Monday, June 14, 2010

Truth for Nigeria's Super Eagles

I have had to explain my decision to change my attitude towards national team games to many people since I wrote about my soccer heartbreaks sometime ago, and I must say that almost everybody agreed with me, hoping to find their own defining moment and discover the strength to bear such moments. However in the cause of the many discussions my views sparked, I found out how many joyful moments I’ve had as a football lover and national team supporter. It may never be as many as the heartbreaks but the joy of it lingers on and since this is a massive football year, we might as well get the party started in our own little way here. Let’s go 2010 abi? Yeah right.

Going back to the Nigeria versus Tunisia game that ended 2-2 in Abuja, just recently I was chatting with a friend on facebook and he told me how a man died of heart attack while watching the game, as a matter of fact on the stroke of that Tunisian equalizer hitting our net, not an unusual story but never less saddening especially when you know such victims. I was not there when “Odiye scored against Nigeria” in 1977 and made us loose the 1978 world cup ticket but the pain with which those who saw the game reminisce is something else even after over 3 decades. So I still strongly stay with my decision to take it easy with these football thing especially national teams. This has nothing to do with my patriotism as you will find out here but just a precaution. Besides, not many of us can boast of having given as much as our footballers to our fatherland? So, they remain our heroes no matter what, but I just don’t want to be killed by my hero.

The year was 1998 in a beautiful country called France; Nigeria had been drawn in the same group with the then almighty number 3 ranked Spain in the world cup. It was to be our opening group game and the world was looking forward to the massacre of our darling super eagles – the previous edition’s Cinderella team (though not all the way). Spanish football has always been at the top and they were always among favorites in most tournaments they entered for, whether they lived up to such ratings is a story for another day but with Raul Gonzalez, Fernando Hiero and co, then at the top of their game, it was like a suicide mission playing against them. We were scared and were not surprised to have gone behind in the game, before nko? But the spirit with which our darling eagles came back was amazing! Oh Sunday Oliseh you made me shed tears of joy with that goal; It is for me the best goal ever scored by a Nigerian player and I can never ever forget his celebration – from the resolute expression on his face to the wild sprint he ran pointing his finger to the stands! I was down with malaria and totally weak before the game but all my pains disappeared with immediate alacrity! We went ahead to beat the tournament favorites against all odds suffice to say Mr. Garba Lawal single handedly retired the Spanish goalkeeper Zubizerreta and it remains one of my best moments as a Nigerian soccer supporter.

I do not know if the David and goliath fixation is influencing my choices but looking back now, Atlanta 96 semi final against Brazil remains very special to me because of Bebeto’s pre match comments, we were told he said he could take on the whole of the Nigerian team alone and still beat us. Papilo who happens to be one of my favorite world footballers of all time was the hero of the night. It was such fun to see Bebeto stranded and Dosu Joseph shedding tears of joy after that beautifully taken golden goal. The can-do, never give up, die hard spirit of the Nigerian youth made the difference, and if we had lost the final eventually, that semi final performance and victory would have been enough for the MON awards that was given to the players and officials of our one and only Dream Team. Incidentally such a team remains a dream that has not come true for us after years of trying, not even the France 98 team could re-enact that feat despite being a fusion of the best of USA 94 and Atlanta 96.

Like I said, do not expect too many joyous moments to be here, it is only natural because we are talking about Nigeria a supposedly big football nation, many of our sweet victories were expected and that is why they would turn out not to be big deals anymore just after few days of celebration. An example of that is the 3-2 victory over Kenya en-route South Africa 2010; besides the fact that we all knew God became a Nigerian for the day (between Mozambique and Tunisia) in far away Maputo, to be realistic, lets forget this talk about us having average players, only a few coaches will not qualify the Nigerian team for the world cup in that group, even a high school coach with some common sense can do it but we all know we need more than depending on luck, players’ profile and CAF to win away games on the continent. Well, I am just saying the victory in Kenya was a sweet memorable one but we shouldn’t have been in the scary position in the first place, so you find it easy to overlook.

