International football returns to the National Stadium Complex, Abuja today when the Senior National Women's Team, known and addressed as the Super Falcons, take on their counterparts from Cameroon in a final qualifying fixture for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
The nature of our team's qualification for this final round (in the form of home-and-away victories over Namibia must send jitters down the minds of any opposition, but the big message today is that the Super Falcons must take nothing for granted in the entire 90 minutes against the neighbours to the east.
Cameroon has done so much damage to our teams in the past that we must start NOW to pile up our own credits against that country on the international front.
Go back to 27 years ago, when the Super Eagles led by the youthful Stephen Keshi steamed all the way to the Final match of the African Cup of Nations in Cote d'Ivoire, only to be stopped at the final hurdle by the more experienced Indomitable Lions, who barely two years earlier had taken the FIFA World Cup by storm, losing none of three matches in Spain but crashing out as a result of 'match-fixing' between then West Germany and neighbours Austria.
In that final match in Abidjan on a day then President Felix Houphouet-Boigny ordered a national holiday, Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal shot Nigeria in front after only 10 minutes when he connected with a loose ball off James Etokebe's pull-out. But the Cameroonians equalized fortuitously with a free-kick in the last minute of the first half which was mis-directed into his own net by Keshi.
There have been debates since then over whether the Cameroonian team, which included Roger Milla, Emmanuel Kunde, Ibrahim Aoudou, Gregoire Mbida, Antoine Bell, Theophile Abega and other legends would have been able to turn the table without that own goal.
Two years later, our Eagles failed to qualify for the finals in Egypt, which Cameroon lost on penalties to the host nation. That was the last time our Senior Team have failed to reach the African Cup of Nations finals (another sub-topic in this piece).
In 1988, the Cameroonians pounced on the Eagles again, though a long debate raged over whether Henry Nwosu's goal at the Mohamed V Stadium in Casablanca that day was truly ineligible, as Referee Idrissa Sarr from Mauritania claimed. But the result stood: Cameroon 1 Nigeria 0. The Cameroonians had beaten us to it again.
At home, when we co-hosted the Cup of Nations with Ghana in 2000, the Cameroonians again came, saw and conquered. Two early goals in the first half settled it, though the Super Eagles battled back to level, the second a magnificent effort by Jay Jay Okocha (today, a member of NFF Technical Committee), the matter was resolved on penalties in favour of the Lions, though there were still several fingers that pointed accusingly in the direction of the Tunisian referee, Mourad Daami.
The two teams escaped each other in Mali two years later when Senegal defeated the Super Eagles in the semi finals and went ahead to play Cameroon in the final, which the Lions won on penalties. But the big one my pen had been waiting to come to was the quarter-final clash in Monastir, Tunisia in 2004, when the Eagles gobbled up the Lions on a bright and sunny afternoon in North Africa.
I remember how the Cameroonian delegation, led by President Issa Hayatou, took over the entire VIP Box and 'naturally' expected the Lions to roll over the Eagles. Somewhere in the stands, Cameroonian supporters had a huge banner which read: 'WANTED: EAGLES FOR SUPPER". Ironically, after 90 minutes, the Nigerian supporters were moving round the restaurants in Monastir, asking to be served 'lions for dinner'.
The story of Nigeria/Cameroon clashes is a veritable chapter in the story of African football. But at the women's football level, the Lionesses have always played second fiddle to the Super Falcons. And this MUST continue this evening at the National Stadium, Abuja, with the Falcons having prepared adequately over the past three weeks for this encounter.
Pedigree-wise, the Falcons have represented Africa at the Olympic Games Women's Football Tournament in Sydney (Australia) 2000, Athens (Greece) 2004 and Beijing (China) 2008. The Lionesses do not look like the team that have liver to stop our girls, having been restored to the race ONLY after FIFA disqualified the Senior Women's Team of Equatorial Guinea for fielding ineligible players.
