are sections 3.2(i) and 3.2(ii).
Section 3.2(i) bars presidents and vice presidents of international sports bodies from seeking election to the office of the president or vice president of any national federation. Section 3.2(ii) states that persons who have served as presidents of federations for two consecutive terms are not eligible to seek re-election for a third term.

If these two provisions are upheld, sports federation giants such as International Olympic Committee (IOC) member and Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC) president Engineer Habu Gumel who is president of the Nigeria Volleyball Federation will be the biggest casualty. He will be joined on the sidelines by a former sports minister Sanusi Ndanusa (Tennis), Tijani Umar (Basketball), Solomon Ogba (Athletics), Enitan Oshodi (Table Tennis) and Yusuf Dauda (Hand ball), among others.

Predictably, the disqualification of these heavyweights has sharply divided the Nigerian sports fraternity. While a section hails Dalung for taking a “bold step” to throw out those the minister himself described as “emperors” because they’ve been in charge of their federations for so long, others lambaste the minister for alleged interference in the affairs of the federations.

My take on the matter is multi-dimensional. On section 3.2(i), I do not support the idea of disqualifying candidates who hold continental and/or international positions. Those offices can actually be complimentary for a Nigerian rather than be a hindrance and should therefore be encouraged. On section 3.2 (ii), my view is that while tenure limit is desirable, it should only become effective in 2021 when all stakeholders in the federations would have been given adequate notice. Imposing the tenure limit now, just months away from the 2017 elections indicates clearly that the minister is on a mission to eliminate some individuals from contesting the elections.

My advice to Dalung is to allow all interested candidates participate in these elections so that the stakeholders can choose freely whom they want to lead them. Meritocracy will be the determinant factor as each federation can decide which of the sitting presidents deserves another term in office. Some of the so-called “emperors” have done well for their sport and it would be unfair to bar them alongside those who have nothing to show for their years in office. The blanket ban proposed by the minister may result in throwing the baby away with the bath water.

However, the leaderships of the federations must also learn a lesson from this episode. Many of them are intolerant of opposing views in their federations and they use all manners of tactics to persecute their opponents. In such situation, the opponents are forced to seek succor where ever they can find it and, this year, Dalung is their hero. That is why they’re hailing the sports minister while the “emperors” are shouting about interference. Had the “emperors” made everybody (supporters and opponents alike) feel welcome within their federations, nobody will be lining up behind Dalung today.

That said, I don’t expect the “emperors” to surrender their offices without a fight. It’s not for nothing that Gumel in particular has been boss of volleyball for so long. He’s well connected and he will pull strings in high places to retain his coveted seat. Ditto for several of the sitting chairmen Dalung has disqualified. They will fight back. This matter is not over by a mile. Watch out!

Can Monaco Hold Off PSG?
THE BIG question in the French Ligue 1 as the 2016/2017 season enters the home stretch is whether table toppers AS Monaco can hold off defending champions Paris Saint Germain (PSG) to win their first title since year 2000.
PSG have won the last four titles and are looking for the fifth on the trot. They became dominant overnight in France when Arab oil money was pumped into their coffers, but Monaco have grown more organically and I will love to see them rewarded for their patience.

Actually, I have followed Monaco with more than a passing interest since Victor Ikpeba won the League 1 title with them in 1997 en route to being crowned as African Footballer of the Year. I was editor of Complete Football International at the time and I had to go to Monaco to interview Ikpeba for the magazine’s cover story. The opulence that I saw all over the Municipality and in which Ikpeba lived made me give him the nickname, Prince of Monaco which has stuck with him ever since.

This season, I have been following Monaco’s performances as usual. A look at all the tables of the five major leagues in Europe shows that they are only behind Barcelona on the goal-scoring charts with 90 goals after 32 games. That fire-power has been the major secret of their current season. Therefore, it is not by coincidence that they have reached the quarter-finals of the European Champions League with the likelihood of reaching the semi-finals, at least.

Last weekend, Monaco had to come from behind to beat relegation battlers Dijon 2-1 as the pressure of the title race began to tell. The match winner was, of course, Radamel Falcao whose 18 goals overall places him third on the French scoring charts behind PSG’s Edison Cavani and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette.

