Off to Bloemfontein – Orange Free State
FIFA were right to recommend that fans take a scenic drive to Bloemfontein. The scenery is wonderful along the 395km route from Johannesburg. Driving to the Orange Free State allowed me to see large chunks of the South African countryside and to make some casual observations:
*There were a starling number of hitchhikers and walkers along the motorway. What amazed me about them is that (a) I usually saw them perhaps 20-40 miles from the nearest conurbation. How did they get to the middle of nowhere and decide to hitch hike or walk from there?!
*Despite what the rest of the world thinks about crime and security in South Africa, I found people quite trusting. On a few occasions I got lost trying to find certain locations, so asked for directions. To my amazement, the people I asked offered to get into my car to show me the way themselves. Even more amazing, both of them were young educated women….even more amazing, one of them was with her boyfriend when I asked, and her boyfriend asked me to drop her off since she was going that way. Since these people live in South Africa, their willingness to trust a stranger is a telling insight of their assessment of security in Orange Free State.
*Bloemfontein is COLD. VERY cold. I woke up to find my car’s windscreen and windows covered in ice, and a layer of icy frost on the floor and grass. The cold was as intense as anything in the northeastern United States or northern Europe in the middle of winter. I must admit to totally misreading the South African weather. When I was told it was winter, I dismissed it – thinking “winter” in Africa meant 70 – 80F. The South Africans have been having a good laugh about foreigners like me who do not realise that it gets this cold in Africa.
The Free State Stadium
My posts about this World Cup have been overwhelmingly positive.However, after a week of 100% positive feedback from yours truly, please allow me a while to whinge. The Free State stadium is not a circular “bowl” shaped stadium like Ellis Park, Soccer City or Old Trafford. It has gaps at its four corners. “So what” I hear you ask. The players might not care about this design but fans do. The stadium design means that finding one’s seating area is a maze like journey of climbing stairs, then going down stairs, then up ramps, then down ramps, through gates, then going through another gate….endlessly. The seating area and gate stamped on one’s ticket actually had little bearing to stadium access. Most stadiums have a compact design that means fans enter via a gate that is adjacent to their seating area. Not this place. I went through the correct gate assigned to me, only to find that my seating area was 25 seating sections away from where I was supposed to sit. I followed the directions from the stewards and stadium signs, only to be blocked off every time I got close by the inaccessible open stadium corners.
It took me over 20 minutes to walk around in a daze inside the stadium perimeter – trying to find my seat. Hundreds/thousands had the same experience as me. As a result I missed the first 20-25 minutes of the game. I was still walking around the stadium perimeter when Kalu Uche scored for Nigeria. I heard the roar from outside and immediately guessed that it was Nigeria that scored. That was the way my day was going.
Was Fernando Torres in Bloemfontein?
Three rows in front of me, I thought I saw Fernando Torres. The look, the bleach blonde hair, the rosy red cheeks, I was convinced Torres was in the stands watching the game. I did wonder why (a) he was sitting and joking with a group of Nigerian fans (b) why he was allowed time off to watch an unrelated group game just a day after Spain’s shocking loss to Switzerland. Alas, it was not him. Perhaps Liverpool or Spain are conducting trials to have Torres cloned? If so, they’ve done a good job. This guy was a dead ringer for him. Wonder if he can play like Torres too and is interested in a Green passport?….
In the Stadium – South African and Nigerian Vuvuzelas
I finally found my seat – tired, very cold and extremely pi**ed off at walking around the stadium in circles for 20 minutes while I could hear the game being played, and even more annoyed that I missed Nigeria’s first goal of this World Cup. By the time I found my seat Nigeria were 1-0 up. One strange thing about this World Cup and football fans these days.
Nigerian fans outnumbered the Greeks. On most sides of the ground, I saw seas of green and white, with light sprinkles of Greek blue and white. There was a huge contingent of South Africans too – most supporting Nigeria. Nigerian and South African fans played vuvuzela tunes to each other across the stands. Greek fans were quiet. But Nigeria had retreated into their shell and were rarely threatening the Greek goal. Then again, Greece didn’t exactly carry the menace of Brazil when they attacked.