Our special appeal today is that the people of Abuja and environs should troop out to the National Stadium, Abuja to support our Super Falcons to victory, in order that we would enact a big advantage ahead of the return leg match, coming up in Yaounde on 22nd October as a result of the Lionesses' participation in the 10th All-Africa Games in Mozambique.
If we continue to say that football is our number one sport in this country, there is no reason why the stadium should not be filled to capacity anytime any of the National Teams is playing. We see club matches watched by full houses in Europe and elsewhere on a weekly basis. Dear fan, please come and support the Super Falcons against Cameroon this evening at the National Stadium, Abuja.
Lessons from South America (2)
One of the real lessons we learnt at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia is the way to support your national team, or preferred team, for that matter.
All through the group phase and the quarter finals, Colombians backed their U-20 National Team to the hilt, in a way that you would not be able to imagine. The stadium in Bogota (where the team played) was filled to overflowing each time, and passion and patriotic fervour were never in short supply. The flags were always there in huge and miniature versions and the music and dance never waned.
When the Colombia U-20 Team was eliminated on Saturday, 13th August, the Colombians switched, automatically and inexplicably, to the Flying Eagles. And what we saw in Cali on Sunday, 14th August, as I described last week, was out of the ordinary.
You would somehow expect that Nigeria would get second-best support in a match against France, in a Spanish-speaking nation. There definitely is greater affinity between the French and the Spanish than between the English and the Spanish. But the fans in Cali turned every stereotype on its head and went all out to back Nigeria to the roof.
In Colombia, football is serious business, as in all South American territoties. On Friday, 12th August, the Flying Eagles had arrived at a venue on the outskirts of Cali for a training session. The facility, as was later gathered, belonged to a Colombian premier division club, Deportivo Cali.
The vice president of Deportivo Cali FC, Mr. Henry Cuartas Martinez, explained that the club had about 1,500 members, each of whom pay the sum of $150 every month for the running of the club. The club has its own stadium, named Deportivo Cali Stadium, also in that Colombia third biggest city, and different from the Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero where Nigeria played France.
The club also runs on the profit made from sale of exceptional players to the big Europeans teams - an example being the same of Hugo Rodallega to Wigan Athletics in the English Premiership. The club also made some money from the sale of Carlos Valderrama (that gorgeous talisman and image of Colombian football) to Montpellier in the French top flight a couple of decades ago.
The facility includes two training pitches, a standard club house, with a lounge, a bar, a sportswear shop, tennis court, swimming pools and a 24-room hostel, which houses the players and technical officials and has all the convenience that matters (not only restroom, please) though, the man said jokingly, no wives and girlfriends are allowed inside!
Is it impossible for our own premier and professional league clubs to have this kind of facilities? Definitely, it is not.
I was happy to be in London in the second week of August when the Super Eagles were to play the Black Stars of Ghana in an international friendly, though the match was later cancelled as a result of the riots.
One experience I will treasure for life is the meeting with the family of the late Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal, former Captain of the Senior National Team. Mrs Yetunde Muda-Lawal was such a pleasant person, alongside the two children with her in London. She came around and we had photos together at the Hilton Watford, and I assured her that come October 11 when the match is eventually played, we would bring her and the children back to be part of the experience.
Two days before then, we would have opportunity of having the Muda's three children in Nigeria at the 2012 African Cup of Nations qualifying match against the Syli Nationale of Guinea at the National Stadium, Abuja.
Must-win? Yes It's A Must-Win...
Many people have been going on and on analysing next weekend's 2012 African Cup of Nations qualifying match between the Super Eagles and the Barrier of Madagascar in Antananarivo.
Someone called up the other night and asked whether I thought it was truly a must-win game. I told him squarely it is a must-win because if you look at the group 2 table, Nigeria is three points behind Guinea, with only two matches left in the campaign, and with only the group winner guaranteed automatic qualification for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, we cannot afford to take anything for granted.