If you thought all the action and drama are restricted to the EPL, you’re mistaken. A closer look at the French Ligue 1 this weekend will certainly excite you.  I’m cheering for Monaco to win their eighth title in history. The question is can they hold off the aristocrats of PSG till the end of the season?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Juve 3-0 Barca: The Prediction I Never Made

MY WIFE is my only witness that I predicted a 3-0 victory for Juventus over Barcelona in the first leg of their European Champions League quarter-final clash in Turin on Tuesday night.

When SuperSport pundits John Barnes, Sammy Kuffor and Benny McCarthy made their forecasts suggesting a draw or even a narrow win for Barcelona, I told my wife they all were in for a surprise. The only reason I refrained from tweeting my gut feeling was bias! I am a Barcelona fan and I didn't want my prediction to come to pass.

In my estimation, the signs of the fate that awaited Barca against Juve emerged last Saturday when they crumbled to a 2-0 defeat to Malaga in La Liga. With Real Madrid having dropped points in a 1-1 derby draw with Atletico Madrid earlier in the day, Barca had enough motivation to win in Malaga and draw level with Real at the top of the table. But they simply couldn't do it against a super-organized opponent.

In fact, Barca were more thoroughly outclassed by Malaga than the 2-0 scoreline suggested. I contrasted that with a Juve juggernaut that has kept steam-rolling all opposition consistently in the Serie A, and the only result that kept popping up in my crystal ball was a bashing for Barcelona, 3-0 to be exact.

Of course, the outcome in Turin could have been totally different had Andres Iniesta scored an equalizer from that glorious Lionel Messi pass midway into the first half after Paulo Dybala had given Juve an early lead. Unfortunately for Barca, veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made a reflex save and, moments after, Dybala doubled Juve's lead at the other end with a brilliant finish. At that point, I knew that my crystal ball was working to perfection. Giorgio Chiellini's third goal for Juve in the second half was inevitable.

The growing problem with Barca, as we have seen repeatedly in recent time, is that their famed forward line of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are finding it more difficult to penetrate well organized and disciplined opposition defenses. Malaga had a perfect plan in place to frustrate them and they succeeded so much that Neymar even bagged a red card. I knew Juventus would have been watching the Malaga display and Italian defenses have a reputation to be even meaner. It wasn't difficult to foresee a beating awaiting Barca in Turin.

The question on the lips of soccer fans worldwide is whether the Catalans can perform another miracle like they did in coming back from a 4-0 first leg deficit against Paris Saint Germain to win 6-5 on aggregate in the last round. As much as I want it, I can't see it happening. Lightening hardly strikes twice in the same spot and it is very unlikely that Barcelona will get out of the Old Lady's jail this time around. But then, I wish they will prove me wrong!

Check out my predictions for  Wednesday's matches. Be warned, I provide no guarantees:
*Borussia Dortmund 3-1 Monaco
*Bayern Munich 2-1 Real Madrid
*Atletico Madrid 2-0 Leicester City.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Rangers’ Missed Opportunity

UNFORTUNATELY for Rangers International of Enugu, the Great Renaissance did not last. Just six months ago, the Flying Antelopes were the toast of the whole country, having just won the 2016 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) title to break a 32-year winless run. The coach, players and management of the club were celebrated like heroes and there was so much expectation among the fans about the great things that would follow. All that expectation has suddenly come to naught and Rangers are in crisis.
Title-winning coach Imama Amapakabo’s sack this week is the culmination of what has been a disastrous 2017 football season for Rangers.

First, they started their league title defence on a poor note and are currently bottom of the table, although with a few games in hand. Second, they got knocked out of the CAF Champions League in the first round by Zamalek of Egypt and were demoted to the second tier CAF Confederations Cup. A 2-0 lead against Zesco Football Club of Zambia in their first Confed Cup game last weekend in Enugu suggested that Rangers would secure a comfortable victory ahead of the second leg. But that wasn’t to be as they allowed Zesco grab a late 2-2 draw which has now put their chances of advancing in jeopardy.
The club management led by the veteran Christian Chukwu had seen enough, and decided to finally show Amapakabo the exit. The coach that was celebrated and rewarded with a contract extension for his title heroics just last year was placed on “suspension” with immediate effect.

