Big news if this is confirmed. Apparently FIFA received warnings that Nigeria was vulnerable to match fixing during the World Cup.
*Suspicions about betting patterns were reported.
*There are allegations that members of Nigeria’s team came forward to claim that their team “was vulnerable to manipulation”.
*A German journalist named Christian Bergmann received a call just before Nigeria’s first World Cup game alleging that “some players from the Nigerian team are actually involved in some form of manipulation”.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but please – no sniggering about Yakubu’s miss against Korea, Kaita’s mad kick against Greece or 419. The plot thickens….
Thank goodness sanity prevailed. After banning its football team from international football for 2 years, Nigeria’s government has reversed its decision. FIFA gave the government a 48 hour ultimatum to reverse the decision or face expulsion from FIFA. Thank goodness the government saw the light and lifted this mad decision that would have done irreparable damage to Nigerian football.
Apparently President Goodluck Jonathan changed his mind after a FIFA delegation led by Nigeria’s Amos Adamu (a member of the FIFA executive committee) talked to the government in Abuja.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has suspended the national football team (the “Super Eagles”) from international football for two years. This was in response to Nigeria’s poor showing at the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa where Nigeria were eliminated in the first round – getting only one point after losing to Argentina and Greece, and drawing with South Korea. Jonathan also dissolved the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) and ordered an audit into financial dealings at the NFF.
While something drastic needed to be done, I am not sure this is the right move. The move is really dangerous and could get Nigeria into serious trouble with FIFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF):
*FIFA looks very dimly on government interference in football.
*The last time Nigeria withdrew from international football events, it did irreparable damage to the football team. After winning the 1994 African Nations Cup, Nigeria’s then Head of State General Sani Abacha banned the national team from defending its title at the 1996 edition in South Africa after getting into a spat with South African President Nelson Mandela. As punishment, Nigeria was banned from the 1998 African Nations Cup, and its golden generation of players such as Okocha, George, Oliseh, Amunike, Amokachi, Ikpeba, Yekini, Taribo West, Okechukwu Uche et al were prevented from defending the title and from virtual victory at the 1996 and 1998 tournaments. By the time Nigeria was re-admitted in 2000, this golden generation had aged and were past their prime. Nigerian football has not been the same since.
*If Nigeria does not play at the next African Nations Cup in 2012, it risks being banned AGAIN by CAF AND FIFA.
*Denying international football to the national team will stagnate growth and starve players of quality competition. It will also affect the work permits of UK based players like Yakubu, Yobo, Olofinjana and other Nigerian players that want to move to the UK. Renewal and granting of work permits is conditional on playing a stipulated number of matches for Nigeria’s national team.
Bad move in my opinion.
My writing has largely been about Nigeria’s matches at the World Cup. In my preoccupation (and depression!) with Nigeria, I’ve neglected to inform you about my other (largely positive) experiences in South Africa. I attended the FIFA fanfest in Durban this week to watch the South Africa -v- France match. To be honest watching that game with South Africans was more like watching a music concert than watching a football match.
Venue: Durban’s “Golden Mile”
Durban is a lovely city right by the Indian ocean. The weather is warm, sunny and bright, but overwhelmingly hot. It is very comfortable. In the days leading up to the France game, most South Africans I spoke to in the days leading up to the game were very apprehensive and thought they had no chance against France. No amount of telling me telling them that sporting upsets occur often could lift their pessimism. They had largely accepted that their World Cup was over and that France would demolish them. Their reasons for pessimism were apparent. France’s team is loaded with world class players: Thierry Henry, Franck Ribery, Patrice Evra, Yoann Gourcouff, Florent Malouda, William Gallas….
A Nation Behind “Bafana Bafana”
For several hours before the game, radio and TV stations broadcast wall to wall build up of the game. Downtown on Victoria Street all the shoppers I saw were wearing the Green and Yellow shirts of Bafana Bafana. The nation seemed to grind to a halt. Everyone I spoke to was making plans to leave work early to watch the game. For several hours, the soundstage on the Durban beach blasted out loud music and PA announcements to pump up South Africans. The noise was audible from my hotel room and could be heard for several blocks around Durban’s “Golden Mile” beach area.
