The FA Sunday Cup is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the FA’s competitions. A cup competition that has featured professional top flight footballers and that has a 57 year history, deserves more attention and respect. The final of this season’s competition will take place this Sunday at The Den (home of Millwall FC) in south London.
For those who mentally associated Sunday football with overweight, unfit, out of shape players – think again. The FA Sunday Cup is essentially semi-professional football – full of players who were on the books of Premier League clubs. A bystander who watched a game in this competition some years ago confessed: “I was very, very, very shocked just how good the football was”.
The FA Sunday Cup is like the Champions League of Sunday football, and features the best Sunday teams from across England. This year’s final is a historic one. This is only the second time in nearly 30 years that two teams from London have reached the final of this nationwide competition. The two teams playing in this year’s final are seriously good and both are champions of their respective leagues. Here is a preview of both teams and what to expect from them.
I will be immodest and give myself indirect credit for foreshadowing Highgate Albion’s run to the final (!). Four months ago, I sent a message to the club’s secretary (after they received a second successive bye in round 2 against Falcons FC of Cambridge) jokingly suggesting that they might “reach the final without having to play a game!”. Four months later, Highgate indeed reached the final (they did play a few games to get there though!). However, Highgate reached the last 16 of this competition without having to kick a ball; after receiving byes in the first two rounds due to the inability of their 1st and 2nd round opponents Skew Bridge and Falcons to fulfil their fixtures.
Their 1st round game against Skew Bridge was initially postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, and the FA awarded the tie to Highgate after Skew Bridge was unable to play in the re-arranged fixture. Falcons folded and withdrew from the cup. However, those byes should not detract from Highgate’s quality. When Highgate eventually faced an opponent willing to play in round 3, they beat Burghfield from Reading 2-0, followed by a statement victory in a 6-1 demolition of highly rated Club Lewsey of Luton in the quarter-final.
Highgate are the three time consecutive champions of the Barnet Sunday League. It is a mark of how good they are that the club reached the final in what is only its second entry in the competition (having reached the last 16 in the prior season’s competition). The north London team has serious quality – especially in attack. Highgate’s prolific striker Jake Cass (who averages more than a goal per game this season) also plays semi-professionally on Saturdays for Step 3 team Enfield FC in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League. This season Highgate also signed midfielder Jayden Clarke from their league rivals Rising Ballers. Clarke also plays semi-professionally on Saturdays at Step 3 for Hendon FC of the Southern League’s Premier Division. Some other Highgate players also play on Saturdays for Barnet based Hadley FC in the Premier Division of the Spartan South Midlands League (Step 5). These include the rapid forward Solomon Ofori; who is usually a handful for opposition defences, and left back Luke Alfano who is a very solid player both defensively and when supporting his team’s attacks. Forward Excellence Muhemba also plays on Saturdays for Windsor in the Premier Division of the Combined Counties League.
A special word for Highgate’s captain and veteran center-back Ian Maitland. The name Maitland is synonymous with Highgate Albion. Maitland made this debut for the club before this century! (and before some of his team-mates were born) 23 years and about 500 games later, Maitland still plays for Highgate Albion. He followed in the footsteps of his father Nigel who also played for Highgate, and even played for the club alongside his younger brother Frankie. Last year a third generation of the Maitland family played for Highgate as Ian’s son Charlie made his debut for Highgate.
“the most important goal in the club’s history”
I saw (Ian!) Maitland score a spectacular volley into the top left hand corner during Highgate’s victory against AFC Hammersmith in the Middlesex FA Sunday Premier Cup quarter-final earlier this season. At the time I thought a 39 year old defender blasting a “worldie” into the top corner was an outlier. It turns out that Maitland is the Steve Bruce of his era; a goalscoring defender. Not only has he scored 14 goals this season, but he also scored the dramatic 93rd minute winning goal in the semi-final against Liverpool team Mayfair, as Highgate overturned a 0-2 deficit to win 3-2. The club dubbed Maitland’s goal as “the most important goal in the club’s history”.
I also witnessed Maitland’s old school captaincy philosophy earlier this season when he responded to one of his team-mates complaining about a refereeing decision by screaming at him to: “Shut the fuc* up and get back!”. As far as on-field tactical advice goes: it was concise and to the point.
