Thursday, October 12, 2017

Russia 2018: The Fun Starts Now!


THE FIRST TIME Nigeria qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals in 1993 (ahead of the finals at USA ’94), I was right in the thick of the action.



As editor of Complete Football magazine at the time, I travelled extensively with the Super Eagles coached by Clemens Westerhof and captained by the late Stephen Keshi. It was on the eve of our final qualifying game away to Algeria that I coined the nickname “Goalsfather” for the late Rashidi Yekini (which became accepted worldwide) when I interviewed him at the lobby of the Eagles hotel in Algiers.

The following day, Friday, October 8, 1993, the Eagles filed out, needing only a draw to book their place at USA ’94. It was a very cold night but our right winger Finidi George soon warmed up the Nigerian contingent in the sparsely-filled stadium with a 20th minute goal. We needed a draw, but now we were heading for a win. Everything was nice and sweet until Algeria’s Ahmed Zerrouki equalized with a header in the 70th minute.

Suddenly, the whole atmosphere changed. The home fans who had been cheering the Eagles and booing their own team changed tune. They began whistling for a second goal. Their team responded by attacking in droves and came close several times to grabbing the winner. Those final 20 minutes plus ‘injury time’ were the longest and scariest in my entire journalism career. An Algerian winner, though they had nothing but pride at stake, would have snatched the group’s World Cup ticket from Nigeria and handed it to Cote d’Ivoire instead.

Happily, the Eagles held on to the 1-1 draw and made history by qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup.

Fast forward 24 years to Saturday, October 7, 2017.. I was not at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo when the current Super Eagles coached by Gernot Rohr and captained by John Obi Mikel beat Zambia 1-0 to qualify Nigeria for the Mundial for the sixth time since that historic debut at USA ’94. I watched the game on television but I have heard many commentators and fans talk about the tension that they went through. Tension? What tension? Ask anyone else who was there in Algiers in 1993 and they will tell you the true meaning of tension.

I wasn’t in Uyo for the Nigeria-Zambia game for several reasons. One, after nearly 30 years on the job, I have vacated day-to-day reportorial duties to a new generation of brilliant writers at Complete Sports newspaper (the successor to Complete Football magazine) just as the Eagles have shed their old feathers for new ones.

Second, I could have still gone to Uyo just for the fun of it but my superstitious side got the better of me. I hadn’t watched any of our previous qualifying games live, and I didn’t want anyone accusing me of bringing “bad luck” to the Eagles should anything go wrong!

On a serious note, the main reason I didn’t bother to make the journey to Uyo is that, unlike the suffocating, knife-edge situation that we found ourselves 24 years ago in Algiers, I was confident this time around that the current Eagles would beat Zambia and seal the World Cup ticket with a game to spare. I said so in this column last week, and so it turned out. I wasn’t tensed at all, knowing full well that the game wasn’t our last chance to qualify anyway. I was very relaxed about the Eagles because the team had won my trust with their performances in previous games and I had great confidence in Gernot Rohr’s tactical acumen.

My reading of Rohr’s tactics against Zambia is that he combined the virtues of caution and patience, despite Nigeria’s advantages of playing at home and parading the more experienced players. Caution in the sense that early on, the Eagles didn’t try too much to play the ball out of defence. Any mistake doing that could result in conceding possession to the quick Zambians who could take advantage. And if Zambia scored first, the resultant tension and anxiety that would envelope the stadium would have unsettled our boys. Zambia would have subsequently locked up their defence, frustrate our players and probably scored a second goal on a counter-attack. It was crucial for Nigeria to not concede the first goal so we had to be cautious.

Caution was complemented by patience. The virtue of patience last Saturday was that the Eagles had to wait till the second half for their goal which came via the boot of super-substitute Alex Iwobi. As the match wore on and the Zambians got desperate for the goal that they needed more than Nigeria, they left spaces at the back which the more experienced Eagles stars eventually exploited.

Overall, I give Rohr full credits for a well executed game plan. Zambia may have caused us a few moments of anxiety including putting the ball into our net for a ‘goal’ that was rightly disallowed for offside; and rattling goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa with an isolated long range shot, but those were nothing close to what the Eagles suffered in 1993. In the end, last Saturday's victory was fully deserved.



At the start of these 2018 World Cup qualifiers, regular readers would remember that I predicted in this column that 13 points would guarantee Nigeria a ticket to Russia. I then challenged the Eagles to collect those points before their last game away to Algeria so that we wouldn't have to experience the tension of 1993 all over again.

Not only did Gernot Rorh and his boys achieve both objectives, they did it in grand style. Congratulations to all Nigerians. Russia 2018, here we come.

My Tweet of the Day
SITTING in front of my TV set, I was quite engaged on my Twitter handle, @Mumini_Alao, as the Super Eagles grabbed the ticket to Russia last Saturday. One particular tweet however stood out among the whole lot as it snagged lots of retweets and likes from my followers. For those who missed it, here goes: "Spare a thought for Cameroun and Algeria. I hear that their "friendly match" in Yaoundé ended 2-0 in favour of the Pussycats!"


What Next For The Eagles?
THE Eagles still have that outstanding game away to Algeria to play. Although it's now an inconsequential dead rubber, my view is that Rorh should use it to commence his preparations for the World Cup finals in earnest. He should field a strong team, although he might tweak the lineup considerably to have a look at some other players staking claims for seats on the plane to Russia.