The atmosphere was no match for the Ellis Park game against Argentina though – which was ELECTRIC. This was an anti-climax after that great occasion. I also noticed something in Bloemfontein I did not see at Johannesburg: empty seats. I think the stadium was about 75% full.
As Average as You can Get
Greece looked toothless, but to be fair, so did Nigeria. It was awful viewing. Two very average teams trying hard to make an impression, but failing. It was a bit like watching a boxing or MMA match where the combatants slap each other because they cannot punch. I thought to myself that even if Nigeria won, they’d struggle against anyone half decent. So would Greece. I realised that Nigeria’s performance against Argentina was actually an OVER-achievement.
Enyeama made an excellent save and kept Nigeria in the game, and Greece were unlucky not to score after a clearance off the line. Nigerian and South African fans cheered the lucky escapes, but I was worried. Nigeria was allowing Greece back into the game.
The Game Changer
Americans often talk about players that are “game changers”. That is players who can change a match situation and win the game for their team with one bit of sublime play or skill. Nigeria has a game changer, but not in the way the Americans conceive.
Given the way my day was going, I glanced away from the pitch momentarily, and of course missed the most controversial event of the match. As I looked away, I heard a roar of disapproval from Greek fans, saw Sani Kaita make a kicking motion with his leg, and Greek player Vassilis Torosidis writhing on the floor beside the advertising boards. I didn’t realise what had happened and was shocked to see the ref produce a red card. Kaita sunk to his knees – crestfallen. He held his arms and hands out to his side almost like a man on a crucifix. I thought to myself that Nigeria don’t have many dirty players and have a good disciplinary record. Nigerian players rarely get sent off for violent conduct. Even in the days of ruthless tacklers like Taribo West, Stephen Keshi and Okechukwu Uche, Nigeria had quite a good disciplinary record. I was confident that TV replays would vindicate Kaita’s innocence.
I got home and watched the TV replay of Kaita aiming a wild knee high kick off the ball at a Greek player and held my head in my hands. With hindsight, WHAT WAS SANI KAITA THINKING?! How can a pro footballer do something so wild in a crucial World Cup match where his team are 1-0 up. As soon as Kaita went off, I knew Nigeria would lose. Although it was a dangerous kick by Kaita that barely made contact, Torosidis went down clutching his face as if someone had shot him in the head at point blank range. He made a meal of it, but Kaita really should know better. That is how players react to tackles at this level – do their best to get the opponent sent off.
But there is hope. If Nigeria can make it still winning at half time, they might be able to frustrate Greece in the second half. Sure enough, Greece equalise one minute before half time. Salpingidis’ shot deflects off Haruna Lukman and totally wrong foots Enyeama who had the shot covered. Yobo is furious and screams at Lukman and the rest for not closing Salpingidis down and stopping the shot. Yobo is maturing into the Captain’s role. I noticed a lot of chat and shouting by him to his team-mates. Why does everything Lukman does turn bad? More about him later…..
Of course the equaliser for Greece completely changes the game. Lacklustre Greece suddenly have their tails up, encouraged by the goal. They immediately abandon their defensive formation and get players forward. Nigeria also have to change their formation. Down to 10 men, striker Osaze e moves to the right flank of midfield (where Kaita was playing), leaving Yakubu up front on his own as Nigeria’s lone forward. Nigeria go into the break hoping to hang on in the second half. Greek fans celebrate, Nigerian vuvuzelas suddenly go quiet.
The Second Half – Depressing Viewing
To have a chance of winning this game, Nigeria had to defend deep in numbers, then hit Greece with quick counter attacks. They defended deep all right, but could not counter attack because of the wayward passing of Lukman, the lack of someone to play a killer pass, and the lack of strikers with explosive acceleration. Nigeria’s quickest player (Obafemi Martins) was on the bench, and their second quickest player (Julius Aghahowa) is in Turkey. Greece dominated possession and pinned Nigeria back in their own area. Danny Shittu was a rock at the back, heading, blocking and tackling with great conviction.