Entrance into the FIFA fanfest was easy. Security was tight but friendly as always. My bag was searched but without aggression, rudeness or making you feel like a criminal (*American customs, immigration and security officials please take note – again). I got to the venue an hour before kick off and already thousands of people were inside. I was struck by how young the fans were and how many women were in the crowd. The women outnumbered the men. Most were young (16-25) and danced, sang and cheered there way into the arena. An hour before kick off most people had taken up their seats, and had food, water and Coke ready. Those that could not find seats stood on the beach, stood on staircases or found any vantage point from where they could watch the action. I could no longer see the beach sand because it was completely covered by the feet of thousands of people, nor could I even see the sea as that was blocked by a mass of human heads, bodies and legs. I took photos by holding my camera as high as possible and taking snaps above everyone’s head.
Apartheid: Past and Present
Luckily I managed to find a seat on the steps of the fanfest and planted myself in between a group of giggling happy young women and two old ladies sat to my right. I looked at those two old ladies and thought that they must have lived most of their lives under Apartheid. One of them had burn scars on her face and arm. I thought she must also have had internal emotional scars from Apartheid. They were a far contrast from the giggling energetic young women around me. Some of whom were born either after Apartheid, or were too young to remember it. Past and present sitting side by side.
The crowd itself was very cosmopolitan with whites, blacks, Indians, and fans from other African countries present. Nigerians were recognisable in their green and white wigs and face paint. They were there to watch before heading to Nigeria’s match with South Korea later that night.
The Most Beautiful National Anthem in the World
Before the game started, South Africans respectfully sat down and silently observed the French national anthem. However it was a different story for the South African anthem. All the South Africans sprang to their feet. The national anthem Nkosi sikeleli Afrika was sung with passion and gusto. A young lady to my left sternly looked at me as I continued sitting down when all the South Africans around me (white, black and Indian) rose to their feet to sing the anthem. She was almost telling me with her stare: “how dare you sit down during the national anthem?” It was an almost spiritual experience. The anthem was sung beautifully in tune, rhythmically – all races singing a Zulu song with real conviction. In retrospect, I regretted not standing up and singing it with them.
I was expecting France to annihilate South Africa, but was too polite to tell my South African hosts. When Bongani Khumalo rose to head home a corner inside the first 10 minutes I was stunned. I muttered “I don’t believe this”. Everyone rose to their feet. The roar of the fans celebrating was ear piercing.
I still thought France had enough quality to come back. I looked down to check my camera for a few seconds and as I did, I suddenly head a roar and saw the ref produce a red card. I could not figure out what happened. I Djibril Cisse looked crestfallen and started trudging off. The South African fans roared with delight and started waving Cisse goodbye. Then Yoann Gourcouff started walking off the pitch. The replay clarified the confusion….Gourcouff had been sent off for going up for a header with his elbow leading. The big screen flashed a shot of French coach Raymond Domenech holding his head in his hands. His world was falling apart. To be honest, Domenech is a very lucky man to have a job, given how bad some of his results have been over the past few years with such a talented team. When the Gourcouff red card was confirmed, South African fans cheered again and this time waved bye bye to Gourcouff.
On the Verge of a Miracle
Still in the first half and Katlego Mphela increased South Africa’s lead. 2-0 to the hosts. It was pandemonium. People were cheering, dancing, high fiving, embracing. Young guys took advantage of everyone’s delight by sneaking in a few hugs with the three busty young women behind me. I’ve never seen women with breasts that large. Anyway, I digress….
I shouted “its over” and knew even France could not overcome a 0-2 deficit against the home team with 10 men. As everyone was still celebrating the second goal, South Africa scored again. THREE-NIL to South Africa! People were now on the edge of joyous madness. The two old ladies to my right were screaming like mad people. It took fans over a minute to realise that the goal had been disallowed. Several thousand people continued singing, dancing and cheering despite my continued shouts of “it was offside”. They just could not calm themselves down enough to realise that the linesman had raised his flag before the ball went in. Passion of this sort was almost scary.
In the second half, France went for broke and brought on Henry and Malouda. Malouda gave France some hope and crushed South Africa’s dreams of advancing by pulling a goal back. 2-1 to South Africa. South Africa then needed to score 4 goals to get through to round 2. With about 20 minutes left, fans starting trickling out and leaving. They did not want to stay to the end to watch their beloved Bafana bow out. The first host nation to ever be eliminated in the first round (group phase) of the World Cup.