Pundits have wondered how Rangers unraveled so quickly after the great heights attained last year. Some theorists say that the Enugu State Government which owns the club precipitated the declining fortunes by not fulfilling the promises made to the players for winning the title last year. Others blame the club’s management led by Chukwu for inadequate preparations for the 2017 season. Yet, some others hold Amapakabo and his players responsible for their poor performances on the pitch.
Obviously, there’s enough blame to go round everybody connected to the club, but it is inevitable that the coach will be the primary villain. Therefore, it is not surprising that he’s got the sack.

For me, I just feel that Rangers threw away a golden opportunity to relaunch themselves into the big time. At this time when the talk is about sourcing alternative funding for Nigerian clubsides, being domestic champions and doing well on the continent was a good combination to attract investment and/or sponsorship especially with the kind of cult followership that Rangers enjoy. Unfortunately, they did not even scratch the surface of the opportunity before losing it. It’s a big pity.

As for Amapakabo, there’s no need to cry for him, really. Truth is that coaching is such an unpredictable job where joy and sadness are bed-mates. He only needs to look at what happened to Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City in England to console himself. One day, you’re a champion and the next day, you’re fired!
Back to Rangers, I hope they can still rescue their season, somehow. Leicester’s fortunes improved dramatically after they sacked Ranieri. Maybe Rangers will experience a similar turn-around now that Amapakabo is gone.

Argentina Sack Bauza
·      JUST as I was writing this about Rangers and Amapakabo, news came through that Argentina had sacked their national coach team Edgardo Bauza.
Bauza took over the team only eight months ago from Gerado Martino. But with Argentina’s 2018 World Cup qualification hanging in the balance following a spate of bad results, the Argentinian FA decided it was time to pull the trigger on Bauza.
To compound the country’s woes, captain and talisman Lionel Messi is suspended from their next three games. What a story that will be if star-studded Argentina fail to make it to Russia 2018.

Der-Klassiker De Bundesliga
·      BAYERN MUNICH underlined their status as the Kings of Germany when they smacked eternal rivals Borrussia Dortmund 4-1 in the biggest game of the Bundesliga last weekend at the Allianz Arena.

There was a massive 15-point gap between leaders Bayern and fourth-placed Dortmund on the league table before the game. Dortmund also had a long injury list, but that did not dampen expectations of a showdown between the teams considering their storied rivalry.

A Nigerian friend and colleague who lives in Germany, Sab Eke, had always accused Bayern of “oppressing” other Bundesliga clubs by cherry-picking their best players at the end of every season. There was evidence of this last weekend as ex-Dortmund star Robert Lewandoski led the Bayern destruction of his former club by grabbing two of the goals. 

Thankfully, Bayern have reportedly given assurance that they wouldn’t be “raiding” Dortmund at the end of the current season. But even if they wanted to, Dortmund have sworn they wouldn’t allow them to nick their Gabonese top scorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. They would rather sell him to England or Spain.

However, Bundesliga new-comers RB Leipzig continued to keep the pace in second place on the log with a 90thminute winner in a 1-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen at the Red Bull Arena also last weekend. With just six rounds of matches to the end of the season, Leipzig are four wins away from locking down second place inexorably. That would leave third-placed Hoffenheim in a big scuffle with Dortmund for the final automatic ticket to next season’s Champions League. Both are separated on the table by just one point.
RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund. Those are the teams to watch as the Bundesliga enters the home stretch, so don’t miss their games. For Bayern, the coronation for a fourth straight Bundesliga title is just a matter of time and you don’t want to miss that, too.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Sports Parliament Hots Up!

“Those in support of the motion, say hi.”
“Those against the motion, say nay.”
(There was silence).
“The hi’s have it.” Almost simultaneously, there followed a slight bang, as he brought down the gavel. “See you next week.”

