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The World Cup and I

By Larry Izamoje
I was excited when Vanguard’s Tony Ubani and Patrick Omorodion talked about picking up my pen to write
for a newspaper again, albeit as a guest columnist. But pitched against my tight schedule, the excitement almost immediately vanished. However, a smile played on my lips and my packed mind’s weight got lighter when they voiced the paper’s resolve that issues should only be around mankind’s biggest sports spectacle, the World Cup.

Tight as my schedule is for the next six weeks, to fail to give back to the competition by sharing my views is to be roundly selfish and unfair to a gathering of stars that more than any other competition brought me the greatest accolades from my countrymen and women, not as a player but as a journalist.

So, every Saturday for the next six weeks provides a fresh platform to salute a competition that not only gathers the best players and coaches but also the best writers, commentators and fans everywhere. It partly underscores the good intentions of some administrators and sadly peels off the protective layers of maladministration for others while exposing a sickening trend that somehow affects team results. From Siberia to Liberia, people are gathered reading, watching or listening to World Cup stuff. FIFA says this will have the biggest global audience ever!

My foray into the business of talking and writing sports with Brila Sports as trade name was young when Nigeria first qualified for the Mundial but the then Super Eagles were posting heart-thumping results that made my Saturday Global Sports programme on OGBC 2 FM Abeokuta increasingly popular. It was no surprise therefore when Lampe Omoyele, then of the marketing unit of Cadbury called me early in 1994 to declare that the company wanted a transformation from a weekly programme to a daily that must be spiced with mainly World Cup stories.

Those were no easy internet days and I remain grateful to my elder brother, Dr I.A Izamoje, for two World Cup 1930-1994 special books bought and sent by courier and to the chief publicist of USA’ 94, Jim Trekker ( a man I did not meet) for sending regular releases to me. I was at home but reached the camp of our team daily on telephone and with information from other sources, made the show a hit. Indeed, since then, God has not looked back concerning his son!

Losers but winners
The Eagles crashed out in Boston, losing 1-2 to Italy in 1994. I remember playing the song of the Bee Gees ‘the lights went out in Massachusetts’ as I painfully reviewed the match but the Eagles won because they left a few converts with the name Nigeria on their minds long after the competition.

Last year in Boston, Johnny, a Colombian immigrant who chauffeured my wife, children and I from New York on sightseeing gave us a huge discount which he voiced right in front of the Foxboro stadium, Boston because quoting him ‘I enjoyed your team in 1994 and also in 1996 at the Olympics’. Fifteen years after the Eagles 1ost,1 was still enjoying our ‘victory’ as the people’s winner.

I remember I was one of the passengers in the last World Airways flight to Nigeria a few years back. We had been shocked and pained with flight disruptions that led to a night’s extended stay in New York(at the airline’s expense) but once the announcement was made, I needed to call home. Today, we can roam our phones with ease. Not so then and I needed to get to a public phone or just call my wife somehow.

Two shops down and behold a shop attendant asked if I am a Nigerian and my answer was rewarded with his phone for the call, free of charge, ‘because your country has good footballers’. Again, l won long after the curtains were drawn on the Eagles in the USA.

Will I ever forget the free bottle of France ‘98 Official World Cup first-grade red wine given my friends and I by our hotelier in Paris the night the Eagles beat Spain? In smattering English as I returned from the St Denis stadium he said: ‘Nigeria, Nigeria Tres bien(very good) .’What a party it turned out to be as other guests joined him in celebrating Nigeria.

I remember him telling me that beating Spain was like winning the World Cup as he consoled me after Denmark showed us the exit door. I walked tall after that as I made my way back to Nigeria.

Not long ago in Johannesburg, I went shopping for Jabulani, the official ball for this year’s World Cup and when buyers and sellers knew I am Nigerian, they voiced fears concerning the Eagles. I must state that from the talk, I observed that Africans everywhere are united concerning this Mundial and want the African teams to do the continent proud. Trust me.

I made the Eagles the Eagles they should be albeit rhetorically, describing each player as a man to watch. Again, I got huge discounts!