Vincent Enyeama to the Rescue
Once again, Enyeama kept Nigeria in the game – pulling off a breathtaking save to stop a top corner bound header, and another great save when a Greek goal seemed certain. He has matured into a good goalkeeper during his time in Israel. He also caught crosses well – not like the young raw Gk we saw at Enyimba who flapped at crosses like a wayward bat. He actually looks like a composed international GK right now. Nigeria’s player of the tournament by far.
The one time Nigeria did manage to break came from another great Enyeama save. The clearance found Nigeria racing away in a great position with 3 Nigerian players outnumbering 2 Greek defenders. A goal seemed certain. Obasi raced away down the right, played a great through ball for Yakubu who was central and one on one with the keeper. EVERY man, woman and child in my stand got up on their feet egging Yakubu to score, a goal seemed certain. Because everyone was standing up, I had to stand up too and look over the heads of people in front of me. Some Nigerian fans were already cheering and simply waited for the net to bulge. Yakubu’s shot was saved….but the ball ran straight back to Chinedu Obasi who had an open goal to aim at with the Greek GK prostrate on the floor. All Obasi had to do was gently side-foot the ball and the ball would roll in. Somehow on his stronger/favoured right foot, he put the ball about 4 feet wide of goal. Missed an open goal.
I am very surprised that Yakubu stayed on the pitch for 90 minutes. He didn’t exactly carry a great threat. He should have been subbed off for the quicker, livelier, more direct Martins, whose pace could have troubled Greece.
Nigerians are not prone to swear, but I heard a lot of swearing, invectives and insults hurled at Obasi and Yakubu after that double miss. Nigerians fans were really angry. South Africans cheering on Nigeria were angry too. That miss seemed to sap Obasi’s confidence and drain away Nigeria’s belief. Obasi tried a clever flick on the right wing. It went horribly wrong and the ball went out of play. The fans were not happy and howled derision at him. Not long after the inevitable happens: a long range Greek shot was saved by Enyeama, but rather than smother the ball, I think he tried to pick it up in one motion…the ball ran free straight to Greek player Vassilis Torosidis who scored to put Greece in front. Torosidis is the player involved in the incident in which Kaita was sent off. Greeks will think it was poetic justice. Nigerians appeal for offside. I have no idea whether it was offside. I have been too upset to watch a replay of the goal.
The Curse of the Left Back
Taye Taiwo went off injured with a hamstring injury (again) and had to be replaced by Elderson Uwua Echiejile, who himself also got injured and had to be replaced by Rabiu “Robocop” Afolabi. Subs getting subbed, what is football coming to? I know in my heart that Nigeria cannot come back from this deficit. This Nigeria team is not one that is capable of overturning deficits and overcoming adversity. Apart from the Kenya World Cup qualifier, when was the last time Nigeria overcame a goal deficit to win a competitive match?
FINAL SCORE: Greece 2 -v- Nigeria 1
Nigeria: Vincent Enyeama (Gk), Defenders: Chidi Ordiah, Joseph Yobo, Danny Shittu, Taye Taiwo, Midfielders: Sani Kaita, Dickson Etuhu, Haruna Lukman*, Strikers: Osaze Odemwingie, Yakubu Aiyegbeni
*When he could spare the time
Attendance: 31, 593
That night Greeks popped up everywhere in Bloemfontein. In restaurants, bars and cafes. Nigerians disappeared. The few I saw, walked around with sullen looks and their hands in their pockets like scolded school children. Greece fans strutted like proud peacocks. On the balance of play they deserved to win.
It was a pitiable sight to watch such a limited Nigeria side. Toothless in attack, lacking cutting edge, creativity and pace when going forward. Every Nigerian move is so predictable and slow. No quick tempo passing. They even take ages to make substitutions. Several minutes elapsed after Taiwo’s injury before anyone remembered that it might be a good idea to replace an injured player that had left the pitch. Nigeria played several minutes with only 9 men on the pitch. Then when Echiejile got injured, they AGAIN took ages to bring on his replacement Afolabi.