When I got back, TV stations were very anxious and nervous as to whether fans would continue watching the World Cup now that the hosts were out. They pleaded with South Africans to “adopt” and support another African team or “anyone else”. Both Supersport and SABC made these appeals. They were keen to maintain fan interest.
Bravo South Africa
South Africa should be proud of themselves for their performance. Given the quality of the opposition they faced, losing only one game and beating a star studded French team was an overachievement. On paper they were probably one of the three weakest teams in the World Cup and played without their most dangerous player (Benni McCarthy). They never realistically stood a chance of making a big impact at this World Cup. On my way back, a young South African lady on my bus astutely said that people had got carried away by the joy and emotion of the World Cup and unrealistically expected South Africa to beat world class opposition. She reminded everyone that “This is Bafana, not Brazil”. How true….
*There were a lot of prostitutes around in Durban and Johannesburg. I was driving through the upmarket Joburg suburb of Sandton one night and was shocked to see how many prostitutes were by the side of the road advertising their “goods”. One pulled down her top to expose her cleavage to me. In Durban they were even more blatant and openly propositioned passers by. One white Westerner (sounded British) got lucky and I saw him walking away with a black prostitute. In the hotels along the beach front, I saw prostitutes walking in and out of hotels. Some had obviously been “booked”.
*The quality of coverage by SABC and Supersport has been excellent. They have continual recap, highlights and analysis shows as well as live broadcasts of all the games. They also assembled an excellent cast of former pro footballers to provide colour commentary. Including African legends like Jay Jay Okocha, Stephen Keshi and Abedi Pele. Other guest commentators on South African TV included Kevin Keegan, Edgar Davids, Doctor Khumalo, and Shaun Bartlett. I did laugh when the South African analysts applauded themselves for completing all the stadia on time, and one German pundit chimed in: “of course, they stadiums were designed by a German architect!” Priceless. The worst commentator was former Nigerian Captain Stephen Keshi. He is about the most INarticulate current or former Nigerian footballer I have ever heard speak. He can barely string two sentences together. Amazing that a man who has spent so much time coaching millionaire footballer, living in Europe and in high brow company is totally incapable of expressing himself in intelligible terms. Shameful.
*Had Ivory Coast been in Nigeria’s group, they would have qualified for round 2. I feel for them. An immensely talented team that has not gotten the luck of the draw. Drawn against Argentina, Serbia and Holland last time, and Brazil and Portugal this time. This great generation of players might never play in the latter stages of a World Cup. A shame as they have the talent to reach the quarter finals.
*Brazil are going to win this World Cup. I’ve said so since last year. Everyone calls Spain the “favourites”, but Brazil are not just flair. Their coach Dunga has crafted a team in his old image: tough, resilient and uncompromising. They have flair players like Kaka, Elano and Robinho. However when tackles start flying in and it gets physical, they have tough nuts who can look after themselves like Lucio and Gilberto Silva. While slick passing Spain are vulnerable to physical roughhouse teams, no one will bully Brazil. Notice how they reacted when their match with Ivory Coast started to get physical and tackles flew in. Brazil gave as good as they got.
*Given how Lagerback and Berti Vogts performed, was it really worth it firing Amodu Shuaibu? Shuaibu has qualified Nigeria for the World Cup TWICE and NEVER LOST A WORLD CUP QUALIFIER. In the first phase he won 6 out of 6 games (the only 100% record in Africa) and qualified in the second phase – again unbeaten. In the 2010 African Nations Cup in Angola, he lost to games to Ghana and Egypt – the two teams who played in the final and came third. Yet he was fired. To be honest, given what I have seen of this Nigeria team, finishing third with them and playing 12 qualifiers undefeated is a miracle. Not even a combined coaching team of Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola could win trophies with this Nigeria team.
*No country has ever won the World Cup with a foreign coach.
*Nigeria has not won an international senior trophy for 16 (yes SIXTEEN!) years. That should tell you that Nigeria is not a very good football team despite what its people think.