At the time of writing this, there was talk that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) was mooting a friendly to be played after the Algeria game. That would be nice. Our target in Russia should be to surpass our previous Round of 16 record at the World Cup which means reaching the quarter final at least. Whether we can achieve that objective will be a function of our luck at the draw holding in Moscow on December 1st; and how well we prepare for the finals.


What Next From Complete Sports?
Our combined team of journalists at Complete Sports newspapers, Completesportsnigeria.com website and Complete Sports Studios have had great fun covering the Super Eagles 2018 World Cup campaign so far.. And if the feedback we have received is anything to go by, it is certain that our readers have also enjoyed our coverage tremendously.



Particularly for the decisive last three matches against Cameroun (home and away) and Zambia (home), Complete Sports pulled out all the stops to do an unparalleled coverage. Our reporter was in Yaoundé a whole week before the second game against Cameroun, which gave us the edge as the only Nigerian media organization that reported simultaneously from Uyo and Yaoundé during the double header against the Indomitable Lions.

For the Zambia match, Complete Sports also was the only Nigerian media in Accra, Ghana to monitor the Chipolopolo's final preparations and publish exclusive on-the-spot expose for the benefit of the Super Eagles.

To get the fans involved beyond just watching the games, our Complete Sports Studios camera crew deliberately went on a road trip from Lagos to Uyo for the Zambia game, interviewing people in many towns and cities along the way and uploading the videos on our YouTube channel. Our website also organized Predict and Win competitions where N100,000 cash was on offer for fans who correctly predicted the Eagles results against Cameroun and Zambia. To cap it all, we organized an online Selfie Challenge on social media where more soccer fans won authentic Super Eagles jerseys courtesy of Nike.

The enthusiastic responses that we have received for these initiatives have been gratifying. Many of our sports media colleagues saluted our professionalism, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) acknowledged our contributions while our readers showed their appreciation.

Most older fans actually compared our recent coverage with a similar coverage that we pioneered for the historic USA '94 World Cup campaign when yours truly followed the Super Eagles every step of the way from their training camp in Papendal in Holland all the way to America.

Complete Sports is poised for a repeat on the Road to Russia. Watch out as we have more surprises in store for our readers. The World Cup fun has only just started!


The Joy and the Agony
THE relative ease of the Super Eagles qualification for Russia with a game to spare appears to have muted the celebration by Nigerian soccer fans. The threat posed at the start by our rivals in the Group of Death (Algeria, Cameroun and Zambia) was so comprehensively dealt with that some of us still can't believe it! Maybe that is why our celebration has been rather understated..

However, a look at the reactions in other parts of the world aptly demonstrates the joy and agony that several countries experienced last weekend as the race to Russia reached a climax.

Iceland continued their Cinderella run in Europe by qualifying for their first ever World Cup. Traffic came to a standstill in several Egyptian cities as the Pharaohs poured into the streets to celebrate their return to the Mundial after 27 years! Panama in North America declared a public holiday after they qualified for the first time ever at the expense of USA. Argentina heaved a sigh of relief on the last day of South American qualifying after Lionel Messi single-handedly saved them from the humiliation of elimination by scoring a ticket-grabbing hat-trick away to Bolivia.

By contrast, it was extreme agony in Ghana after a disallowed goal in the last second of their game away to Uganda confirmed that the Black Stars would miss the train to Russia. War-torn Syria came very close to grabbing a remarkable Asian ticket but a goal in extra time by Australia cut short their joy. 2010 World Cup finalists Holland missed the European play-offs only by a poorer goal difference to Sweden despite beating the Swedes 2-0 last weekend. The United States of America are mourning after a disastrous qualifying campaign ensured they will not be visiting their nuclear rivals!

The World Cup race spread a mixture of joy and agony in different parts of the planet last weekend. Nigerians should count ourselves lucky that we are among the happy few.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Super Eagles, Nigeria Expects…

I WASN’T going to write a preview of the Super Eagles World Cup qualifier against Zambia this weekend at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo.



My thinking was, what is there to analyse when everybody knew already what was going to happen.

Oh, who says he/she doesn’t know what is going to happen? You, dear reader? Com’on! Of course, you know what is going to happen. The Super Eagles are going to beat the Zambians and qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Finals. THAT is what is going to happen, in sha Allah!

It’s a very long time that I have felt this bullish about our national football team. As recently as late August/early September this year when we faced Cameroon in that dramatic World Cup qualifying double-header, I wasn’t this confident about our team. In fact, I declared the Eagles as the underdogs against the Indomitable Lions only for them to stun everybody with a comprehensive home victory and an impressive away draw.

But the situation and the circumstances are different against Zambia. The Eagles cannot hide from the fact that they’re the overwhelming favorites this time around. We all EXPECT them to win!

That’s not saying the Zambians will be pushovers, however. Any African team that beats powerhouse Algeria home and away like the Zambians have done deserves respect. But, to be frank, the Eagles are a class above the East Africans.

Since coach Gernot Rohr took over, the Eagles have discovered a new spirit and new confidence. If we have great expectations of them now, it is because of the way they have played so far in this World Cup qualifying race.

However, one real danger that I fear is complacency. Quite often, the Eagles have pleasantly surprised us when they were written off and have disappointed when expectation was high. There’s always a likelihood of a repeat but, thankfully, I can’t see any signs of that happening against Zambia. I have observed the team closely and read many interviews by Rohr and his players. The message I get is that they all seem very focused on the task at hand. They know that the Zambians are coming for a fight and they are ready for them.