I still cannot understand Haruna Lukman’s purpose in the team. Is he the playmaker? Well he can’t pass or dribble, and has an uncanny ability to pass the ball to an opposition player or to dribble the ball straight to an opposition player. Is he a holding midfielder? He lacks positional sense or “snap” in his tackles. So he’s not that either. So WHY is he in the team? I’m convinced he must have photos of Lagerback or NFF members involved in something illegal. That is the only way that can explain his continued place in the team.
I spent the night freezing cold in a most uncomfortable room being disturbed by vultures (yes vultures!) making noise outside my bedroom window at 3am in the morning. Perhaps they were there to pick off the carcass of Nigerian football…..
The Fat Lady is About to Sing
Nigeria have not been eliminated – YET. Nigeria are bottom of the group with no points from their two matches, both South Korea and Greece have 3 points, and Argentina lead the group with 6 points. Nigeria still could theoretically qualify. However they need:
(a) to beat South Korea in their final game in Durban on June 22; and
(b) Hope that Argentina beat Greece in their final game; and
(c) hope that Nigeria, South Korea and Greece all finish equal on 3 points, but that Nigeria have a superior goal difference to both Greece and South Korea.
It is a slim chance and Nigeria’s destiny is out of its hands. It is not over yet, but the fat lady is preparing to sing….
History Repeats Itself
A lot of pre-tournament talk about Group B concentrated on the fact that it is very similar to Nigeria’s 1994 World Cup group which also featured Argentina and Greece. I kind of agree and kind of don’t. History is repeating itself, but not circa 1994. History is repeating ala the 2002 World Cup. On that occasion, Nigeria appointed a new coach just a few months befor the World Cup, and lost their first game to Argentina 0-1 after conceding a headed goal from a set piece. In their second game, they took the lead, mentally switched off and allowed the opposition to come back and win the game 1-2. The manager of the winning team on that occasion was…..LARS LAGERBACK.
Where is Femi Opabunmi?
If you want to know how Nigeria’s final game against South Korea will go based on the 2002 World Cup….Nigeria drew their last 2002 game (against England) 0-0. Vincent Enyeama made his international debut in that game, making a breathtaking finger tip save from a long range Paul Scholes shot. A 17 year old “one cap wonder” named Femi Opabunmi also made his debut in that game. Wonder where he is now? He should be 25 years old now and in the prime of his career. I digress…..
More About Vuvuzelas
Stop whining about vuvuzelas everyone. In the stadium the noise is not so bad. It is only when little kids blow them in your ear at shops, restaurants and airports that it gets annoying. For years people have played drums, guitars and trumpets at stadiums, thrown toilet roll, bananas, beer, human excreta and coins, yet vuvuzelas are suddenly public enemy number one?
I actually like the general lack of obscene chanting in the crowds. It has been good natured fun. No obscene chants about players’ mothers and wives.
Things I Learned from this Game
*Lukman Haruna is not ready for this level. He looks raw and had a nightmare. Each time he touched the ball – it was either to give the ball back to Greece with a misplaced pass or to get caught in possession. Even when he did, it was to give the ball away to Greece or to overhit a corner. (also see my previous comments from last week here: http://maxsiollun.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/drums-versus-trumpets-argentina-v-nigeria-at-the-2010-world-cup-in-south-africa/)
*Yakubu’s mobility has decreased with age and injuries. He is living off past accomplishments.
*Kanu – see Yakubu above. The fact that he still remains Nigeria’s most creative player is a damning indictment on the rest of the squad.
*Danny Shittu is a mountain of a man. He is built like the proverbial brick ****house. When he runs towards the ball, he resembles a WWE wrestler about to shoulder charge an opponent. I would not like to be a striker facing him. A powerhouse.
*Vincent Enyeama is Nigeria’s MVP right now. If he was 4 inches taller, he’d not be playing in Israel.