Puke and Projectile Vomiting
After being eliminated, South Africans were anxiously supporting Nigeria. On my way to the stadium, Cameroon and South African fans got on my bus wearing Bafana Bafana and Lions shirts and were cheering on Nigeria. A South African woman in front of me came with her daughter who chatted with, and enjoyed attention from Nigerian men. Sadly the girl’s mother got travel sick and started puking violently everywhere. I wondered what was going on when everyone around me started running for cover. I was the last to notice what was going on. By the time I realised, a disgusting pool of vomit was heading its way toward me. I think some splashed on my left foot. Nice.
A Tale of Two Flags, Big Thighs and a Big Butt
I was about 20 yards away from the pitch, sitting in amongst a group of Nigerian fans with some interesting characters:
*The official Nigerian supporters’ club was about 20-30 yards to my left and they clapped, cheered, danced, sang, and played drums and instruments all game long in their green and white garb.
*Pacing up and down the aisles was a Nigerian police officer in full NPF uniform. Several fans went over to take photos with him. He also had a FIFA accreditation badge. Can’t figure out what he was going there.
*In front of me were a group of 5-6 Nigerian guys and a pretty young South African girl with a gold tooth, and an incredibly curvy “yansh” and thighs. She was obviously the girlfriend of one of them. I could not figure out which one was her boyfriend – which was a statement in itself….
Nigerian fans can be annoying and inconsiderate brats at times. I had two guys carrying large Nigerian flags in the rows in front of, and behind me. The guy in front of me stood up and waved his giant flag all the time – blocking the view of about 20-25 people. Everyone kept shouting at him to sit down and calm down with the flag waving. He just ignored all of us and continued walking around with the flag – blocking everyone’s view until one fan threatened to report him to a steward. Right behind me was a Nigerian with a smaller flag, who kept waving it and resting it on my head. I told him several times that my head was not a flag pole and to get it off me. Yet he persisted in wrapping the flag around my head continually. At one point, he had the temerity to get annoyed with ME for complaining about having a flag draped over my head from behind. He then proceeded to mutter insults about me to his friend in his native tongue. Unbeknown to him, I understood what he said and responded. He was shocked. I asked him whether he thought I was an “Oyinbo” that did not understand any Nigerian languages. We then had an animated conversation about how he had presumed I was Fulani or Igbo.
A Home Game for Nigeria
Before the game started I looked all a home game for Nigeria. Green and white everywhere. I could barely see Koreans in the stadium. I looked around the stands and noticed one lone Korean flag about 100 yards to my right, and one small group of about 100 Korean fans high up in the nosebleed stands. Otherwise all the South African and Nigerians were solidly behind the Super Eagles.
The non Nigerian fans and “Oyinbos” were deeply amused by a Nigerian fan and his vassal who were clad in a pure green and white cassock, rang a bell reminiscent of a funeral chime and walked up and down the aisle with an open bible as if consecrating someone to dust. More people watched this spectacle than were watching the game.
Nigeria – Back to the Future
The Nigerian fans were disappointedd that Yakubu and Kanu started the game. Kanu’s legs have gone, but the technique and intelligence is still there. He took up good positions and used the ball cleverly. Rabiu Afolabi almost gifted Korea a goal in the 1st minute with a misplaced pass which was intercepted and nearly resulted in a goal. I was relieved that Haruna Lukman was not playing. His replacement Yusuf Ayila played with composure and experience that made me wonder how Lukman got in the first 11 ahead of him.
Nigeria started brightly and deservedly took the lead through Kalu Uche after a great cross from the right by Chidi Ordiah. For the next 20 minutes, Nigeria were outstanding, teasing and passing rings around the Koreans. It was the best footballing display I’ve seen from a Nigerian team in 5 years. This was like the Super Eagles of old. Kanu jinked and sprayed the ball around, and Obasi delighted the crowd with a beautiful pirouette in the box. Chants of “Papillo” rang out as Kanu strolled around the pitch caressing the ball.