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Highgate Albion’s formation. The club now operates four teams in the Barnet Sunday League. Its second team has already won the Middlesex FA Sunday Intermediate Cup this season. While the first team is riding high in the Premier Division, its second, third, and fourth teams are all well placed to gain promotion this season from Divisions 1, 4, and 6 respectively of the Barnet Sunday League. It would be a fitting “grand slam” pre-40th anniversary celebration for the club if its first team became champions of England and its other three teams all won promotion.
For the unitiated/those unfamiliar with these two teams, Baiteze is one of the most popular and successful of the so-called “YouTube teams” who film and upload footage of their games with commentary to YouTube. Baiteze are champions of the Essex Sunday Corinthian League (ESCL) which is based in east London and Essex. Before joining the ESCL Baiteze played as “Mile End Baiteze Squad” in the legendary Hackney & Leyton League, and won the league’s title three times in a row before an acrimonious split with their manager Justin Gardner (who also managed Barking FC on Saturdays in the Isthmian League (Step 4)) saw the club split into two. One group of players continued playing for Gardner in the Hackney & Leyton League under the Mile End Baiteze Squad name, while the younger players moved to the ESCL to play under the Baiteze Squad name. Mile End Baiteze Squad took the club’s football history and goodwill, while Baiteze Squad walked away with the cream of the club’s talented players and its social media following.
Baiteze has made many people eat humble pie this season. Many Liverpool teams (who consider themselves to be the guardians of amateur football’s traditions) were against the entry of what they considered to be an arrogant and brash “YouTube team” with no history. The Liverpool teams spent so much time on “the game has gone” complaints that they forgot the positive attributes that Baiteze brought to this competition: huge publicity and on-pitch quality. Baiteze has essentially provided free publicity for the FA, this competition, and for every team they have faced. Since Baiteze films and uploads all of its games to YouTube (accompanied by the colourful commentary of Joel Mensah), it has showcased the FA Sunday Cup to its massive young, urban based, music conscious Gen Z fanbase that did not even know this cup existed 1 year ago. The 1000+ attendance at their huge round 2 clash against SE Dons was the most well attended FA Sunday Cup match in decades and drew a bigger crowd than most finals. Baiteze and SE Dons have almost half a million social media followers between them, and SE Dons has more YouTube followers than 70% of Premier League clubs. Baiteze’s mere presence in this competition drew attention to it, and may increase participation and fan attendance for years to come.
Despite Baiteze’s penchant for self-promotion and social media “banter”, on the pitch, the club has an excellent squad. It is also well coached as its manager Billy Hession has coached at professional level at clubs such as Gillingham. Baiteze’s playmaker Ade Cole is a showman. Some of his skills in their thrilling 2nd round victory over SE Dons delighted the crowd into chants of “Ade are you OK?” (to the tune of the “Annie are you ok?” lyrics in Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal.
Ade Cole’s older brother is also called… Ade Cole (do not ask me – ask the family!). Ade Senior is also a fine footballer who used to play for former Hackney & Leyton League champions Clapton Rangers.
In the same game centre-back Alex Cruickshank put in the best defensive performance I have seen from any player at this level for years. He did not put a foot wrong and blocked, headed, and intercepted everything that came his way.
Baiteze had by far the toughest route to the final. Not only did Baiteze have to play more games than Highgate, but all of the five teams that Baiteze beat to reach the final are champions of their respective leagues. Beating league champions from Ipswich, Kent, south London, Doncaster, and Middlesbrough is no mean feat. In round 2 Baiteze faced their massive “YouTube team” rivals SE Dons in what was undoubtedly the tie of the round. Baiteze won a thrilling game 3-2 in front of a packed and vociferous crowd of over 1000 at Barking FC. In round 2, Baiteze had to face the formidable London Sunday Challenge Cup holders and Metropolitan Sunday League champions Grand Athletic. Going into that game Grand Athletic had not lost a game for 16 months in a match sequence spanning almost 40 consecutive games. Baiteze ended Grand’s long unbeaten record with a 3-1 victory away, and two weeks later, proved it was no fluke by also eliminating Grand from the London Sunday Challenge Cup on penalties after a 2-2 draw.
