The FA’s recent announcement that the 2019-2020 FA Sunday Cup tournament is likely to be completed is welcome news. The competition was at its semi-final stage when Covid struck and prematurely ended the season. For the first time in four years a team from London (Portland FC) is in the semi-final. London has strangely under-achieved in the FA Sunday Cup. Only two teams from London have won the FA Sunday Cup in the last 26 years. Despite being Britain’s capital and having a massive footballing population – boasting more teams and players than any other city or county, London lags far behind the teams from northern England (especially Liverpool) who have almost turned the cup into their personal possession. 11 of the last 15 FA Sunday Cup winners were from either Liverpool or Durham County areas.
In this year’s tournament, the London champions Lambeth All Stars were knocked out after losing 0-3 to St Joseph’s from Luton, and highly heralded “YouTube Team” Baiteze Squad lost in round 2 after losing 1-2 to Shire United from the Thames Valley Sunday League.
So why do London teams under-perform in this competition?
1) Lack of Motivation. Northern teams (especially those from Liverpool) treat the FA Sunday Cup as their top priority every season. For Sunday footballers from that region, this cup is their Champions League and is the most glamorous competition they can play in. It is common to see virtually every team from the top two divisions of the Liverpool Business Houses League enter this cup.
Yet, London teams do not seem to bother with this competition! For example, only 4 of the 127 entrants in the 2019-2020 competition were from London. Yet about 25-30 teams from the Liverpool area enter this cup every year. However, London, with its nine million citizens, entered only 4 teams. Even Portland who are “flying the flag for London” are technically from Surrey since the club has its roots in Croydon (on the south London-Surrey border). New Salamis (who won this cup in 2016) were the last London team to make this cup a priority and entered it every season until they left Sunday football to become a Saturday team in 2018. Since then, London has relapsed to the usual under-achievement in this cup. Despite having hundreds of teams and thousands of eligible players, over 98% of London teams never enter the cup. Why are London teams so apathetic about this cup?
2) Ground Grading Requirements. The competition’s rules require games to be played on a separate roped off pitch, and for the home team to provide hospitality facilities for both sets of players and spectators. Those are pipe dreams for most London Sunday teams. In busy and congested London, many teams play on council parks with several pitches/games going on side by side.
Facilities and stadia improve as one moves further away from London (because in a built up city like London there are few spaces to have even a basic football pitch). Most matches in the London Sunday Challenge Cup (London’s premier Sunday cup competition) are played on pitches that would not be accepted even at a step 7 Saturday league! (the lowest level in Saturday football) Some Sunday teams play on pitches that are not fit to walk a dog on, let alone play football. For example, games on Sunday mornings at Hackney Marshes in east London resemble gigantic scrums with hundreds of players playing on pitches only a few feet away from adjacent games and pitches. This geographic imbalance in facilities gives northern teams an advantage as they can more easily hire grounds that meet the FA’s ground grading rules.
For a London team, good quality facilities mean that they have to travel far to play even their home games. Hence a “home” game for a London team in the FA Sunday Cup may involve travelling to another county like Essex or Middlesex. For example, when New Salamis FC (from north London) were a Sunday team they usually played their home games at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire or Enfield in Middlesex. The fact they had to travel to other counties to play “home” games demonstrates the challenge of good football facilities in London.
The Orpington & Bromley District Sunday League (OBDSFL) is a notable exception. Many OBDSFL teams are based in south London or Kent. Unusually for a Sunday league, the OBDSFL has ground grading requirements for teams in its top 2 divisions (which are probably stricter than step 7 pitch requirements). As a result, several OBDSFL clubs play at some of the best grounds one can find in amateur football. For example SE Dons play at Cray Wanderers’ Flamingo Park in Kent, and Kenningwell United play their home games at King’s College’s plush facilities. Yet neither team entered the FA Sunday Cup despite having the facilities to do so.
The reluctance of London teams to enter has led to some mockery and “banter” from northern teams who ridicule London teams for always boasting about how good they are, but never actually bother to prove it by competing in the premier Sunday football competition in the country. The advertising and sponsorship income that YouTube teams such as Baiteze Squad, SE Dons, and Rising Ballers generate mean that they can afford to enter this competition and the associated costs of travel and playing around the country.