That was the sequence of events as the “Honourable Speaker,” Chief Segun Odegbami brought to a close another episode of The Sports Parliament last week Thursday night, March 30, 2017. The closing conversation was between Odegbami and members of The Parliament of which yours truly is one. The motion in question was to determine the subject that would be discussed this week Thursday live at the studio of the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) Lagos and broadcast on the network service from 11.00pm. The topic we voted for was: “Who funds sports in Nigeria.”

When Odegbami invited me to be a member of The Sports Parliament early this year, I was a bit reluctant to accept the invitation because I didn’t want to get involved in a television talk-shop just for the sake of it. I was concerned about the quality of the other “parliamentarians” and the depth or lack of it that they would bring to the programme. I needn’t have worried. Odegbami had picked his team carefully…

Football Aficionado Godwin Dudu-Orumen; sports marketer extraordinaire Nkechi Obi; veteran broadcaster AbdulRahman Ibn Mohammad; sports medicine specialist and former Super Eagles physician, Dr. Akin Amos; sports marketing expert Kunle Raji; widely travelled international journalist Osasu Obayiuwana; corporate marketing professional Tunji Adeyinka; ex-international footballer and administrator Shola Akinwale; television producer Yunusa tank Abdullahi, Olympic gold medalist Enefiok Udo-Obong and yours truly, Mumini Alao.

We all are members of the parliament. As stated earlier, our speaker is the former national team captain, the versatile Segun Odegbami. At the risk of sounding immodest, it is safe to say that ours in a star-studded team. Someone actually described The Sports Parliament as parading at least 500 years of various expertises pooled together.

This rich depth of collective expertise has been aptly demonstrated since the programme started about six weeks ago. Anyone who has not been watching has been missing out on a great deal of knowledge, information and, admittedly to a lesser degree though, entertainment. The parliament is serious business.

The other issue that I worried about before accepting to join the parliament was the impact it could have on the polity. Would Nigerian sports administrators even listen to what we had to say, much less consider them for implementation? Would we not be giving unsolicited advice to unwilling officials? Would we not be wasting our time?

Even Segun Odegbami could not answer these posers satisfactorily. Obviously, he is not in government, so his influence on the officials is limited, but he did offer me a consolation: “Mumini, let us try; let’s do our own bit by offering quality insights into solving the myriads of problems facing Nigerian sports. The officials may accept or reject our suggestions, but posterity will judge us well.” I hope so, but I do hope also that the officials will consider our suggestions, too.

I was on the set last week and one of our resolutions, while discussing the aftermath of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) elections, was that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) should follow the CAF and FIFA example by repealing the section in its statutes that restricts non-members or non-former members of the executive committee from running for the office of the President. Had this rule been in force before Amaju Pinnick got into office, he would not have qualified to contest! Why should he now want to keep other people out? It was such draconian laws that turned former president Issa Hayatou into a dictator in CAF. Pinnick campaigned vigorously against Hayatou. Now it’s time for him (Pinnick) to remove the log in his own eyes. Will he listen?

The other resolution was that members of the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON) which include the NTA, African Independent Television (AIT) and other local television stations should engage the new Confederation of African Football (CAF) hierachy on how to make television coverage of the Africa Cup of Nations more accessible to free-to-air (FTA) audiences across Africa. We also challenged the NFF and Nigerian TV stations to join hands to prevent reoccurrence of a situation where the Super Eagles will play an important game abroad without any arrangement for TV broadcast like it happened with the recent friendly against Senegal in London.  

This week, the parliament is discussing what perhaps is the most critical issue in Nigerian sport: FUNDING. Lack of adequate funding has been established as a major reason why we can’t pay our coaches on time or pay them at all, pay footballers their allowances, prepare athletes for international competitions, organize local events, maintain sports facilities, discover and nurture new talents and do a whole lot of other important things to advance our sports. How can we change the narrative? That is the big question that the sports parliamentarians will tackle this week, Thursday, April 6 on NTA Network television at 11.00pm. Make sure you’re watching.

Bundesliga Is Bigger Than Bayern

I HAVE taken a greater interest in the German Bundesliga in recent weeks and discovered to my pleasant surprise that it is not all about Bayern Munich and Borrusia Dortmund; or, for that matter, Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who are tied on 24 goals apiece on the goal scorers’ chart.

