10 November 2012

Nigeria/South Africa: Opportunity for a Fresh Start


I am still to fully recover from the pain and heartbreak of a most-unexpected and morale-shattering loss to South Africa's Banyana Banyana by our Super Falcons on Wednesday.

In a meeting with some members of the NFF Executive Committee and Management on the eve of the match, there had been confidence expressed by everyone that the result could only go one way: Nigeria's.

Yes, football, like all other sports, is a theatre of the unexpected, with dazzling and unforeseen conclusions, like Celtic FC of Scotland defeating FC Barcelona (someone said they had beaten the 'best team in the world') in the Uefa Champions League on Wednesday. But there are still some results that should be largely foreseen.

In 14 years of the African Women Championship, the Super Falcons had won all editions but one. The only one they lost, in 2008, was the only edition staged in Equatorial Guinea before this year's.

Then, the Falcons had lost 0-1 to the host nation in most hostile circumstances, with the Nigeria Football Federation having to protest the conduct of the match officials. In football, like any other sport, the least you expect in battle is for the rules of engagement to be fair.

The setting in Equatorial Guinea this time was not much different, as per officiating. After the first match against Cameroon, in which the referee inexplicably disallowed a good goal alongside several other questionable calls, I had told a few NFF members that our girls had to step up their game and play very well to be able to retain their title.

While conspiracy theories may not have taken firm root in our minds after that first match, the game against Ethiopia showed clearly that the officials had their own idea of what the rules should be (particularly against defending champions), or they simply wanted a new champion.

I am left unable to talk much about the officiating in the match against South Africa on Wednesday because our girls simply failed to play to win.

It was disturbing that a team that had been optimally motivated through kind words and gestures by the NFF Executive Committee and Management, and were given a win-bonus hike on the eve of the tournament, could play so tamely at the crucial stage of a championship.

While we may talk about the defeat of a supreme team like FC Barcelona by Celtic of Scotland in the Uefa Champions League to underscore the unpredictability of football, it is also pertinent to point out that Barcelona were simply fated to lose, having played in sublime manner, hit the post on several occasions and denied severally by a 'possessed' goalie Fraser Forster.

Celtic also had some good fortune to count on as the usually faultless Xavi made a mistake in the run-up to the second goal, and a teenager could so compose himself for that great finish on a night of dreams come true.

FC Barcelona's loss was not as a result of poor play. On Wednesday, a few hours earlier in Bata (Equatorial Guinea's second city) and thousands of kilometres away from Glasgow, the Super Falcons simply failed to put up and effort and duly lost.

There have been several theories thrown around in the public space since that ouster on Wednesday, but I take responsibility as the President of Nigeria Football Federation, and pledge here that we would make very good use of this lesson and opt for a fresh start.

Commentators were wondering why young players from the U-17 and U-20 Women National Teams were left out of the squad to Equatorial Guinea, when the two teams had impressed at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Azerbaijan and the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan. That is a matter we have to look into, deeply.

Certainly, the accent is on young players making up the fulcrum of every team these days and even the last Olympic Games in London revealed the faith in youth by every sport and every nation.

While I believe that the ladies who had brought glory to the nation in women's football over the past two decades deserve regard and respect, it is perhaps time to lay a very solid foundation for the women's game by bolstering the Women's League and focusing on youth programmes in that sector.

It is perhaps time to start calling on primary and post-primary educational institutions in the country to encourage girls to play football during the sport hours, in order for us to be able to 'catch 'em young' and develop those who show exceptional talent and disposition.

The Executive Committee of the NFF will also brainstorm to come up with ideas on how best we can develop our women players and make the Coaches better.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the NFF organized the first-ever FIFA Women Football Coaching Seminar in Abuja, endorsed by FIFA which sent South Africa instructor Fran Hilton-Smith and attended by 25 women Coaches. It is important that we keep up the momentum and be ready to take other measures and initiate programmes that will keep our women Coaches in concert with modern tactics and techniques of the game.

My target for this week was to conclude on our expectations for thelast two months of the year (started last week), but the heartbreak in Bata had compelled that we leave that till next week.

Eagles Go To America...

I enjoyed the film, Coming To America so much that I watched it several times, even before the first of several trips to the United States of America.

The Super Eagles will fly to the United States of America tomorrow for a friendly match against Venezuela in Miami, Florida on Wednesday.

A million thanks to the Honourable/Chairman, National Sports Commission, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, who personally got involved in the visa issue and called up the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, who helped so much.

The match is the first of what will be a number of games to properly tune up the team ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations - South Africa 2013.

Coach Keshi has called up 11 foreign based players who will join a group of home-based professsionals, and this will provide opportunity for the technical crew to see a number of new boys and know whether they can fit into the programme for the AFCON.

Yet, it is important that we get a result because tune-up games are meant to build confidence and we want the Super Eagles to build immense confidence ahead of the Cup of Nations.

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