For me soccer is a big deal and Brazil World Cup 2014 is it! My entire person is already immersed in the euphoria of the World Cup. I am also already dreaming big about the tournament – the thrills and frills – and the wonder City of Rio – that enigmatic City that played host, in 2013, to Catholic Youth from all over the universe! I love everything about Brazil – their food, the weather, the Samba (you know), and the warmth and camaraderie of the people, which give the country its peculiarity.
My first trip to Brazil was in the mid 80’s and it was like a homecoming. It was a fulfillment of a long time expectation. Yes, a homecoming. After all, there is some cultural affinity between Africa and Brazil, which the annual cultural extravaganza in Calabar tries to typify. You may not understand what I mean until you have experienced it yourself.
Brazil is a beautiful and amazing country. With a population of over 350 million, it stands out as the most populous in South America. Its workforce is creative and robust. So, to be chosen to play host to the World Cup, which it had won on a number of occasions, is not a bad idea, after all.
It has to be stated though that Brazil’s contribution to the development of soccer globally has been remarkable. Indeed players of different eras in Brazil contributed their individual talents to make the game what it is today. Right from the time Ramsey (a Briton) invented soccer it has served as a unifying factor across the world. It has since then grown into one of the most attractive and spectacular games in the world.
While in Brazil I discovered that soccer had a kind of cult following in the country. Simply put, soccer is almost adored like a deity. Names of retired soccer legends that were been flaunted there then were Nilton Santos – the incontrovertible left-wing playmaker. His fast runs down the left flank distinguished him from the rest. It was his style of playing that such modern-era players as Ronaldo, Carlos, Ashely Cole and Daniel Alves popularized at individual levels. He scored a fantastic goal for Brazil in their World Cup appearance in 1958, which they also won. Next was Didi – the midfield maestro – who turned around the fortunes of the game in his home-country. He featured for Brazil in three consecutive World Cup tournaments – 1954, 1958 and 1962 – winning two out of the three. He it was that introduced what they called ‘dead leaf’ (a sort of free-kick that dropped into the goal at wherever spot he so chose).
Other legends included Zizinho. He was the famous player that Pele took his position in the Brazilian national team. In spite of his tremendous skills he could not win the World Cup for Brazil in 1950 and that kind of made him not achieve due recognition from soccer buffs. He scored 30 goals in 53 matches for Brazil. Following was Roberto Rivelino – the midfield Field Marshall who invented the Electico for which Ronaldinho was famed. What of the ebullient Socrates – the Medical Doctor and player? He was a member of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup Squad. Following him was the Brazilian No.11 Jersey, Romario. He played for almost all the big clubs in Europe before retiring to Brazil. They included Real Madrid, PSV, Inter Milan, and Barcelona. He was also a three-time winner of FIFA Player of the Year Award. I remember vividly his exploits at the 1994 World Cup which Brazil won.
The media are already awash with screaming headlines about the soccer mundial, while the various countries that will participate have been playing warm-up matches to keep them in top form. Nigeria has played a few of these friendly matches against Scotland, United States and Greece, and the results have been impressive.
Everywhere is agog with preparations for the greatest football gathering in the world. Countries are plotting how to overrun their opponents and capture the coveted trophy. Big names are falling off the list like ice from the sky. Keshi has released his list: some are happy, while others are anguished, because they could not find their names on the list. Where have the names gone? Into oblivion, perhaps! I don’t think so. They fell to the high-wire intrigues that play out in the politics of the game. There wasn’t much difference between the final list and the names speculated. What changed were just a few names that the coach juggled here and there.
Nevertheless, Keshi included Joseph Yobo, maybe to tap into his experience. Mikel Obi’s name featured prominently on the list. It would have been unthinkable that his name would not appear. For the midfield: I saw names such as Ogenyi Ogazi, Ejike Uzoenyi and Sunday Mba. Uzoenyi’s and Mba’s inclusion was a good decision as both players have proved, within a short time, that they have something to offer in Brazil. Remember the late equalizer by Mba that saw Nigeria progress in the last Nations’ Cup. The same thing goes for Uzoenyi’s spectacular performance at the last U-23 World Cup. In defence Keshi settled for Elderson Echiejile, Efe Ambrose, Godfrey Oboabona, Kenneth Omeruo and Azubuike Egwuekwe.
I am glad Keshi allowed reason to prevail at last with the inclusion of Stoke’s striker Osaze Odemwingie. It would have been a huge loss to Nigeria if Keshi had not demonstrated maturity and chosen Odemwingie. He will definitely justify his inclusion, because he is in top form now. Others to strike the ball with Nosa in Brazil include Emmanuel Emenike, Ahmed Musa and Shiola Ameobi. To man the post are two tested hands – Vincent Enyema and Austin Ejide. Chigozie Agbim of Gombe United is also on the goalkeepers list. Overall Keshi made a good and just selection.
It is certain some persons may not like the selection, especially for those that did not make the list. But let me state categorically that there is nothing strange or out of place in a coach dropping any player he deems will not fit into his game-plan. Big names such as Fernando Torres, Tevez, and Ashley Cole, despite their impressive performances for their clubs, could not make it into their countries’ World Cup final list.
What I think is globally in vogue now is for coaches to pick those players that will give them the kind of result they want. In other words, the coaches go for team- play instead of big names that may not be able to deliver after all. The truth is that it is not the way some players shine in their various clubs that they do in big tournaments like the World Cup. The World Cup has a totally different orientation and presents unique challenges.