PUTTING LONDON BACK ON THE FOOTBALL MAP
This game also says a lot about the strength in depth of Sunday football in London. Neither team is the best team in its league and has been dethroned. Highgate is currently in 4th position in the Barnet Sunday League and Baiteze is in 3rd place in the Essex Sunday Corinthian League. Even if both teams win all of their remaining games, they cannot retain the league titles they won last season. Both teams have also been eliminated from the London FA Sunday Challenge Cup. If London teams that cannot finish top of their league can reach the final of the nationwide FA Sunday Cup, it says much about the quality of teams from London.
For many years the Liverpool teams have been sceptical about the quality of amateur football in the nation’s capital and kept reminding everyone of their region’s dominance of this competition. That dominance obscures an overlooked fact: London teams perform poorly in the FA Sunday Cup because they rarely enter it!
WHO WILL WIN?
Fittingly, the game will be played in south London which can be considered “neutral” territory for teams from north and east London. The FA Sunday Cup is notoriously difficult to predict. After round 2 there is very little difference in quality between the teams and all remaining teams are capable of beating each other. Highgate and Baiteze have played each other only once competitively; in the quarter-final of the London Sunday Challenge Cup in 2019. On that occasion, Highgate came from behind to win 3-1.
This final will definitely will not end 0-0. The quality of attackers in both teams will prevent that.
FA Sunday Cup Final
Sunday May 1, 2022 (Kick-off 2pm)
New Cross, London, SE16
Buy tickets here
Highgate Albion’s route to the final:
|1||Skew Bridge||Hertfordshire Advertiser Sunday League||N/A (walkover – Skew unable to fulfil fixture)||5 December 2021||Harpenden Town FC (Herts)|
|2||Falcons||Cambridge & District Sunday League||N/A (walkover – Falcons withdrew)||16 January 2022||Bottisham Sports Centre (Cambridge)|
|3||Burghfield||Reading & District Sunday League||2-0||13 February 2022||Sun Sports & Social Club (Watford)|
|Quarter-Final||Club Lewsey||Leighton & District Sunday League||6-1||6 March 2022||Hertford Town FC|
|Semi-Final||Mayfair||Liverpool Business Houses League||3-2||27 March 2022||Solihull Moors FC|
Baiteze Squad’s route to the final:
|1||Borussia Martlesham||Ipswich Sunday League||0-0 (5-4 on penalties)||5 December 2021||Redbridge FC|
|2||South-East Dons||Orpington & Bromley District Sunday League||3-2||16 January 2022||Barking FC|
|3||Grand Athletic||Metropolitan Sunday League||3-1||13 February 2022||Griffin Sports Ground (London)|
|Quarter-Final||Scawthorpe Athletic||Doncaster Rovers Sunday League||4-2||6 March 2022||Brodsworth Miners Welfare Ground (Doncaster)|
|Semi-Final||Middlesbrough Dormans||Stockton Sunday League||1-1 (3-2 on penalties)||27 March 2022||Boston United FC|
The FA released the draw for the first round of the FA Sunday Cup today. The games will be played on Sunday December 5, 2021.
Due to the regionalisation of round 1, nine of the 32 ties (i.e. almost a third of the games!) feature teams in the same division as each other. Four of the seven (57% of!) Liverpool teams in the competition will face each other, and London will be down to 3 teams max as two (50%!) of its four teams will face each as well. Essex will be down to one team as its only two entrants in the competition (Priory Sports and Rouge 21) will play each other.
THE LEAGUE DERBIES
1) Burradon New Fordley v Hazlerigg Victory – Cramlington and District Sunday League
2) West Hartlepool Technical Day School Old Boys (WHTDSOB) v Hartlepool Lion O’Mally – Hartlepool Sunday League
Liverpool Business Houses Sunday League:
3) Home Bargains v Campfield* (cup holders)
4) Pineapple v Custys
5) Sileby Athletic v Sporting Dynamo – The Alliance Football League (Leicester)
6) Long Whatton v Birstall Stamford – Leicester & Charnwood Sunday Football League
7) Royston Rovers v @Falcons – Cambridge & District Sunday League
8) St Joseph’s v Club Lewsey – Leighton & District Sunday League
9) Lambeth All Stars v South East Dons – Orpington & Bromley District Sunday League
Priory Sports v Rouge 21 (Essex)
THE GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY
This week brought good news and bad news in the world of Sunday football. The good news is that after not staging a tournament in the 2020-2021 season, the FA has decided to bring back the FA Sunday Cup for the 2021-22 season. However, the return of the competition came with a big caveat: the FA restricted this season’s competition to 64 teams only (in a competition that often has more than 100 entrants). The FA’s justification for truncating the competition is the Covid pandemic. Since applications to enter the competition exceeded its vacancies, the FA drew applicant names out of a hat to determine which clubs would and would not be permitted to play in this season’s competition.