A tweet by left back Elderson Ehiejile (@Elderson) in symptomatic: “Only one thing on my mind: #NGAZAM.” It was accompanied by a photograph of the player, looking serious and determined.

Another possible danger is what Nigerian Olympian athlete Enefiok Udo-Obong describes as the “psychological stress and pressure that all footballers and sportsmen feel when they are on the verge of accomplishment.” Being just one win away from grabbing the ticket to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Eagles could suffer from this type of psychological pressure. But I expect them to overcome that with the experience of captain Mikel Obi, Victor Moses and Ogenyi Onazi who have all been to a World Cup before and know how to deal with such situations.

So, Nigeria ticks all the right boxes ahead of Zambia. History is on our side as we have recorded more wins against them including beating them 2-1 in Ndola in the first leg of this tie; we lead them by three points and a healthy goal difference in our World Cup qualifying group; we are playing at home; we have the better players who are hungry to secure the World Cup ticket; we have more experience at this level; and we have a coach, Gernot Rohr, who I consider to be our “star player” because of his tactical nous.

Nigeria has all the necessary ammunition to silence Zambia’s pre-matchboasts on Saturday. My prayer is for mother luck to also be on our side.
See you in Russia 2018!

When City Came To London…



COURTESY of Star Lager who signed on Chelsea Football Club as their latest partners in the elite #StarFootballLeague last week in London, I was in the crowd at Stamford Bridge last Saturday when Manchester City confronted champions Chelsea in what I rate as the best game of the English Premier League so far this season.

For me, City were such a joy to watch with their excellent passing and movements. They were so dominant en-route to their 1-0 win that even Chelsea fans admitted that they’d been let off rather lightly as the margin of victory could have been higher. Where I sat in the crowd, I could feel the tense sense of surrender among the home fans.

From a Nigerian perspective, I Tweeted my disappointment that Victor Moses was not fielded by Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. But when one of my followers responded that the omission would leave the player fresh for the Eagles game against Zambia, I concurred.

#StarFootballLeague is a coalition of football league and club side partners put together by Star to excite their Nigerian customers. Four lucky winners(Ugochukwu Jay Chikezie, Chinedu Jude Mbanefo, Onyedika Nwokedike and Nneamaka Anyanwu) were sponsored on an all expense paid trip to witness the formal signing of the Star-Chelsea partnership and also watch the Chelsea-City game.

When I asked the winners about their experiences, they were united in describing it as a "trip of a lifetime." Even for me, it was great fun too.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Star Serenades Four Lucky Fans With Holiday Of A Lifetime

FOUR Nigerian football fans are enjoying a holiday of a lifetime in London courtesy of Star Lager after emerging the lucky winners of an online quiz to predict the premium drink’s next big European club partners.
Star winners: L-R , Ugochukwu Jay Chikezie, Onyedika Nwokedike, Nneamaka Anyanwu and Chinedu Jude Mbanefo

FOUR Nigerian football fans are enjoying a holiday of a lifetime in London courtesy of Star Lager after emerging the lucky winners of an online quiz to predict the premium drink’s next big European club partners.
None of the upwardly mobile quartet of Ugochukwu Jay Chikezie, Chinedu Jude Mbanefo, Onyedika Nwokedike and Nneamaka Anyanwu, is new to international travel. In fact, Ugochukwu (Let’s just call him Ugo) only just recently returned from a trip to the United Kingdom, while the only lady among the pack, Nneamaka (Amaka) relocated to Nigeria from California in the United States, only last year. But this particular all-expense paid trip sponsored by Star is still the stuff of dreams for them.
“I come to London quite frequently either for business or with my family, but this is the first time another organization is picking my travel bill and spoiling me silly,” says Ugo, e tech entrepreneur. “In fact, my wife was jealous after seeing the pictures that I posted to her only on the first day of the trip. By the time the four days are through, I’m sure it would be an unforgettable experience.”

Indeed, Star has pulled out all the stops to give the lucky four a treat. From the Murtala Muhammad airport in Lagos where they were checked in via a fast track, to London Heathrow where they were again ushered in like special guests of the Queen of England, it’s been a royal treatment all the way.
“I never thought the (Star Lager) competition was real,” says Chinedu, a construction engineer and Manchester United fan. “A friend in one of my WhatsApp groups of about 20 people posted the link to the competition and encouraged the rest of us to enter. I didn’t take it very serious but I entered anyway. So, you could imagine my surprise when I got a call that I had been shortlisted.”
Winning one of the four slots wasn’t that straightforward, however. Eight fans were originally shortlisted from among one thousand plus entries, after which Star asked them to campaign and mobilize for votes. The four among the eight with the highest number of votes would win the tickets to London. A furious campaign began!

“I was disadvantaged from the start because I don’t have many friends in Nigeria yet,” says Amaka. “Most of my friends are in the diaspora, especially in California. Because of the nine hour time difference between California and Nigeria, I had to stay up very late in Lagos to mobilize for votes because there was a deadline for voting.”
Voting started 10pm on a Sunday night and ended 4pm the following day, Monday.  Onyedika (Let’s call him Onye), is a lawyer and works with the UTL Trust Management Services Limited, formerly Union Trustees Limited. He got to work on that Monday, but he couldn’t concentrate!
“I was monitoring the voting,” begins the bespectacled solicitor. “I had mobilized all my friends on social media the previous night and I was well placed to win. But in the morning, I noticed that the other guys started catching up and overtaking me. I became seriously worried. I couldn’t concentrate on my work and I started praying for the voting to close.”


