By Paul Bassey
Did I watch the match? That is the question that came to me again and again, Saturday morning.

My ‘yes’ answer  was followed by ‘…what was the result?’ ‘How did we play?’

Of course I watched the match and I believe millions of Nigerians did (My brother Steve Ukpong rang by 2.15 am to find out the station that was airing the match) that is the passion, the sacrifice, that most Nigerians paid, banishing sleep to be able to see what I have always considered ‘…a mere friendly’.

HOUSTON – MAY 31: Aide Brown Ideye #8 of Nigeria fends off Javier Hernandez #14 and Francisco Rodiriguez #2 of Mexico as he attmpts to gain control of the ball at Reliant Stadium on May 31, 2013 in Houston, Texas. /AFP

Before the match, I had repeatedly said that that the Mexico Friendly was welcome since it was meant to prepare us for the crucial World Cup clash against Kenya in Kasarani, Nairobi. (I only pray that having to play that match in far away US and jetting down to Kenya thousands of miles away will not take a toll on the boys)

Yes I was condemned to watch the match in the wake of the sudden withdrawals of key players, weakening the squad. Coach Keshi woke up last week to learn that Moses, Mikel, Kalu Uche and Reuben were not going to be available to him. Before then, Nations Cup highest goalscorer Emmmanuel Emenike, dogged by injury had been ruled out of his plans.

Handling a National team is a different cup of tea. Once invitations had been given out and negotiations concluded with clubs, except you had placed a player on a stand by, it becomes difficult calling up a replacement at short notice. Not only have players considered it an insult and an afterthought, others believe they are not psychologically prepared, while some clubs refuse such late requests. That was the fate of our national team gaffer as he faced not only a formidable foe in Mexico, but a test run of a crucial world cup qualifier fast forwarded by our participation in the FIFA Confederation Cup, a potential 8 matches in 29 days needing a surplus of players, even on stand by.

So, did I watch the match? Yes I did and intensely too. The first twenty five minutes confirmed my fears, that of lack of quality in the defense and midfield. That period, Mexico would have buried us, thank God they did not. Burying us would have generated psychological implications going into the Kenya match. If we could not beat Mexico, then we should not lose either.

As if they heard me, the boys started coming into the match with flashes of personal brilliance that were punctuated by the more experienced and compact Mexican side. The Hernandez goals that exposed our defense, the inability to take advantage of our numerical strength when Mexico were reduced to ten men are some of the issues Coach Keshi should be concerned with before Wednesday.

I will not attempt an individual assessment of the players for morale sake, but I can conveniently say that most of the boys on display did not display National team stuff, what I will call here “Super Eagles material”. To be in the national team you must be above a certain standard in terms of  ability and capacity either as an individual or as a team player. Less than five players in that match scored above average.

For crying out loud, we are Champions of Africa, a pride that was nearly dented by Kenya but which we must hurriedly reclaim against same Kenya. I have heard Mikel Obi will be available, that Ahmed Musa will be called up and the defense line? What about the absence of a leader in the line up, a role that Enyeama tried to play when he came in ?

I have ever had any doubts that we possess the wherewithal to dismiss Kenya bearing in mind that this is only the preliminary matches of the World Cup qualifiers as tougher African battles lie ahead.

I saw the match against Mexico and I am happy the match came along to expose us to the realities on the ground even as we face Kenya in a few hours and Namibia in a few days. Perhaps a victory against Mexico would have been deceptive, giving us a false impression of invincibility. Perhaps this draw will delight the Kenyans, believing we are beatable only for us to strike and  before they know what hit them, we are on our way to Windhoek, Namibia…….

Okagbare’s rising profile

This was another sleepless night, Saturday as I stayed awake to see Blessing Okagbare dare a very ambitious field in Eugene to place second in an IAAF Diamond League event.

At a point, the powerfully built Nigerian thought she had come first, jumping for joy, but when the official result was released, her 10.75 seconds could only place her second behind two time Olympic 100 metres champion Shelley-Ann Fraser- Price who returned a time of 10.71 seconds, while Veronica Campbell Brown was third in a field that included Carmelia Jeter among others.

The Eugene meet also afforded me the opportunity of seeing Qatar’s London 2012 bronze medalist Mustaz Essa Barshim jump to a new Asian record of 2.40 metres. Now, the 21 year old is the hope of the world to erase Javier Sotomayor’s 2.45 metres high jump record set since 1993.

What about Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, yes Burundi who dusted all in 800 metres women with a world leading time of 1.56.72?

Okagbare’s recent successes transports me back to days of yore, when World Athletics was worth watching as Nigerians flooded the circuit. No more. I pray the recent successes of Okagbare will be well managed, advantage Nigeria.

See you next week.


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