My attention shifts to Julius Aghaowa twice against Senegal in the nation’s cup co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria in 2000 and Mali 2002. How he managed to pull off those miracles and saved us on both occasions remains a mystery to me. The second one was really amazing because prior to that game I had predicted that it was going to be dejavu and he was going to be the savior again. True to my prediction we were down and the game was winding up only for him to come on and switch the destiny of the game, just like that? The guy was the genius of his time, simple! Ironically I can not remember any spectacular moment outside my national team as being most joyous, I get a lot of joy watching my darling Arsenal FC and I think that might mean “nothing dey shack me again, I’ve seen it all nothing dey dia again”. Maybe, if I’d not been heartbroken by Samuel Eto’o and Belleti at the champion’s league final in 2006, it would have been a night to savor for ever.

I can not forget the players that have given me my many sweet moments in the history of my life watching football, JJ Okocha, Sunday Oliseh at the CAN 2000 final, Kanu Nwankwo in Atlanta ’96 and for Arsenal against Chelsea (of course). Patrick Kluivert, Davor Suker, Thiery Henry, Herik Larsson, Claude Makalele, Zinedene Zidane, Dele Aiyenugba for Enyimba FC… just naming a few. I wont bother trying to acknowledge a particular player that was outstanding in the USA ’94 final match, they were simply a product of tight team work, but I remember being so joyous at seeing Roberto Baggio miss that penalty for Italy to give Brazil the world cup victory, my joy was more of seeing Italy loose rather than Brazil win, so I can say he belongs to this list of special players though in an unusual way.

As for the fate of our super eagles at the World Cup 2010... hmnnn, well lets just say I am willing to enjoy this world cup the way i enjoy watching the premiership, if as an Arsenal fan you're able to bear 5 years without winning a trophy, then it will be unfair to castigate the team if they perform below our expectations, its not like we expect them to go bring the trophy anyways, besides they will be playing at least 3 "good" matches! If they go beyond that, I'll just gladly take it as a bonus to me for my years of loyalty. I dont think any one of us needs the success at that tournament more than the players themselves. For crying out loud, there are many matches to look forward to! Portugal vs Brazil, Cote d'ivore vs Brazil, Cameroon vs Holland, England vs USA... and of course Nigeria vs Tevez, Aguero, Milito, Higuain, Maxi, Heinze, Mascherano, and MESSI... Abeg, where ever you'll be watching from, whether at home, in the bar, the many pako viewing centers or out there in South Africa, just sit back relax grab your drink or vuvuzela and enjoy it. I wish every one of you happy viewing, hoping we find some of those wonderful moments that will live with us for ever. AMEN

The John Terry Near you

The story as I read is that John Terry had a fling with the lady who was ex-girlfriend to Wayne Bridge – a fellow footballer, who currently plays for Man City FC, used to be JT’s team mate at Chelsea and has always been his team mate in the national team. So we can say the young man JT had a fast one with his friend’s woman! Yes, it sounds as terrible as everyone wants to make it sound, especially when we’re made to feel like our opinion counts, what we now have is too many people with worse sins being the first to cast stones. I am not about to glorify infidelity or support cheating husbands here but for me, reading the news of John Terry’s affair with lingerie model Venessa Parroncel, my honest reaction was just not going to be joining the public expostulation and crucifixion that followed it but simply “wetin be my own”?

To say JT is important to club and country is an understatement, that guy sometimes looks like the backbone of both teams, not only is he a very sharp, strong and dependable defender but one of the most psychologically stable footballers playing today, he knows how to score goals and is also hardly injured! He epitomizes what a footballer should be; he is an inspiration to many, a role model and a fan’s favorite. Wayne Bridge is not as popular as JT but he is almost as important to his team as JT is to his. He is second only to Ashley Cole in the national team for the left back position, which also explains why he left the role for the same guy at Chelsea and pitched his tents at Manchester City having proven over time that he is of massive quality despite the low playing time of those days.

