By Onochie Anibeze, Monrovia
The Eagles arrived at Monrovia yesterday morning in the heat of a campaign to revitalize the Lone Star, the national team of Liberia.
Can a lone star survive the swarm of Eagles? 90 minutes will tell.
The campaign chief of Liberia is interestingly President Ellen Johnson who is also the Chief Patron of sports in the country.
Just as President Good Luck Jonathan was visiting the Eagles during the week, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was, at the Ministry of Education here launching Lone Star Mobilisation for 2013 Nations Cup Finals. She said that the aim of the campaign was to revitalize the national football team.
The President called on Liberians and retired footballers to rally round the national team and ensure their qualification for the 2013 Nations Cup finals. She referred to their glorious days in football as when they qualified and played in the 1996 Nations Cup in South Africa and in 2002 when they played in the Mali Nations Cup finals.
That same year, they narrowly missed World Cup qualification when they needed a home draw against Ghana to be in the World Cup. Ghana beat them. And the beneficiaries of the Ghana victory were Nigeria who had actually lost away to them and Sierra Leone, prompting the sacking of Bonfrere Jo and the engagement of Shaibu Amodu and Stephen Keshi.
Nigeria qualified but surprisingly disengaged the coaches to pave way for Chief Adegboye Onigbinde to lead Nigeria to the World Cup where they crashed out in the first round.
President Johnson-Sirleaf hopes the Lone Star will rise again. And they begin their campaign for revival with Nigeria here at 6 pm local time. It will be 7 pm Nigerian time. A victory and possible qualification, not even winning in the finals, will mean the world to them.
They hope for a surprise victory today and visit Nigeria to play a difficult game that may frustrate Eagles. They are the underdogs and a draw would mean a lot to them.
Eagles left Abuja on IRS chartered plane early yesterday morning, 45 minutes behind schedule. It was not bad by Nigerian standard.
And it appears that the charge of President Johnson-Sirleaf is being heeled.
From the airport to their hotel the onlookers jeered the team. It was not unusual in sports. But in many cases, visiting teams are jeered by some and cheered by others. In the journey from the airport to the hotel, the expression of aggression and hate was visible on the faces of Liberians although their football officials were friendly.
It’s a war ravaged country trying to rebuild from the adversities that have made shanties the shelter of citizens as witnessed on the one hour journey to town.
Raising nationalism through football will further unite the people. They are aware of this. And going to the 2013 Nations Cup at the expense of Nigeria will be a tremendous tonic and they plan to give it their best shot. That’s why President Johnson is involved in this.
This place is not new terrain to Stephen Keshi, the Nigerian coach. He led Togo to this place in 2004 and even early this year he led Nigeria to a 2-0 victory in a friendly match to mark their Independence Day. They saw a little bit of what they will face today.
They won but left the field badly bruised by the hard and harsh tackles of the opponents. Keshi has told the players it could even be worse today. He prepared the minds of all to note that aggression on and off the field is common in sports. He believes that the Eagles are in a better shape than they have ever been since he started coaching them last year.
Gabriel Ruben, the strong holding midfielder from Kano Pillars is injured and in his position may be Obiora Nwanchukwu or Nosa Igiebor. Both will likely play. Ahmed Musa is also in good shape and may, as usual play from the right side of the midfield while Ejike Ozoenyi could play from the left. The defenders will be led by Joseph Yobo, the captain who will enjoy the support of the likes of Ambrose Efe, Gabriel Itama and Egwuekwe. Ike Uche will lead the attack.
NFF President, Aminu Maigari has continued to thank President Jonathan for the morale boosting visit last Wednesday. President Jonathan watched part of the training before addressing the players. His government has been widely criticized for failure in many sectors including sports. After the failure at the Olympics the President is banking on football to gain some popularity. He appears under pressure to look good. But he must do good to look good. Football could be a tool for him and the pressure is now on the players and those who run the game from the sports minister to the Nigeria Football Federation. President Johnson-Sirleaf’s actions and personal interest on the Lone Star is also mounting pressure on those who run the game here. If they lose, the fact that Nigeria is a bigger football nation will be a known elixir. It will not be so for Nigeria. The pressure is, therefore, more on them. But they hope to cope and win today.