Bayern and Borrusia (Bayern in particular) have been so dominant in recent years that some have criticized the Bundesliga as being a one-team or two-team league. But we could also say the same of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain.
However, a quiet revolution is actually taking place in the Bundesliga, courtesy of a club called RasenBallsport Leipzig – RB Leipzig, for short. If you have not been paying close attention to their games, start doing so from now on.

RB Leipzig reminds me of the old all-conquering Leventis United FC that set a record by winning three different divisions of the Nigerian league in quick succession in 1983, 1984 and 1985. In the case of Leipzig, the club was founded only as recently as 2009 when it bought a slot in the German Regionaliga V (5th division). The founders set an eight-year target of reaching the Bundesliga (1st division) by 2008, but they achieved that objective two years earlier in 2006. And, having reached the Bundesliga, they led the league table for the first 13 games before traditional power-house Bayern Munich (founded in 1900) finally supplanted them. Otherwise, RB Leipzig were poised to do what Leicester City did in the English Premier league last season when they won a surprise title.

The secret of RB Leipzig’s success within such a short time lies in their focused management and the deep purse of their sponsor Red Bull energy drink. Initially, they were criticized by many for spending their way to the top, but now their approval rating has improved tremendously especially in the former Eastern German city of Leipzig where they have made a positive impact on the whole city.

Last weekend, while Bayern were bombing Augsburg 6-0 in Munich, RB were equally destroying Darmstadt 4-0 in Leipziq to consolidate second place on the Bundesliga table. At this rate, Leipzig will most probably qualify for the European Champions League next season, less than 10 years after they were founded.
When they get there and start ruffling the feathers of other heavyweight clubs in Europe, remember that I told you about them first!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Super Eagles of England!

THE LONG RUNNING debate about the composition of the Super Eagles is back on the front burner, following the events at the national team camp last weekend in London, England.

Gernot Rohr's fully foreign-based selection held the Teranga Lions of Senegal to a 1-1 draw in the first of two planned friendly games, but the second game had to be called off because Burkina Faso could not secure travel visas for several players. That prompted Rohr to throw the Eagles camp door wide open to virtually any England-based player with Nigerian parentage as he (presumably) sought to widen his pool of selectables. By the time the camp closed after a practice match between Team 'A' and Team 'B' which ended in another 1-1 draw, the Super Eagles of Nigeria were looking more like the Super Eagles of England!

Naturally, soccer fans and journalists who had been upset that Rohr didn't call up any home-based player in his original 23-man squad are now even more livid that he allowed every Tom, Dick and Harry (read Ola Aina, Chuba Akpom and Nathan Oseni) into the London camp simply because they were born, live or play in England. Where is the fairness to the home boys like league top scorer, Stephen Odey, they ask?

Last week, I expressed my support for Rohr's decision to call up an entirely foreign-based squad if he felt they would perform better that the home boys. He is not the first Eagles coach to behave in this manner and he won't be the last for a number of reasons that should be quite obvious to everyone by now. But even I was flabbergasted when I heard about Nigerian fathers gate-crashing the Eagles camp in London to announce that their sons were ready to play for our senior national team. Just like that?

It is wrong to admit players (foreign or local-based) to camp, hand them jerseys and cap them just because they happened to be living next door to the Eagles camp or because they had their fathers in tow. Players should be allowed in camp only on the invitation of the coach who must have seen them play prior or got reports about them from his scouts. Foreign-born players desirous of representing Nigeria should only inform the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) about their availability in writing, then leave the coach to take a decision on their invitation devoid of any external pressures. NFF president Amaju Pinnick, please take note!

That said, I'm not in the mood for the endless argument on the home-based versus foreign-based brouhaha. Let whoever is our coach at any given time have the final say on player selection and swim or sink with his choices. All I care about is that proper procedures should be adhered to.