The focus of my thought is really not about the two footballers and their roles in the mess but has been the two coaches to whom John Terry owes his loyalty as a professional football player and their contrasting decisions. A certain coach Fabio Capello thinks JT’s libido is a disgrace, maybe to the English culture and therefore he is not worthy to be the captain of the National team he manages while coach Carlo Ancelloti thinks the immorality has nothing to do with his role as captain of Chelsea as long as he keeps churning out his 5 star performances for the team. Of course while most of y’all are busy expressing disgust at the guy that slept with his friend’s woman, Chelsea fans are like “so what”?

Really, why should Ancelloti be bothered about the entire hullabaloo when Bridge now plays for another club – a major rival club for that matter? Every opposing player in the league can be demoralized, injured or even jailed for all he cares, as long as the ones in Chelsea remain psyched up. Besides, the immediate effects of the wahala was going to tell on his own ongoing FA cup, Premier League and Champion’s league campaign, so even if he is the most irritated by JT’s infidelity, he was always going to be solidly behind his man and never go the way of the world– sharp guy! Fabio Cappelo isn’t any better; he had only one thing on mind while making his own decision to demote JT – team selection and success at the world cup. The mood in the dressing room must have been his first worry with Wayne Bridge his next most regular left back feeling betrayed and other national team players (especially outside Chelsea FC) also disappointed in their captain, which naturally could affect the harmony in the team. Even if his decision to take the captain’s band from Terry was going to turn out being an error, good thing is (unlike Ancelloti) he had no match coming up, plus he had 5 months before the world cup to fix things – patapata he’ll call a “reconciliation” meeting; either ways he has the loyalty of over half of the team and still looks like the good wise manager he wants to be seen as. Now with the long term injury to first choice left-back Ashley Cole, hasn’t it turned out to be a good decision? Forget about the current loss of interest, Bridge might just be playing his best ever for England at the world cup, Cappelo deserves it! Don’t worry about Terry; he is just like William Gallas – a fighter! All pains will heal before the world cup, except he finds the love of his wife impossible to regain which as at the last time I checked was looking good.

I won’t be deceived into thinking Ancelloti is on JT’s side or Cappelo now detests him. Ironically they are both Italians, so this obviously also has nothing to do with culture. It therefore irritates me how many people castigate John Terry simply because the British press, their FA and national team coach seem to be disappointed too, because he’s the guy on TV? You don’t wanna start counting how many relationships and marriages are broken or suffering in silence today because a certain boyfriend or husband found out his friend, brother, colleague, neighbour or room-mate once dated, had a one-off or has been chasing his wife or girlfriend. Such bad guys are not crucified but John Terry everybody wants to kill. The usual story; “he should know he is a role model and a lot of people look up to him”. How about leaving the guys on TV alone and by yourself be a role model to your kids and younger ones? Especially those of you that run after every skirt and wrapper and it doesn’t matter if such skirts and wrappers belong to another guy, even your friend and family! Do not expect every celebrity to come shedding tears before a media conference apologizing “for letting you down”.

Well, its not like my opinion really matters in John Terry’s case, Stamford Bridge isn’t my studio and I’m not JT’s fan, I only started liking him after he missed that penalty to gift Man U and new English captain Rio Ferdinand the champion’s league to the joy of us Arsenal fans, so obviously I’m also not a Chelsea fan either and the English team definitely falls behind the Dutch and Nigerian teams for me, and no matter how much we humans enjoy trying to justify our selfish myopic sentiment with some boring tales about being principled, in my opinion, whatever decisions were made by these two coaches has nothing to do with upholding any values or discipline as anyone might want to make me believe. They simply went for their own interest as no one really has the moral rights to condemn the so called “bad guy”. Like Carlo Ancelloti said “he didn’t kill anybody” I say let everyone live his life and free the guy.