Ugo was the main guy doing the catching up. “I was far behind in the voting on Monday morning so I called all my staff (about 30 of them) and declared a work-free day. I told them the only work they had to do was win me the ticket, so they all stated mobilizing their friends on social media to vote for me.. If I didn’t win, I was going to sack everybody,” he joked.  Ugo’s strategy worked perfectly. He finished with the highest number of votes.
By contrast, Amaka was helpless as the final hours of voting approached. “I had played my last card and the only thing I could do was hope and pray. My friends in California has gone to sleep and I couldn’t mobilize votes anymore.. What added to my anxiety was that there was a glitch in the system and some of my votes didn’t register initially. But when the system was rectified, my numbers surged. I was just grateful to survive in the end.” She came fourth in the voting and grabbed the last ticket to London.

On the first day their trip, the lucky quartet had visited a bunch of tourist sites in London, they rode an open-roof bus like champions on a trophy parade and had a whole capsule to themselves on the London Eye where again they were fast-tracked like the Star guests that they were.
“This trip has been fantastic, gushes Amaka. “Being the only lady, I thought I would get bored, but the guys have been great. No airs, no attitude. We’ve all bonded like we’ve known each other for ages. It’s a great experience for me. The best part is that the fun is not over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning.”
PS: Watch out for my next diary on how the Star guests are having the fun of their lives in London. On the menu is a big game in the English Premier League on Saturday. I will be there also to report it for you live here, on www.completeportsnigeria.com.
L-R: Mumini Alao, Deji Omotoyinbo of Sports Express and Shina Oludare of Goal



Thursday, September 21, 2017

AITEO’s Timely Rebuttal

JUST WHEN the good times are returning to Nigerian football, some disgruntled elements appear bent on causing disaffection within the system for their own selfish ends. That was my interpretation of the FAKE NEWS that was circulated in the media on Tuesday, 19 September, 2017 to the effect that Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) sponsors, the oil and gas outfit, Aiteo Group, were allegedly considering a review of the partnership purportedly because they were not deriving the benefits promised by the NFF.


Less than 24 hours later, my hunch was confirmed when Aiteo firmly debunked the fake news and reaffirmed their commitment to the sponsorship deals with the NFF. In a statement signed by their Senior Manager, Corporate Communications, Ndiana-Abasi Matthew, the company declared that: “The deal (with the NFF) is effective for five years and we have no plans to renege on our decision.” The firm also praised the NFF for “its management and execution of its national team objectives within the short term of our relationship.”

Shame to bad people!

The internet and social media have liberalized access to mass media publishing. One of the major downside of this liberalization is the proliferation of unverified content (a.k.a. FAKE NEWS). People just sit in front of their computer or flip out their mobile devices and fabricate “news” which they circulate instantly.

Despite this misuse, the internet and social media will continue to be a source of news, either fake or real. The challenge is for professional media practitioners to show greater discretion in differentiating credible news from half truths and outright lies so that they do not mislead their audience or tarnish the image of the people and organizations that they report.

The fact that such a sensitive story was attributed to a faceless, “anonymous Aiteo official” should have rang some alarm bells. Let’s hope its another learning curve for all concerned.
Aiteo’s sponsorship is one of the best things to happen to Nigerian football in a long time. The company guarantees the salaries of all national team coaches, (one of the most sticky issues in our football) for five years and also sponsors the FA Cup (renamed Aiteo Cup) which had been without a sponsor for several years.

The internet and social media have liberalized access to mass media publishing. One of the major downside of this liberalization is the proliferation of unverified content (a.k.a. FAKE NEWS). People just sit in front of their computer or flip out their mobile devices and fabricate “news” which they circulate instantly.

Despite this misuse, the internet and social media will continue to be a source of news, either fake or real. The challenge is for professional media practitioners to show greater discretion in differentiating credible news from half truths and outright lies so that they do not mislead their audience or tarnish the image of the people and organizations that they report.

The fact that such a sensitive story was attributed to a faceless, “anonymous Aiteo official” should have rang some alarm bells. Let’s hope its another learning curve for all concerned.

Aiteo’s sponsorship is one of the best things to happen to Nigerian football in a long time. The company guarantees the salaries of all national team coaches, (one of the most sticky issues in our football) for five years and also sponsors the FA Cup (renamed Aiteo Cup) which had been without a sponsor for several years.


Anyone who truly loves Nigerian football should be looking to protect the Aiteo/NFF partnership rather than truncate it. Whoever manufactured that divisive story about a non-existent rift must have a rethink.

Contrary to the impression created that Aiteo were not getting good mileage for their sponsorship, a mere observation of the media and public discourse tells a different story. Not many Nigerians (including this writer) had ever heard about the company before they commenced their partnership with the NFF. But now, the name rings a million positive bells whenever its mentioned.

Also, the Nigerian media has been quite cooperative in immediately adopting “Aiteo Cup” as the new name for the FA Cup. I remember that a particular telecoms company was not that lucky with the media when it started sponsoring the domestic football league many years ago. Some radio stations demanded to be paid before they would say the company’s name on air as title sponsors of the league.  However, the matter was later resolved.

The global practice is that sponsors buying a sports property usually have an activation/publicity budget set aside. In fact, in many cases, sponsors engage marketing communications consultants and even spend more on activation/publicity than they spent on acquiring the property itself because it is from the activation/publicity that they derive their benefits in terms of patronage, public goodwill, top of the mind awareness, etcetra.