Kalu Uche nearly made it 2-0 when he hit the post with an excellent 25 yard shot. Nigeria were dominating play, but had not put Korea to sleep. I was worried because Nigeria are most vulnerable when they are winning.Nigeria cannot defend a lead, and are no good at chasing a game when they are losing either. Think of the crucial games where they have surrendered a lead after winning, and games where they just could not react to going a goal behind. Ghana African Nations Cup 2008 – they were in a winning position, winning 1-0 and ended up losing 1-2 to 10 man Ghana. The World Cup qualifier against Tunisia last year they twice surrendered the lead and let Tunisia score a last minute equaliser after leading 1-0 and 2-1. Note that Tunisia’s first equaliser occurred just a few minutes after Nigeria took the lead.
Are Referees Biased Against African Teams?
We have all seen bad refereeing decisions and performances. For the first time in my life I actually questioned the integrity of a referee. The Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca gave a free kick seemingly every time a Nigerian player went within 5 yards of a Korean. Things got so bad that at one stage I thought he might be tempted to give a red card to the Nigerian subs for having the gall to warm up within a 5 mile radius of the Korean bench. There seems to be an anti-African bias in the officiating at the World Cup. It was the most openly biased display of “officiating” I have witnessed in years. The referee was giving every call to South Korea and booking Nigerian players per foul. At one stage South Korean Captain Ji Sung Park ran through behind the Nigerian defence and Nigerian GK Vincent Enyeama came out to challenge him. The two went shoulder to shoulder for the ball and Enyeama cleared it. Neither player went down or protested. The ref booked Enyeama and gave Korea a dangerous free-kick on the edge of the box. A few minutes later both Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi and Yusuf Ayila were booked for challenges which were fouls but hardly life or career threatening challenges. The effects of the ref’s biased officiating had a mental effect on the Nigerian players. In the space of 30 seconds, both Ayila and Obasi pulled out of tackles and let Korean players run past them rather than risk getting sent off by the dodgy ref they obviously did not trust. Of course when Obasi ran through and was hauled down by TWO players on the edge of the Korea box, the ref waved play on.
Me and the Nigeria/South African fans (except Koreans) were screaming blue murder. A middle aged South African lady sitting to my right went so far as to say the ref had been bribed. The woman’s young son was angry at the ref AND his linesman o our side of the pitch. To be fair, that linesman did not give a single Korea offside in the whole first half. Despite several suspiciously offside Korea moves. the boy got so angry that he complained that the linesman was not following play into the Korea half. I had to educate the boy and make him aware of another linesman on the other side of the pitch.
Nonetheless I began to worry. It was if the ref was trying to let Korea back into the game. Sure enough, just before half time, the ref awarded Korea another free kick which was whipped to the far post and headed in by Lee. With Nigeria’s height advantage, conceding a headed goal from a set piece to Korea was a disgrace. Rabiu Afolabi was to blame. He did not enjoy playing at left back and struggled to mark as a left back, away from his usual center back position. He had a nightmare and was not helped by Kalu Uche (a striker) who played at left midfield in front of him and is not accustomed to defending or marking. Afolabi ball watched and left Lee Jung goo free to head in.
The goal came totally against the run of play and silenced all the Nigerian fans. Korea had one chance the whole half and scored it. Nigeria had a hatful and did not take them. They would pay…
There was still time for some more biased officiating. At the end of the second half, the ref finally awarded Nigeria a free kick. As Nigeria went to take the free kick, he blew up for half time. I have never seen a ref blow up for half time while a set piece was being taken. Shocking.
Joseph Yobo was taken off at half time and replaced by Uwa Elderson Echiejile. I can only imagine that Yobo was injured, since Afolabi was the obvious candidate for replacement. In the second half Danny Shittu went up for a header and won it cleanly and fairly. The ref of course awarded Korea a free kick on the edge of the Nigerian box. I muttered to the guy next to me “If they score from this I will be so angry”. Of course, Park Chu Yong scored directly from the free kick. The momentum suddenly changed. Lifeless Korea were suddenly playing like Brazil, and were running Nigeria ragged. The same Nigeria team that dominated the first half now looked deflated and lacked confidence.