Finally, I hope the Senegal friendly and the bonding session that followed would benefit the Eagles when they face South Africa in their opening 2019 AFCON qualifier in June. In the final analysis, that is all that matters.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Bazee And Company

BAZEE & COMPANY is the title of the latest edition of Complete Football magazine available online for free subscription. (Go to www.yumpu.com/kiosk/completefootball). The title reminds me of Basi and Company, the popular sitcom (situation comedy) that aired on Nigerian television during the 1980s (I think) to wide public acclaim. But this article is not about that television drama.

The Bazee and Company that Complete Football editor Kayode Ogundare has written about are the new kids on the bloc that Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr has lined up for his double-header friendlies against Senegal and Burkina Faso this week and next in London. Rohr wants to look at these players to find out which of them can fit into his plans when the Eagles return to competitive action in the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers later this year.

The leader of the group is 20-year-old attacking midfielder Noah Bazee who plays for Bundesliga 2 side Hannover 96 in Germany. In his “company” are 21-year-old right full back Tyrone Ebuehi (ADO Den Haag of Holland), 20-year-old Chidozie Collins Awaziem (FC Porto, Portugal), 23-year-old Olanrewaju Kayode (FK Austria Wien, Austria) and 22-year-old Uche Agbo of Spanish club, Granada FC.

All five players are featured extensively in Complete Football’s “Bazee & Company.” But the two that will attract the most scrutiny when they make their debuts are Bazee and Ebuehi who were born abroad.

Rohr has been after these two boys for some time. During my conversation with him in January, he spoke extensively about them and how far he had gone trying to convince them to play for Nigeria. Now, they are on the verge of doing so.

Rohr’s attractions to these players apart from their young ages, are the structured, professional upbringing that being born abroad had afforded them. He expects they would bring that to help shore up the Eagles defence in particular. He points to Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong who have a similar background of growing up abroad to justify his conviction that the environment plays a huge part in the development of a player, his understanding of the game and his interpretation of tactics. I am in full agreement with the German on this.

Unfortunately, not everyone is on the same page with Rohr. I have heard his critics complain about his refusal to include home-based players in his squad for these friendlies. The talent of our home boys is not in doubt and that is why many of them excel when they get to clubsides abroad. But before making the transition, most of them truly are lacking the exposure and tactical discipline to play at the highest level. Their concentration level is also low. The fault for that lies in the poor quality of football education that they get within our environment during their formative years. Until that is improved in all ramifications, home-based players will continue to play the second fiddle or get over-looked completely.
I hope Bazee and Company will prove Rohr right in the choices he has made. And I hope that overall, the Eagles performances against Senegal and Burkina Faso will give us more confidence for our upcoming AFCON and World Cup qualifiers.

A New Dawn For CAF

THERE’S NO NEED kicking a man that is down already. So I will only say to former Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou who was dethroned last week by Ahmad Ahmad of Madagascar in Addis Ababa: “Thank you for all that you did for African football, Issa. Now, you can have your deserved rest.”

Just before the vote which Ahmad won in landslide fashion (34-20), I read Hayatou’s interview with Colin Udoh’s Kwese Sports online. Hayatou claimed he had planned to step down, but he was recontesting only because African FA president had begged him to stay. Well, it turned out that they deceived him or, to be more precise, he allowed himself to be deceived. 34 votes to 20 was a whitewash, a pummeling (using Nkechi Obi’s qualifier) in an election that was predicted to be close. It was not close at all.

That said, the ball now is fully in Ahmad’s court and we shall be watching how soon and how well he will implement his electoral promises to rejig the administration of African football and make it more transparent.
What can I say to Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president Amaju Pinnick? First is to congratulate him for becoming the third Nigerian ever to seat on the executive committee of CAF. That is a remarkable achievement by the young man.
Second is to salute his courage to confront the much feared Hayatou Dynasty and, in concert with Ahmad and others, to defeat it.

Third is to commend Pinnick’s political sagacity which he used to overwhelm all local Nigerian obstacles, especially that posed by Minister of Sports Solomon Dalung who was a confused man throughout the process, speaking from both sides of his mouth.

Fourth, I salute Pinnick for carrying out my "instruction" in this column to shut Moucharafou’s Big Mouth! Now that “small boy Pinnick” has unseated him from his treasured CAF seat, the Benin Republic man will learn not to underrate his opponents and that pride and arrogance are precursors to a big fall!