My Many Soccer Heartbreaks

I took this red car at Ajah en route Ijebu Ode in Ogun state with a half of me wanting to stay back a bit more in lagos, but then the Okada curfew in the Ijebu ode town meant I would be on my own if I arrived anything after 7pm, putting the distance I would have to cover to get to my hotel room into consideration. I was on the post production team of a reality show and had taken time off to visit Lagos for some personal business but Nigeria was hosting Tunisia in Abuja that Sunday evening when I was supposed to return to location and it was a “do or die game” as the Super Eagles continued their quest for qualification to the world cup in South-Africa. I monitored the game while driving hurriedly home, thanks to Brila FM and it was 1-1 at half time when I got home to pack my stuff and left for the park in a rush. Though a disappointing half time score for a green blooded Nigerian like me with strong passion for my football and darling Super Eagles, I kept hope alive for a better 2nd half in which our “boys” would get the goals that would give us that desired victory. I went for this particular car because it looked quite new and healthy from the outside and the least I expected was a FM radio receiver that could connect metro FM for live commentary. Unfortunately it turned out to be one of those disappointments that you can not turn away from. Not only did it not have a stereo, a lot of the buttons on the dash board were missing and the whole of the interior smelt of Cotonou, I could not even identify what brand of car it was. You know obviously one of those vehicles that travel through the wilderness of Saki, Eruwa, Seme, Badagry… en route Nigeria with many things disappearing on the way including sometimes the driver. If I did not have anything occupying my mind I would probably have been scared of traveling in such a handicapped car, especially for a journey embarked on that late; for my mother's sake.

All five men in the car with me including the driver were watching the game before getting on the road and desperately wanted to get the update as the second half was commencing in few minutes. The onus fell on me to make something happen for us all, suffice to say football is our best unifying factor. I loaded my phone with enough airtime to enable me monitor the game while on the road. Rather than an acknowledgement of my generosity, it was more like torture for my new friends each time I had to tell them the score was still a goal apiece, like I was the one responsible for their team not scoring. They kept probing as I stupidly made the calls over and over again but not against my wish, “we never score?” “wetin dey happen?” “Osaze injure?” “who is playing better?” “We dey press them?” Kanu don enter?” “time still dey?” “How many minutes remain?” If I wasn’t in a car, I would have thought it was drizzling with the millions of tiny liquid blowing towards me. The tension rose really bad as time ticked fast and no goal came.

The game was reaching its end and Just while I was asking for how much time we had left, Eneramo! Eneramo! Yeeeeee!!! The voice on the other other side went wild calling for a beer, and I replicated the mood in the car, goal!!! Ope o!!! The driver hooted the horn in excitement and that was when I actually noticed that the horn worked, a passenger sang “Ose ose o ose o, o se baba” while I stayed on the phone to get the description of the goal and how thankful we should be to Mikel Obi the prodigal son of the team for being the architect of the goal. This time I put the phone on speaker, Low and behold the bragging started “today na today!” “dem suppose chop like 3-1” “game just start, goal still dey there”… Now with more calm only interested in knowing who the scorer of the third goal would be, I made my next call after the goal and the voice that gave me the good news just few minutes ago now spoke with lethargy “omo won ti equalize meen, this is terrible, idiot l’awon boys yi…”, within 5 minutes of going ahead, we were back to square 1, the game was 2-2. My screams,What?! How come?! Oh my God!... were all needed for everyone in the car to immediately get the message.

It was at the point when he helped break the air of silence that engulfed the car after we heard our chances of making the world cup shattered by a determined Tunisian’s goal I noticed that the guy on my extreme left had been quiet all the while. He said he had been a victim of so much soccer heartbreaks before just like me, and made up his mind never again to put his hope in any Nigerian team anymore and this was his reason for never celebrating any victory until the final whistle is blown. It was even more painful that we had that much needed victory in our hands but just could not hold on to it. Why? I thought of the efforts I made to make it home to watch the game, the airtime waste, the risk of traveling late in an “abode Cotonou” all for the game and asked myself if it was worth the risks and troubles.