Last week, the Eagles tested their match-readiness on the Scottish national team, which ended in a 2-2 draw. A late equalizer saved the Eagles from defeat in the hands of the Scots. The match was very entertaining and revealing as both teams demonstrated speed, agility and robustness in their attack as well as defence. The defensive-kind of football played by the Scots made it difficult for the Eagles to have an easy access to their 18- yard box. And I find this revealing. Definitely, many teams coming to the every-four-year mundial will play as defensively as the Scots. This is one area Super Eagles sweat-merchant Stephen Keshi should focus attention.
Everything needed to stage a successful World Cup in Brazil is almost ready. Name it: the stadia, logistics, teams and facilities are at various stages of readiness. Nigeria’s national team – the Super Eagles – is not left out of the preparations. Efforts have been intensified by the team to ensure a hitch-free appearance.
For the host-country Brazil, the tournament is an opportunity to showcase their talents on turf and out of turf. In fact, from available facts Brazil has concluded arrangements to play host as has never been done before by any other country.
The tournament kicks off on June 12 with the opening cracker between host-country Brazil and Croatia. Nigeria will play its opening match against Iran on Monday, June 16, while our neighbours, Cameroon, will slug it out with Mexico on Friday, June 13. Iran is surely going to prove a hard nut to crack going by the formidable squad they assembled to confront the Super Eagles. In fact, Iran is already boasting to give Nigeria a run for its money. If they will be able to translate their boast into reality will be seen on June 16. But one thing we are sure going to see when both countries clash are fireworks. Days had gone when Middle East was considered a soccer minnow. They have developed their soccer such that it will be difficult to underrate them. The bribery allegation hanging over the head of Qatar will not diminish the fact that soccer is fast taking root in the oil-rich Middle East.
Other nations have been working round the clock to prepare their teams. Cameroon has just released the list of its players. The list comprising 23 players did not contain the name of Jean-Armel Kana Biyik whose father, Andre, played for Cameroon at the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals alongside his uncle, Francois. Cameroon will meet the other teams – Brazil and Croatia – in Group A at later dates. Cameroon’s Squad is fortified with such players as defenders Benoit Assou-Ekoto who players for Tottenham Hotspur of England and Henri Bedimo of Olympique Lyon. Others are midfielders Stephane Mbia of Sevilla of Spain and Edgar Salli who plies his trade at Racing Lens of France.
Ivory Coast has in its squad familiar faces. They include Kolo Toure and his brother, Yaya Toure; irrepressible Didie Drogba; Gervino; and Solomon Kalou. Others who made the list included Everton striker Lacina Traore, and Dusseldorf of Germany’s forward, Martis Bolly.
I must confess that the teams Africa is taking to Brazil this year are indeed powerful. And if big names are the only criterion for winning the trophy then Africa will surely win. Nonetheless, it takes more than parading big names to clinch the coveted prize. You need vision, commitment, skill, dexterity, discipline and a little luck to triumph. I cannot tell exactly how much of each of these sterling qualities the African representatives are bringing on board.
Let me dwell more on Nigeria’s chances at the tournament. How bright are our chances? Do we have what it takes to confront big-soccer nations as Germany, Brazil France and Spain? I am aware we are going to Brazil as the reigning African champions. Does that add any value to our chances of doing well? As champions of Africa, we will be under obligation to discharge ourselves creditably, and that will bring too much pressure to bear on the team.
I recall, with fondest memories, our 1994 maiden appearance at the World Cup. It ignited hope and unparalleled patriotism in Nigerians. Almost every Nigerian was solidly behind the Eagles and they did not disappoint. If not for inexperience the team would have got to the finals of the event. Their first match in the tournament against Greece was a cracker, with Rashid Yekini scoring the opener. The second match against Bulgaria brought out the best in the Eagles, paving the way for them to qualify for the round of 16, where they were eventually eliminated by Italy after a pulsating match.
What will happen this time round? How much will Nigerians support the Eagles? Will their support be as electrifying as that of 1994? I ask these questions because of the impact of the English Premiership which passion seems to have engulfed our youth. In football, nothing else matters to them other than the EPL matches. Even the high and mighty of society is not left out. I know my friend, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is a die-hard supporter of Manchester United. So also is his successor, Governor Babatunde Fashola, who is daily transforming sports in Lagos State. I must not fail to mention the success of the recently-concluded kids’ tournament for primary schools in the state sponsored by the Lagos State Government. I saw the kids as they juggled the ball and displayed incredible skills. How I wish other states would emulate Lagos state in this connection.
I have been wondering what will happen if the current Eagles displayed the skills of the 1994 team. It will definitely make them make a difference. Soccer has grown in scope and technicality.
The involvement of IT has changed the way things were done in the past. This is one area our sports administrators need to pay attention. I trust the ability of Keshi to steer the Eagles’ ship to a successful berth. But he needs moral and material support to excel. His outing in the Nations’ Cup and in the friendly matches the team had played shows him off as a man with a rosy future in the business. However, I expect him to do what is needful to keep constantly in touch with innovations in the game. I am proud of him. After all, many wrote him off when his name came up for consideration for the Eagles’ job. I was one person that stood stoically in support of him, having known him personally and his unremitting commitment to service.
For the individual players, they are good in their own right. Players such as Mikel, Yobo, Nosa Odemwingie, Victor Moses and Shola Ameobi are tested professionals who have painted Europe red with their extraordinary skills. So, I expect nothing less than superlative performance from them. They will be supported by other very mobile, young players namely Ahmed Musa, Ejike Uzoenyi, and Sunday Mba. These ones too are a thorn in the flesh of any coach.
Interestingly, many Nigerians believe the Eagles will go as far as the finals, while some incurable optimists hope Nigeria will win. Whichever way you look at it my position is simple: Eagles will perform well; even better than they did in 1994. Winning the trophy is what I cannot put my money on.