Moreover, the competition would be enriched by having more London teams in it. In boxing it is often said that “styles make fights”. That is also true of football with its geography based variations in playing style. Northern teams tend to be very organised, physical, and defensively solid. Conversely, London teams have more flair, take greater risks, and play a more rapid passing game.
YouTube teams from London have done very well to raise the profile of Sunday football. Yet they will never earn the respect of northern teams (as New Salamis did) until they win this cup.
The phenomenal success of popular Sunday league “YouTube teams” who build popularity and a fan-base by filming and posting highlights of their games on YouTube and social media has been well documented. So now that the YouTube teams have everyone’s attention and lots of followers, what next? Have the YouTube teams reached the peak of their popularity or do they need to do something new or different to grow even further?
These clubs have not only shown that they can generate hundreds of thousands of views online, but they can draw live crowds too. SE Dons drew a record crowd of over 2000 people when they reached Kent FA Sunday Premier Cup final in 2019. That was a higher attendance than most Conference National Clubs drew prior to Covid. The fact that they have hours long video and content libraries means they can keep their fanbase engaged despite the Covid related lockdowns and suspension of amateur football.
However the fact that Sunday football does not have an official “pyramid” via which its teams can progress up the leagues places a ceiling on their progress. Additionally, the model of clubs such as Rising Ballers (which was created to find a pathway for talented young players to enter the professional game) potentially inverts the success of its players and the team’s success. While several Rising Ballers players have moved on and been signed by professional clubs such as Sheffield United and other clubs abroad, these individual success stories create a lack of personnel continuity that may hinder the club’s long term future. In contrast, the success of their rivals such as Baiteze Squad and SE Dons is built upon their fans seeing and engaging with the same livewire players on camera consistently week after week, season after season.
The other challenge is that the YouTube team format has become saturated. These days too many teams want to be a YouTube team. Beneath the SE Dons, Baiteze Squad, Rising Ballers etc elite of teams with hundreds of thousands of followers, are several other copycat teams – ranging from those with followers in the low teens to a few hundreds. Success in this area has become ultra-competitive.
Despite the challenges that YouTube teams face, there is still room for growth. They could go the same route as Hashtag United and enter the FA pyramid by becoming Saturday clubs. However the ground requirements required in the pyramid and the increased travel would need a lot of money to finance.
Right now the YouTube teams are scattered across different leagues such as the Barnet Sunday League, Essex Sunday Corinthian League, Hackney & Leyton League, and Orpington and Bromley District League. While each team raises the profile of its league, it also means that the YouTube teams do not play each other very often apart from the odd pre-season (less than!) friendly match. That might be a silver lining.
One option is to form their own break-away “YouTube League”. Doing this could kill many birds with one stone. Firstly, viewer interest in such a league would be huge and would also generate additional advertising revenue for the teams involved. They could even exploit explosive sub-plots to promote the games – such as the controversial split of Baiteze Squad FC to play in different teams competing in different leagues.
Since some of the teams already have sponsorship deals with large brands like Puma (SE Dons), New Balance (Baiteze), and Sport Bible (Rising Ballers), a breakaway league consisting exclusively of YouTube teams would be very interesting to their sponsors who would love the increased exposure to their brands. This has serious commercial appeal given football fans unhappiness about being charged on a pay-per-view basis to watch Premier League games, and the frustration after extended lockdowns.
They would have to be careful though. Increased brand exposure comes with increased pressure to be perceived as “family friendly”. If professional athletes can lose sponsorship deals for bad behaviour, so can amateur footballers. They would have to be far more careful about their on and off-pitch conduct, and present themselves in a more PG way to stay on the good side of their sponsors.
The other thing they need to do is make sure that on-pitch success goes hand in hand with commercial success. Recently, northern teams have been “calling out” the YouTube teams and daring them to enter the FA Sunday Cup (the FA’s nationwide Sunday football competition) and test themselves against the northern teams from areas like Liverpool and Durham who have dominated the competition. The only London team to reach the semi-final in recent seasons (Portland from south London) are not a YouTube team. The YouTube teams to enter it (Baiteze Squad and Lambeth All Stars) were eliminated in the early rounds.