The memories of such heartbreaks from the past came back to make this harder to bear, the USA ’94 loss to Italy after leading all through the game, Nation’s cup final loss to Cameroon in the year 2000, lossing to Sweden after scoring first in Korea-Japan 2002, the away victory over Algeria in 2006 that was rendered useless by Uganda’s dying minute loss to Angola on the last day of the Germany 2006 qualifiers and many more. Ok let’s say those were games in which our teams played well and we took solace in their heroic performances. Shouldn’t I have been smart enough not to put my hope in this one considering the performances lately and the regression of Nigerian football? I remembered the 2008 nation’s cup opening game versus Ivory Coast that I stupidly watched spotting a Nigerian shirt in company of eight Ivorian men in downtown Atlanta and how they made fun of Tywo and I most annoyingly in French after that Solomon Kalou mesmerizing goal, the loss to a 10 man Ghana team in our quarter final elimination, the drab show and consequent draw in Maputo and all the failures when it most matters. Keni why do you keep doing this to yourself?

I have tried for many years not to let my emotions get the best of me anymore when it comes to football, especially since the semi final loss to Ghana in Senegal ’92, the tearful end to USA 94 staring Roberto Baggio, 3SC’s loss in the 1996 CAF champions league, the Eagles’ home loss to Cameroon in CAN 2000 final and Arsenal’s Champion’s league final loss to Barcelona in 2006, these were all occasions on which I wept and rejected food plus so many other heartbreaks that killed my joy but only spared my appetite. I just couldn’t help myself on any of these occasions; maybe I have needed psychotherapy or something more serious since then but just failed to face it. What my fellow traveler offered on the night was somehow simple but seemed to be all I’ve needed. On getting to my hotel room that night, thanks to a nice guy that offered to bear the risk of arrest for me, I made up my mind all over again to never put my heart into the unpredictably mean game of football anymore but to simply support my teams 3SC Ibadan, Arsenal FC London and most especially any Nigerian national team with only prayers and some healthy hype. I never get a share of the match bonuses now! Haba! but something inside me kept saying I would forget my decision again prior to any next crucial game but I kept hope alive, unbelievably I did forget.

Then came the under 20 world cup in Egypt featuring Samson Siasia with the boys and the miracle of their qualification for the round of 16, the hope of dry bones rising again, a “stammerer finally saying the word baba without stuttering”, the ability based on the records of the coach to make something out of nothing, and the reality of other underdogs doing the unthinkable in the same tournament. Hopes were raised and I found myself at the edge of my seat watching the game against Germany on TV, as we led twice and lost the leads immediately! Dejavu! It was four weeks earlier in Abuja with their senior brothers! Oh no! Not again! But there must be a winner tonight and we will win this in extra time; thank God we have a one man advantage and a good coach too. Just like in times before, few seconds to go, our usual wrong judgments, loss of concentration and carelessness, we gave the ball away and they scored! The game was truly over and we had lost everything! I pulled my dinner closer with my left hand as I listened to callers on Brila FM, enjoying their analysis and expression of sadness; some wept on the phone, some abused Haruna Lukman, Big Larry blamed Obiora for not going for “Jam-body tactics A.K.A 10-10”, but I finished my plate of rice without any conscious efforts and grabbed some cake from the nearby table with some cold drink to go with it. I spoke to Iya'beji on phone, switched channels to look for something more exciting on TV, watched a drama on STV and went to sleep.

I woke up the morning after to hear people still yelling over the same game on Brila FM and I did not understand what their problem was! It was at this point that I remembered my vow and knew I have been delivered from the shackles of soccer heartbreaks, at least the ones caused by national teams. What a time to achieve it, it was just four days to their heartbreak big brothers’ damage control game versus Mozambique, and also the Champion’s League season… Damn! Gunners! Another dying minute goal?! Anyways, nothing do me, me I am free at last! I want to live to see my children.

Hapum like dat!