I suddenly realised that top flight football/pro sports at this level is more mental than physical. Players tend to win due to superior belief. If you BELIEVE you can win, you will. Korea believed they could win, and Nigeria no longer did. I looked around the pitch and searched for a Nigerian player – a leader, who could bail the team out, and found none. Nigeria lacks a blood and thunder inspirational leader who can pull the team up when they are struggling. In years gone by, Nigeria could play badly and get themselves out of jail with a moment of individual brilliance by Okocha. They can no longer do that. Nor do they have a motivator on the pitch to scream, bawl and get the team going by force of personality. All successful teams have such a player: Chelsea have John Terry, the awesome Man Utd teams of the 1980s and 1990s had “Captain Marvel” Bryan Robson and Roy Keane. Korea were dragged back into the game by the energy and drive of their Captain Ji Sung Park….who does Nigeria have?…
Kanu was subbed off and Martins got a great ovation when he came on….or was it for Kanu’s last hurrah. As Kanu trudged off I told those around me that “his international career is over”. Deep down, I think the Nigerian fans also knew it was the last time Kanu would play for the national team. Adieu Papillo….
Nigeria finall fashioned a gilt edged chance when Ayila broke down the left and crossed perfectly for Yakubu. The Korean GK missed the cross, and Yakubu was in the 6 yard box with an open goal, I stood up, everyone in my stand stood up ready to cheer the equaliser. Yakubu somehow sidefooted the ball wide of goal – when he had the WHOLE OPEN GOAL to aim at from inside the 6 yard box. I held my head in my hands and felt like crying. Every person I could hear – white, black, Indian, Nigerian, South African…..all cursed Aiyegbeni. Everyone was aghast and wanted him taken off immediately.
I stopped watching the game or paying attention. Then Obasi went down in the box. I did not react, because I did not believe the ref would give Nigeria even a blatant penalty like that. To my surprise, he gave the penalty. My initial optimism soon disappeared when I realised Yakubu was taking the penalty. I kept screaming “why are you letting him take it?” I was convinced he’d miss. Most fans next to me felt the same, and a fan in front of me implored Yakubu not to “mess this up”. To my surprise he scored the penalty, and to my relief he was immediately subbed off for Victor Obinna Nsofor. I told the guy in front of me that “Nsofor has lots of pace and strength but no brain”.
In the pandemonium of celebrating I tried to take a photo. To my horror, in the backslapping and high fiving, my battery had somehow dropped out of my camera and fallen into goodness knows where. I searched on my seat, under it, and the seats in front, behind and around me….no joy. More on where the battery went later….*
The news came in that Demichelis had scored and filtered around the Nigerian fans who started screaming at the Nigerian players to get forward since the result in the other game was going Nigeria’s way. If Nigeria could score again and win, they would go through and qualify the second round. If so, it would be the first time that a team that lost its opening two World Cup games qualified for the second round. To be honest, it would be a travesty if South Africa got eliminated after getting 4 points, beating France and losing only 1 game, and Nigeria qualified after winning just one game, and having a minus goal difference.
Martins soon proved himself just as wasteful. He was put clean through, he could have gone round the Korean GK or side footed it past him. He instead tried a cute dink over the keeper but instead floated the ball wide. For the rest of the game Korea time wasted, their GK took an eternity to take goal kicks, they subbed players who walked off the pitch with the pace of 90 year old one legged men….yet the ref did not think it fit to book any of them for time wasting. Korea got men behind the ball and played for a draw. Even when they had a corner, I noticed they left 5 (yes FIVE!) men back defending to mark ONE Nigerian striker.
Mexican waves followed and annoyed the hell out of me. Mexican waves were once used when fans were bored while watching a dull 0-0 draw. Not when the score is 2-2 with seconds remaining and World Cup qualification is at stake!
I lamented with other fans that Argentina had done its part by beating Greece but that Nigeria could not even get past a Korea team with only one class player (Ji Sung Park).
FINAL SCORE: South Korea 2 -v- Nigeria 2
Things I learned:
*Nigeria actually had the easiest group of all the African teams. Argentina are a world class team. However Greece had never won a game at the World Cup and South Korea were also very beatable.
*Ossie Ardiles said he “expected more” from Nigeria. So did all of Africa.
*Nigeria now has a 12 year long losing streak at the World Cup. Nigeria has not won a World Cup match since June 1998 when it beat Bulgaria 1-0 in France. Since that game, Nigeria has played 8 world cup matches, losing 6 and drawing 2. That’s right Nigeria has lost 6 of its last 8 World Cup matches.
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: https://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.