In Hamburg 2006, as a Media guest of Emirates airline as they selected a few journalists per continent for VIP treatment in celebration of their sponsorship of the Mundial, the pain of Nigeria’s absence was clearly palpable. Those on that trip agreed that since football is a game of numbers, it was a shame a country of over 140million could not raise eleven and a few substitutes to power her way to the playing fields of global attention. I grew taller in joy as they said Nigeria would have been Africa’s best if we were at the competition.

Indeed, I have remained one beneficiary of what the Eagles leave in the minds of soccer faithful after each World Cup they participated in. Like Oliver Twist, I can only ask for more from the team.

Realistic Target
Since the draw was made, many have asked what is the best way  to grab group points. I have looked at our group opponents closely and the quality of offence we face. Coaching is about being truthful to yourself, not to strive for that which you clearly cannot attain.

It is also about believing in yourself and taking an opportunity when it offers itself.
Coach Lagerback must plot his match strategy with all that the opponents can throw at us in mind. He also must come up with a different plan per opponent. You die in a competition once your team is predictable. They may be largely the same boys but they must be able to respond differently when faced with changing challenges.

Lagerback should have several playing styles-what you must do NOT to concede an early goal; what you do when you get stunned with an early goal; what you showcase when you score first; how to push yourself harder in the last fifteen minutes of each half when most first half goals are scored, history records; when to change from the passing midfield play to long thrusts or wing play if your midfielders are being out-hustled; how to avoid early second half goals; what to do when off-the-ball tackles are employed to distract you; team re-alignment when you face a red card challenge; avoiding cards; effective marking and displaying a concentric formation in defence, how to kill off a game(our bane versus Italy in 1994) and winding down the cloak effectively are some areas I look out for in any team.

Permutations come into it. For an out-and-out attacking team like Argentina, I will play negatively yet get a positive result. Taiye Taiwo and Yobo to play just in front of my back four ,Mikel(if OK)or Afolabi with Etuhu, Osaze and Utaka in front of them and Yakubu (to bully their defenders and tire them out in the first half) with Martins playing in the second half as lone attackers.

For the game against Argentina, once we get the ball, Osaze and Utaka must show their experience in moving up to join the attack and return once we lose the ball. With this team, you have a selection experienced enough to know what to do with Messi, Higuain, Milito, Aguero, Tevez, Mascherano, Walter Samuel, Dimechelis and others, not ambitious to go for an outright win, strong enough to get a goal on the counter (Osaze and Utake’s speed) and more importantly, know that a draw is not bad in our first match.

Against Greece and Korea, a change to a more fluid midfield and sharper attack is necessary. I will not play Taiwo and Yobo where I played them against Argentina. Depending on how other defenders fared, I will move them to their more orthodox roles if others came short of expectations.

If not, l will rest them for the later stages when again I will play Mourinho versus Chelsea style again. Since flair and greater creativity in offence is needed against Greece and South Korea, Haruna Lukman and Kalu Uche will have their days in the sun. Kanu is best as a holding player given his pace now and will be a sure card when we need to wind down the cloak or are looking for a one-man magic in the dying minutes of a game slipping off our hands.

Of the nine available points in the group stage, I will tell my players we are going for all available points but realistically will plan for 1-3-3 (Argentina, Greece, Korea). With 7 points, I will see Greece and Korea depart. Nigerians may not like my pattern against Argentina but will hail the result. They will like both the style and result against Greece and South Korea.

I will be writing from Johannesburg next week and will be happy to note Lagerback is thinking like this. I know he used the same format in 2002. He shocked pen pushers who predicted England and Argentina will qualify from the group that included Nigeria and Sweden. He went for draws (1-1) with Argentina and England and beat Nigeria 2-1. You do not discard what works for you!

Larry Izamoje is the Chairman/CEO of Sports Radio,88.9 Brila fm, Lagos, Abuja. Brila fm is also on HITV audio channel. Mr Izamoje is also a member of the Presidential Task Force for the Super Eagles


Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.