Whatever it is, Aiteo’s strategy for activation/publicity of its NFF partnership can be enhanced. But even as it is presently, the company has not done badly at all. The public goodwill and awareness for the Aiteo brand is massive. It can only get better.

The Super Eagles are on the verge of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup after annihilating our perennial rivals Cameroon over two legs last month. As I write this, the home-based Super Eagles had also just beaten another of our eternal rivals, Ghana, 2-0 to qualify for the semi-final of the West African Football Union (WAFU) Cup taking place on Ghana’s soil.

These type of victories bring a lot of joy to millions of Nigerians and Aiteo can be proud to be a part of those making it happen by paying the national coaches their salaries on schedule. When the Eagles finally wrap up the World Cup ticket and the Aiteo Cup also enters the final stages, the company can only receive more positive vibes from soccer-loving Nigerians.

I say thank you Aiteo for shaming the saboteurs and purveyors of fake news with your timely rebuttal. I’m sure that the Nigerian people appreciate your interventionist role in our football.


BARELY a month after the Nigerian women national basketball team D’Tigress won the African Championship (Afrobasket) for Women in Bamako, Mali, the men’s team, D’Tigers last weekend also emerged runners-up to co-host country Tunisia in the Afrobasket final for men.

Gradually, we’re beginning to cement our place as a force to be reckoned with in African basketball. I hope the warring factions in the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF) will sheat their swords and work together to translate these continental achievements to global recognition.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Can United Return Nigeria To The Plateau?

NO! This article is not about Manchester United of England. It is about Plateau United of Nigeria.
Last Saturday, Plateau United Football Club of Jos emerged champions of the 2017 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) for the first time in their history. The victory didn't come easy as the Tin City boys were chased all the way until the last day of the 38-week marathon by Mountain of Fire and Miracles (MFM) Football Club of Lagos.



With just one point separating both teams on the league table going into the last games of the season, a win for MFM in their fixture away to El-Kanemi of Maiduguri and a loss for Plateau at home to Enugu Rangers would have handed the title to the MFM Boys. But in the end, it was Plateau that won 2-0 to throw a jam-packed Rwan Pam stadium in Jos into wild jubilation. MFM, meanwhile, lost 2-1 to El-Kanemi to finally settle for second place.
Apart from collecting the highest points total of 66, Plateau also scored the highest number of goals (49), conceded the least (25), had the best goals difference (+24), suffered the fewest losses (10) and were tied with MFM for the greatest number of wins (19). Essentially, they ticked all the statistical columns on the league table in green and were the best team overall. They are indeed worthy champions.

While Plateau coach Kennedy Boboye and his boys have won the right to celebrate a historic triumph, it is pertinent that the club management should start planning immediately for their participation in the CAF Champions League next year.. Nigerian club sides have been languishing miserably at the bottom of the valley of African football since Enyimba of Aba last won the continent's premier club competition in 2003. The big question is whether Plateau United can live up to their name and return Nigeria to the plateau of African club football.



REMARKABLE

Sharing that responsibility with Plateau are second-placed MFM whose story is also remarkable. In 2016, MFM escaped relegation from the NPFL by the skin of their teeth when their goalkeeper saved a penalty kick in the final game of the season. One year later, they were contesting gamely for the title which shows how far they've come in a short time. Coach Fidelis Ilechukwu may sound boastful in his interviews but he has lived up to his promise to turn the club's fortunes around if given the freedom to work. I'm sure that Lagos fans cannot wait to watch continental football again next season, having experienced it last during the glory days of Stationery Stores and Julius Berger.

Enyimba, meanwhile, also return to the continent in the second-tier CAF Confederations Cup, after robbing Akwa United of the ticket in the penultimate week of the season. What a close miss for Akwa chairman Paul Bassey.
While the top three clubs in the NPFL can look back on a satisfying season, it's a gnashing of teeth for my beloved Shooting Stars (3SC) who find themselves relegated, yet again, alongside Remo Stars, Gombe United and ABS who all are going back down after just one season in the top flight.

Before the last games kicked off last Saturday, I made what I confessed was a "biased prediction" on Twitter that 3SC would escape relegation by winning their game away to Niger Tornadoes. I knew that their chances were slim, especially when the players went on strike to protest non-payment of their salaries just days to the crucial game. The strike was later called off but the damage had been done. Nevertheless, I stuck my head out fanatically for them just to show my love for a club that I have supported from childhood. Unsurprisingly, they lost 2-0 in Minna and they will have to play in the Nigeria Nationwide League (NNL) next season.

A close look at the final league table reveals a very hard fought contest. The gap between champions Plateau and fourth placed Akwa United was only six points. Only one point separated MFM (62 points) from Enyimba (61) while Akwa (60) were only a further point adrift.

At mid-table, it was a bumper-to-bumper affair as five teams (Lobi Stars, Kano Pillars, FC IfeanyiUbah, Sunshine Stars and Tornadoes) finished on 54 points, three (Abia Warriors, Enugu Rangers and Wikki Tourists) finished on 53 while two (Rivers United and Katsina United) finished on 52. Relegated 3SC had 50 points, which means just one more win could have catapulted them to as high as a 12th place finish on the log.

On face value, the close race suggests a League that is vibrant, but insiders and the participants themselves know that there's more to this "vibrancy." The key factor appears to be some crooked referees who continue to manipulate the results of matches in favour of home teams. And because all (or, at least, the majority) of the club sides benefit from this unwholesome act in their home games, the rogue referees simply sit in the middle and rob away clubs in turns.