Finally, I want Pinnick not to lose focus of his primary task. He must ensure that his victory songs at CAF also continue to play in the Super Eagles. A successful national team is the major reward that millions of Nigerian soccer fans expect from him whether or not he’s on the CAF executive committee.  In the short term, that means qualifying the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 AFCON.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

CAF Elections: How Winners Will Emerge

THE DIE IS CAST! On Thursday this week, March 16, the much-awaited 2017 Confederation of African Football (CAF) elections will hold in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The main contest for the CAF presidency is between incumbent Issa Hayatou of Cameroun and Madagascar FA president Ahmad. But there will be other contests for eight seats on the CAF executive committee as well.
The CAF vote was the topic of discussion last week at The Sports Parliament, the brand new discussion programme on the NTA network where I sit along with Speaker, Chief Segun Odegbami and other Parliamentarians to dissect issues concerning Nigerian sports (11pm – 12midnight every Thursday on NTA network. Don’t miss it). The unanimous verdict of the Parliament was a resounding support for Ahmad to end Hayatou’s long reign. But achieving that objective is easier said than done. Despite Hayatou’s loss of popularity amongst most African football fans, he still is the favourite to win among those who will actually cast the votes.
CAF has 56 member associations. Two of them, Reunion Island and Zanzibar, are associate members with no voting powers.  The 54 voting members are divided into six zones in the following order:
Zone 1 (Northern): Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia (5 members, 2 executive committee seats, 1 vacancy).
Zone 2 (West A): Guinea, Gambia, Mauritania, Liberia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Lone, Cape Verde (8 members, 2 executive committee seats, 1 vacancy).
Zone 3 (West B): Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Ghana, Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso (8 members, 2 executive committee seats, 1 vacancy).
Zone 4 (Central): Cameroun, RD Congo, Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome & Principe, Central Africa Republic, Chad, (8 members, 2 executive committee seats, 1 vacancy).
Zone 5 (East): Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania (11 members, 2 executive committee seats, 1 vacancy).
Zone 6 (Southern): Mozambique, Namibia, Madagascar, Seychelles, Lesotho, South Africa, Zambia, Mauritius, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Angola, Comoros (14 members, 3 executive committee seats, 2 vacancies).
Female Member: (1 executive committee member, 1 vacancy).
Zones 1 to 5 have two members each in the CAF executive committee, while zone 6 has three members. There’s a special seat reserved for a female member and one for the CAF President, bringing the total membership to 15 (Article 22 of the CAF Statutes).
This year, elections will be contested for the sole female seat, one seat each in Zones 1 to 5, and two seats in Zone 6, bringing the total to eight. One of those contests is between Nigeria’s FA president Amaju Pinnick and Moucharafou Anjorin of Benin Republic in Zone 3 (West B). The tenure is four years, 2017-2021.
The tenures of the other executive committee members whose seats are not being contested this year began in 2015 and will expire in 2019 when another election will be held. CAF arranged the tenures in this overlapping manner so that in case all the incumbents in a tenure lose their seats at an election, there will be others on the executive committee with the experience to give orientation and direction to the new in-coming members.
Apart from the six CAF zones that I have listed, there are also three linguistic blocks among the 54 members. Eighteen are Francophone, 19 are Anglophone while the remaining 17 are grouped together as Arabic/Portuguese/Spanish speaking. If two of the language blocks vote en mass for one candidate in the presidential elections, it would result in a landslide victory for that candidate. The elections are by SECRET BALLOT and winners will be decided by ABSOLUTE MAJORITY. If there’s a tie in the first round of voting, a second ballot will be held to break the tie (Article 18 of the CAF Statutes).
There will also be an election to pick the African representatives to the FIFA Council in Zurich. Each CAF linguistic block has one seat on the FIFA Council and three other seats are free to “open applications,” bringing the total to six for Africa, apart from Hayatou who is a senior vice president of FIFA.
Kalusha Bwalya of Zambia (Anglophone), Danny Jordan of South Africa (open applicant) and a member from South Sudan (open applicant) were forced to withdraw from the FIFA Council contest after failing FIFA’s integrity test. That leaves Tunisia (Arab/Portuguese/Spanish), Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire (Francophone), Ghana and Tanzania (Anglophone) in the race for the FIFA Council in addition to candidates from Guinea, Egypt and Burundi who are vying as “open applicants.” The Tunisia candidate and all three “open candidates” will be elected unopposed while the four Francophone and Anglophone candidates will slug it out for two seats. But the big battle is for the CAF presidency and membership of the CAF executive committee.
According to the CAF General Assembly procedure (Article 17), the first election that will be contested is for the presidency, the outcome of which usually impacts on the other elections. Therefore, if Hayatou defeats Ahmad, the likelihood is that Moucharafou who is in Hayatou’s camp will also emerge victorious against Pinnick and so on.

