Saturday afforded me the first opportunity of watching live, Keshi's "Work -in-progress" Eagles, so off I went to Calabar.
Calabar was as tense as it was electric. The match in hand was not a FIFA World Cup, Brazil 2014 qualifier, a league system where a slip could still be redeemed in the course of the home and away six match experiment.
Saturday was the return leg of the South Africa 2013 CAF Orange Nations Cup qualifier and after a 0-0 draw at away, the Eagles were condemned to winning at home in order to qualify for the group stage.
Some explanations. All the countries that did not qualify for Gabon-Equatorial Guinea were mandated to play the preliminaries against each other (Twenty six of them ) and the winners are to qualify for the group stage in September where those who went to the Nation's Cup will now be thrown into the fray
If you read the media officer of the Super Eagles Ben Alaiya on Friday informing us that the Eagles practiced penalty shoot outs, it was because should the Eagles fail to win, and record a scoreless draw then the match would have been decided by penalties (A winner had to emerge).
Predictably, the Wasps of Rwanda hit town with a lot of boast as their coach delighted in churning out mind games telling us how the pressure was on the Eagles!
Egypt did not help matters. On Friday, the mighty Pharaohs of Egypt, seven times Nations Cup champions had the Central African Republic for lunch in Alexandria only for news to filter out that the tiny Central African country had triumphed 3-2! Incredible but true.
In Calabar, near panic. " ......those of you who say there are minnows in football, come hear how the Pharaohs need to win by two un replied goals in Bangui or risk two successive Nations Cup failures" the barb was thrown at me and some explanations sought. Yes I was in Bangui for the World Cup qualifier and witnessed how the Rwandans demolished Botswana 2-0. I spoke about determination, about youth, about patriotism, about crowd support and how all of them combined to afford the Central African country an historic first ever World Cup victory.
Outside Bangui, just a week later, the team travelled to Addis Abeba and were trounced by the Ethiopians 2-0, so I nearly concluded that the visit to Egypt was also going to be a rout. How wrong.
In Calabar the Rwandans came out for warm up walking tall. What the Central Africans can do, we can also do, even better.....their body language suggested. The Eagles also marched out to the roar of the not too impressive crowd. Yes the crowd. what ever happened to that throng that came out against Namibia? A lot of excuses. First, that twenty five per cent of the football watching public in Cross River are Ibo and Yoruba traders who don't joke with their business on Saturdays.
Also, the organizers of the match, impressed with the Namibia crowd upped the gate takings to 1,000 naira for popular side from 500 naira, not conscious of the fact that on June 3 most civil servants still had their pay packet intact different from June 16 which was mid month.
I have dwelt a bit on this because we need to develop the culture of watching matches in this country. Go elsewhere, Congo DR, Gambia , Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia.......and you will be amazed at the turn out of spectators well decked in their national colours.
During the world cup qualifier in Bangui (Popular side went for a one thousand naira equivalent) I had to order the use of the public address system to beg spectators to go back home and watch the matches on TV because the stadium had surpassed what we call in football security "Safe stadium capacity"
Back to Calabar. The Eagles came out to warm up and I benefitted a sneak preview of the starting line up without Utaka and Victor Moses and I said to myself that at last consultations were having an upper hand.
By half time I and Onochie Anibeze did some analysis and were not too pleased with what we saw.
At the end of the match, Mike Itemuagbor declared that there was light at the end of the tunnel. He had a lot of praise for Keshi,s determination to stick to the development and the building of a new team even at the risk of losing his job.
Coach Charles Bassey ex Super Eagle whose national honour (MON) could not afford him recognition in the stadium, is happy that Keshi has benefitted two and a half months to continue to work at a team that may be a pride to all of us.
You will realize that I have not delved into details and analysis of the match as regards the efficiency or otherwise of individuals players, the tactics used and so on. No I have not because I have been reliably informed that the Technical Committee will meet soon to digest the technical report of the coach and his future plans and to evaluate our progress so far.
For now, it is congratulations for crossing the Rwandan bridge. The 'greater congratulations' go to the Falcons who in Lagos did not shed any sweat against Zimbabwe on their way to the qualification for the African Women Championship in Equatorial Guinea of which they are defending champions.
See you next week.