The FA’s decision to stage a restricted tournament went down like a lead balloon among many clubs. Clubs from the Liverpool area are irate. Liverpool has been the traditional powerhouse of the FA Sunday Cup and has supplied more winners than any other part of the country (including the current holders Campfield). 12 of the last 16 FA Sunday Cup winners were from either Liverpool or Durham County areas.
The random lottery style method of determining entrants inflicted significant casualties. Former Sunday Cup winners such as Canada (Edinburgh Park), Lobster, and Oyster Martrys (which has regularly featured Wayne Rooney’s family members) – from the well respected Liverpool Business Houses League, were excluded, as well as other perennial Sunday Cup entrants. Even the Durham FA’s county Sunday Cup champions Dawdon Welfare Park were denied entry.
Liverpool teams 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. Most teams from the top division of the Liverpool Business Houses League usually enter this cup. The new entry format has blocked that and has caused some Liverpool teams to claim a regional conspiracy against them. It seemed a needless grievance for the FA to trigger because the last FA Sunday Cup competition which started in October 2019 before Covid, was completed 19 months later in May 2021. With the tournament suspended for the 2020-21 season several teams were chomping at the bit to enter this season.
“YOUTUBE TEAMS”: THE CUP’S HIDDEN PUBLICITY AGENTS?
The sense of grievance among Liverpool teams amplified as several new entrants from London (such as “YouTube team” SE Dons, and London Sunday Challenge Cup holders Grand Athletic) were accepted as first time applicants. While past winners are justifiably aggrieved at their exclusion, new entrants have an opportunity to experience the FA Sunday Cup for the first time.
To some extent the controversy over the entrants is a battle between old and new worlds. Liverpool teams regard themselves as custodians of Sunday football’s traditions. Whereas the YouTube clubs from London – with their brashness and constant social media self-promotion, blur the lines between entertainment and sport. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the presence of social media savvy “YouTube teams” such as SE Dons, Baiteze Squad, Lambeth All Stars, and others will increase publicity for the competition and attendances at matches. When SE Dons played in the Kent FA Sunday Premier Cup final in 2019, they drew a record crowd of over 2000 people. That is a higher attendance than most Conference National Clubs drew before Covid. The YouTube teams’ fanbase will be exposed to the FA Sunday Cup for the first time and it may encourage more teams to enter when (hopefully!) the FA reinstates the competition to its full format for the 2022-2023 season.
SUNDAY FOOTBALL: “THE UGLY DUCKLING” OF THE SPORT?
The controversy over the entry format has obscured a bigger issue: English football’s contemptuous and snobbish attitude towards Sunday football. Simply put, the FA has very little regard for Sunday football. It is pertinent that other amateur FA competitions such as the FA Vase and FA Trophy (which involve Saturday clubs) are operating with a full schedule this season – some with extra preliminary or qualifying rounds. The FA’s decision to restrict only the FA Sunday Cup seems all the more bizarre given that many players will play in the FA Trophy or FA Vase for their Saturday clubs then play in the FA Sunday Cup the next day for their Sunday teams (often at the same stadiums!). For example, last season striker Elliott Nevitt scored the winning goal in the FA Sunday Cup final for Liverpool Business Houses League champions Campfield. The following week he also scored a hat-trick in the FA Vase final for Warrington Rylands of the Northern Premier League. Until English football stops judging football by the day of the week it is played, the FA Sunday Cup will continue to be treated as an inferior ugly duckling in the sport.
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.
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.
The great Brazilian Edson Arantes de Nascimento (“Pele”) once predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000. Pele’s prediction is now 10 years overdue. The furthest African teams have managed to get in the World Cup is the quarter-finals (Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002). Pele’s prediction was horribly wrong and is now 10 years overdue. Heck, even Asian teams have managed to get further than African teams. South Korea reached the semi-final in 2002. Before you say “ah but they had home advantage”, if South Korea can get to the semis at home, why can’t an African team do the same?