Remo Stars may have finished bottom of the log deservedly, but I hear that their case was worsened by the proprietor's refusal to ask referees for favours during their home games. Not surprisingly, the club suffered the highest number of home defeats in the just concluded season.

Thanks to the League Management Committee (LMC) led by Mallam Shehu Dikko, the NPFL has continued to improve in crowd attendance, television coverage (despite a mid-season dispute with DSTV SuperSport), international partnerships and overall brand image. But dubious officiating by corrupt and incompetent referees will continue to rubbish all these gains if something drastic is not done about it. Stakeholders in Nigerian football must call out Nigeria Referees Association (NRA) boss Tade Azeez to answer serious questions about the credibility of his association.

BRIBES

The referees don't operate in isolation, however. Club administrators and coaches should stop pretending that they don't know what is going on as the majority of them are complicit. They are the ones giving bribes to the referees to manufacture penalty kicks for them when playing at home, a winning goal is not forthcoming and time is running out. They only cry blue murder when they suffer similar treatment at away games. If the club managers can resolve genuinely among themselves to stamp out the scourge, they can do it. Then, it would be easier to spot the black sheep among them and sanction them accordingly.

The expulsion and life ban imposed on Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey by FIFA over a match-fixing allegation is still fresh in the news even as I write this. South Africa who were the innocent beneficiaries of Lamptey's manipulation have only recently agreed to replay the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Senegal who had petitioned FIFA in the first place after Lamptey awarded against them a penalty kick that did not exist. That episode must have alerted other rogue referees around the world that their days are numbered.

MESSAGE

The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) who appoint referees for the NPFL should take a cue and send out a similarly strong message to the NRA. Tade Azeez and his men (and women) should be told in very clear terms that the NFF is willing to impose life bans on corrupt referees who are intent on sabotaging the football league and this should be inserted in the rule books. Azeez equally should show a commitment to fishing out the bad eggs that are giving the NRA a bad name, and stop exposing referees who do their jobs professionally to our collective condemnation. Enough is enough!


NIGERIA VS ZAMBIA:


NO HEAD-TO-HEAD HEADACHE!

DESPITE my explanation last week, I have noticed from feedback that lots of readers still do not understand the minimum requirement for Nigeria to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals. Most people are relying on the head-to-head rule to conclude with finality that a draw in our next game against Zambia would be enough to qualify just because we had previously beaten them 2-1 away in Ndola. This is not so. 

The head-to-head rule was the primary tie-breaker during the 2006 World Cup qualifiers and Angola took advantage of it to eliminate Nigeria. But head-to-head is NOT the primary tie-breaker this time around. According to article 20.6 and 20.7 of the FIFA regulations for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the following are the determinant factors (tie-breakers) in terms of priority: 

1- Overall points (3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, 0 points for a loss)
2- Overall goal difference
3- Overall goals scored
4- Points in matches between tied teams
5- Goal difference in matches between tied teams
6- Goals scored in matches between tied teams
7- Away goals scored in matches between tied teams (if the tie is only between two teams in home-and-away league format)
8- Fair play points
9- First yellow card: minus 1 point
10- Indirect red card (second yellow card): minus 3 points
11- Direct red card: minus 4 points
12- Yellow card and direct red card: minus 5 points
13 – Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organizing Committee
From the above list, the head-to-head tie-breakers are factors 4, 5, 6 and 7 in that order. But these factors can only come into play if factors 1, 2 and 3 fail to separate the teams in contention.


               CAF Qualification: 3rd round: group B

P    W    D    L     F     A    GD Pts

1.   Nigeria     4     3     1     0    10    3    +7 10
2.   Zambia 4     2     1     1     6     4    +2 7
3.   Cameroon 4     0     3     1     3     7     -4 3
4.   Algeria   4     0     1     3     3     8     -5 1


Looking at the group table as things stands now, Nigeria is well positioned to qualify either on points, or on goals difference or on number of goals scored, the goals count coming into play in the event that Nigeria somehow finish on the same points total as Zambia. Therefore, it's unlikely (although not impossible) that the group will ever be decided on the head-to-head stats.

If Nigeria wins in Uyo as expected on 7 October, they qualify automatically with unassailable 13 points. But should Zambia win or draw the match, then both teams will take the contest to the final match day in November when Nigeria visit Algeria and Zambia host Cameroun.

Obviously, I'm tipping the Eagles to end all these discussions with a clear victory over Zambia on 7 October. As we can see, these head-to-head permutations bring a lot of headache! 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

‘Group Of Death’ Lives Up To Billing

WHEN the draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers was made last year, Africa’s Group ‘B’ featuring Algeria, Cameroun, Nigeria and Zambia was dubbed as the “Group of Death.” Well, it is living up to its name 100 per cent.