The cup of success for the YouTube teams is filling nicely. Yet they still have a very high ceiling.
Now that the World Cup has ended, I expected lots of patronising and negative comments highlighting every single problem or thing that did not go according to plan. However, I want to say a great big CONGRATULATIONS to South Africa for hosting this marvellous World Cup. Here’s a good piece in the Guardian about the success of this tournament:
Football wise, it was not the greatest tournament. The teams who reached the latter stages were those who played conservatively with restraint, and with one striker. The final was a dreadful game with some shocking tackles. Finals are always tense affairs but watching Holland –v- Spain was like watching a horror film at times. Spain’s semi-final against Germany was so boring that I fell asleep during it.
European commentators keep salivating over Spain’s slick passing. They are a great passing team, no doubt, but at times I think they over-elaborate and do not get the ball in the box quickly enough. How good are Spain? They are the world champs and deserve all the credit. However I get the feeling we still do not know how good this Spain team really is because they were rarely tested in this World Cup. Would have loved to see them face Brazil or Argentina.
Player of the tournament: toss up between Diego Forlan and Xavi. Does any footballer in modern football hit the ball as hard and as cleanly as Forlan? Then again, did you see Xavi give the ball away during this World Cup?
Luckiest player of the tournament: Mark van Bommel. A one man foul machine who somehow manages to avoid red cards despite shockingly persistent fouling and brutal tackles. How he managed to avoid getting booked till the semi-final is a mystery.
Goal of the tournament: Giovanni van Brockhorst’s 30 yard howitzer against Uruguay.
Villain of the tournament: David Suarez. Blocking the ball with his hands on the goal line to deny a certain Ghana goal. Apparently did not realize that FIFA rules stipulate only ONE GK per team. Loved the way he acted surprised when he got a red card. He reacted almost as if unaware that deliberately handball with BOTH hands on the line is not allowed in football.
Game of the tournament: Ghana -v- Uruguay semi-final. The final 60 seconds of that game gave me several mini heart attacks. Ghana had an effort cleared off the line (legally), then another certain goal bound header cleared off the line (illegally), then got a penalty, then hit the crossbar, then went into a penalty shoot out.
Man of the tournament: Asamoah Gyan. This guy has serious cojones. Just a few moments after missing a penalty in the last minute of extra time, he came back to take another penalty in the penalty shoot out and hit it into the top left hand corner. Takes a brave man to recover from a penalty miss so quickly.
Spare a thought for: New Zealand. The only undefeated team in the whole competition. They drew with Paraguay, Italy and Slovakia, did not lose (even the finalists Spain and Holland lost) yet still got eliminated.
Biggest underachievers: Argentina. A team with Messi, Tevez, Higuain, Mascherano, and Milito should have gone further. Where were Cambiasso, Gabriel Milito and Riquelme?
Biggest disappointment: the African teams (apart from Ghana). African football has regressed in the past 15 years. The quality of individual players has increased, but the quality of TEAMS has gone backwards. Spare a thought for Ivory Coast. Their golden generation of Drogba, the Toures, Keita, and Kone are likely to retire without an international trophy.
Minor gripe: Imagine my horror in Durban on my way back when I drove to the Durban international airport only to be told by the security officer at the gate that “there are no planes here”. I asked him “what kind of airport has no planes?” It was then he told me that the Durban airport had closed and moved 40km away to the King Shaka international airport just one month earlier. I had to drive away quickly to get to King Shaka. Because the airport is new, my GPS did not recognize it and had no directions for it. So I had to navigate blind with no road directions. Just made it for my flight with no time to spare. A lesson in why you should ALWAYS leave early for the airport. The South Africans really could have done a better job of publicizing this airport move that occurred just one month before the World Cup.
Big Thank You to: The wonderful people of South Africa for their warmth, hospitality and kindness….and for confounding the Western prophets of doom who said an African country could not host a successful World Cup. Nobody was killed, kidnapped by mad rabid black Africans or sacrificed in voodoo rituals. Shame on you Western press for never believing that Africans can do anything positive. Thank you South Africa for making us proud.
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.