By Paul Bassey
One of the reasons why some of us came to Abidjan was to see how we could use our presence, connections and authority to diffuse what was expected to be a “major football war.”
The Nigerian press as vibrant as ever was in the middle of a build up that threatened even the travel plans of the Nigerian team.
First were series of quotes alleging that the Ivoriens were so bitter about their treatment in Kaduna that they were ready to pay the Nigerians back in their own coins.(?)
Then came the allegations (Press) that the Nigerians compromised the referees and that they were ready to do the same to guarantee victory.
The third news that gained prominence was that the match had been moved to a synthetic pitch to destabilize Nigerians, so coach Keshi had to immediately change his training venue to suit expectations.
I travelled to Abidjan with African journalist boss Mitchell Obi. On arriving Abidjan airport we were surprised to find out that the match did not “exist.” Not in the minds and discussions of the airport personnel, not in their treatment of Nigerians.
Before then, the Nigerian teams had touched down to the warm embrace of their host. Efficient bus for the team, a car for the leader of delegation as stipulated by the rules, opportunity to train on the pitch twice without hindrance, wonderful ambiance and camaraderie, that further necessitated caution given the way the press back home had prepared our minds before departure!
“We should not be deceived by this hospitality..oooooo. I smell a rat,” an NFF Board member said. At the pre-match meeting the same ambiance of friendship existed so much that even the declaration of “using every thing at our disposal to win” was greeted with laughter.
Then came match day, and off we went to Stade Robert Champroux. The reason why the Ivoriens played there is because Stade Houphoet Boighny is in a terrible state and undergoing repairs, not because of any “strategy and plan to catch Nigerians unawares” In fact, the CAF Champions league match this week end between Sewe Sports and Angola’s Recreativo de LiboLo will be played in the same venue.
My argument was even that, except for Calabar, Uyo and Owerri, all the venues in Nigeria are artificial. So ALL the domestic league players cannot afford not to be happy that they were given an opportunity to play on synthetic turf!
Then came the match proper and that is where the real war was. Most of us were not prepared for the storm that hit us. Others have blamed “inexperience” and I wonder. Whereas there has been an argument for deploying another coach to the CHAN Eagles, the NFF in its wisdom has made coach Keshi to continue his domestic players building process and the boys have been beneficiaries of an elaborate camping process that has seen some of them graduating to the senior team…Obaobona, Azubike Egwuekwe, Sunday Mba, Solomon Kwambe…Chibuzor Okonkwo…..
How can you then explain the elementary mistake by Azubike that saw him heading aimlessly, the untimely run of a jittery Chigozie and the resultant sixth minute goal by Sewe Sports danger man Zougolla Kevin, an early one that the Ivoriens were praying for in their quest to hammer three past us and qualify.
Thereafter, it was the Ivoriens all the way. The Nigerians completely fell apart. Kevin with 17 goals was the highest goalscorer in the Ivorien league. (Last year he notched 16 to also top the chart). This is the man that the Ivoriens used to threaten Oboabona, Francis Benjamin, Solomon Kwambe and Femi Oladapo.
WE were in tatters, jittery and uncoordinated. We could not do anything right. In one of such moves, Rabiu Ali went in hard in the box, felled Woukoro Ahmed and referee El Jaafari Noureddine of Morocco enthusiastically pointed at the penalty spot. Kevin stepped out and effortlessly converted.
Two goals in less than thirty minutes. We believed this was it. No hope in sight. The way we were playing there was no way the Ivoriens were not going to score four goals without any reply. Then the tide changed. Ten minutes to the end of the first half, the Eagles took over. Confidently, they sprayed the passes, took control of the midfield, had complete possession and for once looked like a side that could score a goal or two. The crowd was made to sweat.
Second half, what was Keshi going to tell them? What about the inevitable changes? There was not much difference, initially. Gomo Onduku, Femi Oladapo and an injured Kwambe had to make way. In came Gero, the U-20 international I saw him struggling upfront, jumping, pushing and kicking…..Mitchell Obi had a different view. Gero he said was the match winner, the stabilizer.
“Because Gero kept the defence line of the Ivoriens busy, they could not join the attack as they did in the first half, so it offered the Nigerians the needed breathing space to stabilize “ He said.
Take a bow Sunday Mba. My man of the match. Aside his goal scoring prowess in South Africa, this was the best match I have seen him play. So much confidence, exquisite touches, vision and space….then perhaps Rabiu Ali. Minus the penalty, he held his own.
If we could not score, then we should not allow them to score…tense forty five minutes. At a stage I jumped for joy believing the referees final whistle had sounded, only to be subjected to another minute of tension.
Finally, an historic qualification, the proverbial return to the drawing board as January approaches…..
See you next week.