After four rounds of matches, the World Cup dreams of relative “favourites” Algeria (1point) and Cameroun (2 points) are dead and buried, leaving Nigeria (10 points) to slug it out for the sole qualifying ticket with the group dark horses Zambia (7 points). Just when the Super Eagles thought they had done the most difficult part by eliminating their eternal rivals Indomitable Lions (4-0, 1-1) in last weekend’s double header, the Chipolopolo have emerged as a real threat by also dumping out the Desert Foxes (3-1, 1-0).
The fifth round game between Nigeria and Zambia on 7 October in Uyo has assumed great significance. It will be the next “Game of Our Lives.” A win for the Eagles seals their ticket to Russia. A draw or defeat extends the tussle to the wire in November when Zambia host Cameroun and Nigeria visit Algeria. Surely, the Eagles must avoid the tension that that would bring upon them. They must close out the race when the Zambians come to Uyo in 7 October, grab the win and move to an unassailable 13 points before the final round of games.
Regular readers of this column would recall that 13 points was the qualifying target that I set for the Eagles when the draw was made last year. I projected that we must win nine points from our first three games and 13 overall by match day 5 so that the final game in Algeria would be inconsequential.
After four rounds of games, nothing has changed and the Eagles can still reach the target as projected. My only surprise is that it is Zambia, not Algeria and Cameroun, who are giving us a run for the ticket to Russia.


Humiliation For Cameroun
Zambia are the next focus of our attention, but there’s no way I’m going to pass up the opportunity to rub in the Eagles humiliation of Cameroun last weekend in Uyo and Yaounde. The Indomitable Lions have brought so much grief on Nigeria football fans that whenever we exert some measure of revenge, we must celebrate it. Someone actually reminded me on social media about my resolve to celebrate even if it was Nigeria cockroaches beating Cameroun cockroaches in a race!
I found the Eagles 4-0 win in Uyo particularly satisfying. Also, I extremely enjoyed the various media descriptions of what the Eagles did to the Lions: Humiliate, annihilate, trounce, massacre, tame, disgrace, destroy!
On a more serious note, my reading of the game is that the Cameroun coach Hugo Broos was arrogant and over-confident in his approach probably because of their status as current African champions. Being the away team, I thought they would have started on a cautious note, frustrate Nigeria with some defensive tactics, then take us out on the counter as we got desperate in search of a goal. Broos did exactly the opposite and got punished for it. Right from the kick-off, the Lions went straight into attack and the Eagles had to ride an early storm. But once the storm subsided, it was the Eagles that repeatedly tore apart a disjointed Cameroun defence with some incisive play by Mikel Obi, Odion Ighalo and Victor Moses who all scored before substitute Kelechi Iheanacho added the gloss.
In the return leg in Yaounde, Broos had learned his lesson the hard way and the Lions were more cautious at the start even though they were now playing at home. Man-for-man, the Eagles had better quality all over the pitch and should have been more than one goal (scored by Moses Simon) ahead before Cameroun managed a late equalizer from the penalty spot to secure the 1-1 draw.

Over the two legs, my man of the tie was centre back Leon Balogun who marshaled the Eagles defence excellently. Captain Mikel Obi was awesome in midfield and Victor Moses was unplayable on the flanks. Apart from Ighalo’s physical presence which perpetually unsettled the Cameroun defence, he also showed some great skills that I never knew he possessed. In goal for Nigeria, home boy Ikechukwu Ezenwa made the error that resulted in the second leg penalty for Cameroun, but overall, the home boy responded well to being blooded in such a crucial tie when Nigeria looked like having a goalkeeping crisis.
Finally, I doff my hat for Eagles coach Gernot Rohr whose team selection and tactics completely overwhelmed the Lions. With the benefit of hindsight, the nine high profile games that Cameroun played (six at the 2017 AFCON which they won and three at the 2017 Confederations Cup) which we thought had prepared them better than the Eagles had only served to expose their weaknesses to Rohr, the consummate tactician.
I was on Twitter throughout the live coverage of the Nigeria–Cameroun double header. I couldn’t resist giving the “Indomitable Lions” a new name: “Domitable Pussycats!”

Zambia Will Be Dangerous
ONE of my followers on Twitter suggested after our second leg game against Cameroun that the Russia 2018 ticket, though so close, was “not yet Uhuru” for Nigeria. After watching Zambia complete a double over Algeria (3-1 at home and 1-0 away), I cannot agree more. With absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Zambians will be very dangerous customers when they visit Nigeria in next fixture on 7 October.
Since the Eagles beat them 2-1 in Ndola on match day one, the Zambians have been a changed team. Coach Wedson Nyirenda has promoted several players from their youth team and they’ve not lost another game since then. They are skilful and athletic, full of running and have a big heart which they demonstrated in getting a third goal against Algeria in the first leg even when playing with 10 men against 11.
Zambia also have a history of close rivalry with Nigeria. In 17 confrontations between both countries at senior level since 1973, Nigeria have won seven, drawn five and lost five. The biggest contest was the 1994 AFCON final in Tunisia where a relatively new Zambian team, assembled after most of the original team died in a plane crash, stood up gamely to our Golden Generation Super Eagles before narrowly succumbing 2-1.
Evidently, Zambia are supremely capable of giving Nigeria another good fight in Uyo on 7 October. Unlike Cameroun who adopted an arrogant tactical approach and got severely punished for it, I expect Zambia to come with a game plan to frustrate Nigeria with some solid defending. They will sit back and look to catch us with quick counter attacks. If they can’t get a win, they will target a draw which will drag the contest for the World Cup ticket to the final day when they would hope to have a better chance at home to Cameroun while Nigeria goes on a tricky road trip to Algeria. It’s up to the Super Eagles to destroy Zambia’s permutations by simply beating them in Uyo. A couple of early goals like we scored in Ndola in the first leg will ease the tension and set us on the way to Russia.
Considering all the hype, our two-legged tie against Cameroun turned out to be an anti-climax of sort, but I suspect that Zambia will be a true test for the Eagles. It’s just as well because it means we cannot afford to be complacent. Thankfully, none of our key players is suspended for that game. Barring any injuries at their club sides and with Gernot Rohr again conjuring the right tactics, Nigeria will win, in sha Allah.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Super Eagles, Just Win!