“Home Advantage” for African Teams
It is not just South Africa that is at home. ALL African teams are essentially playing at “home”. When not supporting their own team, black South African fans tend to root for other African teams, and there is a multiplier effect caused by the fans of other African nations rooting for their “brother” African teams.
When attacking, the Nigeria team of 1994-1998 were as good as any team on Earth. A former German coach said in 1998 that Nigeria were the only team in the world that had better players than Brazil in some positions. A reporter added that Nigeria -v- Brazil with fair tackling would be a heck of a game. Sadly that Nigeria team defended as badly as they attacked. Then came the all conquering Cameroon team that dominated African football between 2000 and 2004. Despite being blessed with talent like Eto’o, Mboma, Song, Mbami and Olembe, they underachieved on the world stage.
Egypt has dominated African football for the past half decade and have won three successive African Nations Cup titles (2006, 2008 and 2010). They have swept all before them and have not lost a match at the African Nations Cup for over 6 (yes SIX!) years. Yet the all conquering Pharoahs did not even qualify for this World Cup. Their star man Mohammed Abou Treika (probably the best player in the world outside Europe) will watch the World Cup on TV and will face the anguish of never playing in a World Cup (did I hear someone say “George Best” and “Ryan Giggs”?!). He is in his 30s now and surely his chance has gone.
Ivory Coast – Orange Power
Africa’s best hope at this World Cup lies with the outrageously talented Ivory Coast team. They have quality and world class players all over the park: the talismanic Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kader Keita (I have not seen anyone other than Cristiano Ronaldo hit a football harder than he does), Gervinho, Kone in attack, the Toure brothers (Yaya and Kolo), Didier Zokora, heck – even the flying full back Arthur Boka cannot get into their first eleven. Their only weak link is their dodgy goalkeeper Boubacar Barry. Yet Ivory Coast are in danger of becoming the 21st century answer to 1990s Nigeria: an outrageously gifted team that does not fulfil its potential by winning a cabinet full of trophies and cementing its legacy.
Yet not all of this is their fault. The draw has not been kind to Ivory Coast. They have (yet again) been drawn in the “Group of Death” with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. That is a horrendous group to qualify from. In the 2006 World Cup, they were similarly in the Group of Death – being pitched against Argentina, Holland and Serbia. Despite scoring six goals against top class opposition and performing admirably in all their games, they were eliminated in the first round. They would surely have qualified had they been placed in any other group. Their opening game draw with Portugal in this World Cup is a good result, but it still leaves them having to take points off both North Korea AND Brazil. With star man Didier Drogba nursing a broken arm, that will not be easy…
This time round, Africa has six teams at the World Cup for the first time. Yet there is a danger that NONE of them will qualify for the second round. Nigeria and Cameroon lost their first game and face uphill tasks to qualify. South Africa actually over-achieved by drawing with Mexico and will be fortunate to get points from their upcoming games against Uruguay and France.
*UPDATE* I have just watched an utterly toothless performance by South Africa against Uruguay. They were outclassed by Uruguay and Diego Forlan was exceptional for Uruguay. South Africa did not manage to create a single clear cut chance in 90 minutes, and the 3-0 scoreline to Uruguay did not flatter them. Looks like the hosts are on their way out. If they are eliminated in the first round, it will be hard to maintain home fans’ interest in the World Cup unless another African team(s) get through to the second round.
Algeria look doomed. The failure of any African team to qualify for the second round, at the first World Cup held in Africa would be a major humiliation for African football. We cannot rely on old cliches about “naive” defending or a lack of tactical nous. The African teams are coached by world class coaches like Sven Goran Eriksson and Carlos Alberto Perreira.
Ghana – Let the Black Stars Rise
Ghana beat a very good Serbia team and have put themselves in an excellent position to qualify. Their victory over Serbia was all the more remarkable because they were without their lethal midfield quartet of Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Haminu Draman. That quartet is probably the best midfield in Africa. Ghana have a young, fit, hard working and functional team. If they can beat Australia, their match with the dreaded Germans will be academic and they will reach the second round.