Hayatou is counting on the loyalty of members who have benefited from his presidency during the close-to-30-years of his reign. He expects to win majority of the votes in Zones 1, 4 and 5 while splitting the votes in Zones 2, 3 and 6. That would hand him a comfortable victory.
On the other hand, Ahmad is hoping that enough members will be disillusioned with Hayatou’s long reign and finally break ranks with the Camerounian. He is hoping also that the influence of FIFA president Gianni Infantino who has not hidden his dislike for Hayatou will tip the scale in his favour.
Hayatou fell out with Infantino during the 2016 FIFA presidential elections when he reportedly directed CAF members to vote en bloc for pre-vote favourite Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa of Bahrain, president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Many CAF members however broke ranks to vote for Infantino who subsequently won the election on a second ballot by 115 to 88 votes. Ahmad is hoping that those same countries that broke ranks in Zurich will vote for him in Addis Ababa, but nothing is guaranteed in politics.
I will conclude this pre-election analysis by returning to the home front. Two weeks ago when I last wrote about the CAF elections, it was uncertain at the time whether Nigeria’s minister of sport, Solomon Dalung would back Pinnick’s decision to support Ahmad. However, I was surprised when the minister not only endorsed Pinnick’s candidacy for an executive committee seat, but also approved his public backing for Ahmad in the presidential race. I wondered about how Pinnick pulled off the “double coup,” but now two theories have emerged.
One is that the minister was pressurized by top government officials of the All Progressive Congress (APC) to rubber stamp Pinnick’s position. One former governor reportedly spoke to another former governor who then spoke to Dalung and that was it.

The second theory is that Pinnick “convinced” the minister with some direct benefits that Ahmad has promised to Nigeria. These include, among others, the appointment of Nigerians into top CAF administrative positions such as the office of the secretary general and director of media. We will have to wait to see how true this is if Ahmad wins.
Meanwhile, more information has come to light about why the Nigerians presently serving in CAF committees are not in support of Pinnick’s agenda to oust Hayatou. Soon after his inauguration as president of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) in 2015, Pinnick started making moves to recall some of the Nigerian CAF Committee members so that he could replace them with his own loyalists. Hayatou blocked the changes from taking place, so the affected Nigerian members feel indebted to the Camerounian. It is therefore natural that they would remain loyal to the CAF president.
The good thing about the division in the Nigerian camp over the CAF elections is that, whoever wins the presidency between Hayatou and Ahmad, Nigeria’s interest will be protected somewhat. If Ahmad wins, Pinnick will be there to ensure that we get the reward for supporting the Madagascan. And if Hayatou retains his seat, the Nigerians in CAF committees will plead with him not to punish us!
I am rooting for Ahmad. But, in the interest of African football, may the best candidate win.  
PS: Following wide-spread criticism that has dogged Hayatou’s long stay in office since 1988, CAF at its Extraordinary General Assembly in Cairo on September 9, 2016 adopted “term Limits” for the president and members of the executive committee. They can no longer be elected for more than three terms of four years each (whether consecutive or not), totaling 12 years. But the previous mandates already served before the 2016 resolution will not be counted. (Article 22:9b). So, if Hayatou wins on Thursday to secure the presidency for 2017–2021, he still will be eligible for two more tenures (2021-2025 and 2025-2029) after that! Term limit indeed!!!