I KNOW that I speak the minds of most Nigerians when I say that all that we expect from the Super Eagles in the first leg of their World Cup qualifying double-header against Cameroun on Friday, September 1 is nothing short of victory.



Most people that I have spoken to say they really don’t care about coach Gernot Rohr’s team selection, his tactical formation or how well or badly the Eagles played in Uyo provided they won the game “even by half a goal,” if there was anything like that. The mantra has been, “Super Eagles, Just Win!” I cannot agree more.

However, it’s not out of place to still speculate on the players best suited to engineer Nigeria’s victory and how best to overcome the dreaded Lions.

Completesportsnigeria.com deputy editor Nurudeen Obalola (now in Yaoundé) has done an excellent job in his article with the title “There’s more to Cameroun than just brute strength” (See Nurudeen’s column on completesportsnigeria.com home page).

There’s also an expose by Soccertalk fan Tunde Ogunnoiki on why Cameroun are so difficult to beat (see below). Even for me, Tunde’s narrative is a revelation.

Nurudeen and Tunde’s articles may elicit more worry than cheer for the average Super Eagles fan about the onerous task ahead on Friday. But rather than worry, we should simply show more support for our national team in whatever way we can. Fans at the Godswill Akpabio stadium must be the Eagles 12th man by cheering them from start to finish. The rest of us should pray and believe.

On my part, I am wearing my cap of Positive Thinking and expecting the indefatigable “Nigerian Spirit” in captain Mikel Obi and his troops to shine through. Last week, I admitted in this column that the Eagles were the underdogs against the Lions, but I still BELIEVE that the Eagles will win.

Clearly, Victor Moses running at Cameroun with the ball at his feet, carries the biggest threat in the Eagles attack. But our match hero may yet be the unpredictable Ahmed Musa!

As usual, Musa has been blowing hot and cold in the new season at Leicester City, scoring twice in a Cup game, then getting benched last weekend when Leicester lost to Manchester United in the English Premier League. He may not even make it into Rohr’s starting line-up against Cameroun. But, even as a substitute, I have a feeling that his pace could prove decisive if he delivers his final balls accurately.

Between Moses and Musa lies our match winner as the Eagles pounce to devour the Lions for Sallah meat on Sallah day. Good luck, Nigeria!

Cameroon’s Secret Exposed!

By Tunde Ogunnoiki:
THE Indomitable Lions clash with Nigeria this weekend brings to mind, some fascinating recollections of Cameroonian teams’ exploits. Their ability to secure victory on foreign, often hostile grounds has always amazed many football lovers. Indeed the remarkable performances of Canon Sportive and Tonnere in African Clubs competitions were precursors of the national team’s domination of the continent.

Surely one of the most ruthless of these fearless feats on a foreign soil occurred in 2002. At the semi final stage of the Africa Cup of Nations, the Indomitable Lions encountered the host team, the Malian Eagles. Before commencement of the match, former goalkeeper Thomas Nkono, at that period, a member of the Cameroonian technical crew, walked around the pitch. In spite of his fame in virtually all African stadia, he was pelted with all manner of missiles by the crowd and had to flee quickly to the dressing room. The Cameroonian players took note of the disgrace meted on Nkono and proceeded to inflict a comprehensive 5-0 whipping on the host nation before the very eyes of their rude fans.

The secret of such eye catching results was revealed to me in 1981 when Stationery Stores confronted Union Douala in Yaounde during the first leg of the African Cup Winners Cup final. The amazing performance of Tarila Okorowanta was ably complemented by goalkeeper Peter Rufai when he caught Cameroun national captain Rene Ndjeya”s penalty kick. Even Cameroonian President Ahmadou Ahidjo sprang to his feet in the presidential box in amazement.

After the scoreless match, a group of Cameroonian youngsters, numbering about eight (8) came to the Nigerian supporters begging for Stores souvenirs such as scarf, caps etc. Extremely joyous at the wonderful result, I engaged the boys in the following conversation in French.
 
Me: “It is all over for Union Douala in the return leg in Lagos”.
 
One of them replied: “We shall win in Lagos”.

Me: “Impossible!”

This time, all of them in unison replied “impossible” N’est pas Cameroonians (“impossible” is not a Cameroonian word).

Sadly enough, their utterance was proved prophetic two weeks later. Before the very eyes of the vociferous Stores supporters, Union Douala won 2-1 in Lagos!
The Lesson? From infancy, Cameroonians are indoctrinated that no obstacle is insurmountable. IT IS A NATIONAL MANTRA. This explains why their teams, both at club and national levels conquer hostile environments and succeed against all odds.

On Friday, September 1, 2017, the Super Eagles players must keep in mind that they will face an opponent SUICIDALLY DETERMINED to win the match. The Eagles’ psychologists and technical crew must not believe the Cameroonian coach who said he would be satisfied with four of the six points from both matches. Such a result will be of no use to the Lions as it will still leave Nigeria on seven points with Cameroon on six points. Therefore, Nigeria can still qualify by winning her two remaining matches.

Cameroon will strive to win in Uyo. It is in their DNA to believe that it is possible. Fortunately, we have a team that can beat Cameroon on Friday, but the Super Eagles must come, suitably prepared for a real war.