By the time you are reading this, the World Cup would have begun.
In the past one week, I have been in the USA embedded in the camps of the Black Stars of Ghana as well as the Super Eagles of Nigeria, closely observing events around their last
I was at the friendly match between Nigeria and the USA in Jacksonville Florida,USA. The match was to provide an insight into the physical and psychological state of the two teams
going to Brazil.
In that match the Super Eagles suffered their first defeat since the final preparations for the World Cup began. The match was a wake up call, a jolting reminder that the team was taking things for granted.
After the match one would have thought it was Ghana and not Nigeria that the USA just defeated. Excited US fans in the terraces as well as on the streets after the match were singing: ‘Bring on Ghana, bring on Ghana’.
It was apparent that the Americans are scared and worried about Ghana, a boogie team that
defeated them twice in their meetings in the last two World Cups. Yet, here they are almost effortlessly beating Nigeria, considered a stronger team than Ghana by their recent statistics. Fate has now brought them back together again in the same group in Brazil.
The USA were groping for straws, and found them in Nigeria’s defeat. It was a tremendous morale and confidence booster, so, their supporters chorused: ‘Bring on Ghana, Bring on
48 hours later, the USA were back eating their words. Jurgen Klinsman, the coach of the
USA team, and I were part of a scanty crowd of spectators that watched how the Black Stars
destroyed South Korea in a humiliating 4-0 rout in Miami.
The Ghanaians themselves were not brilliant in the match, but they showed everyone that
the hallmark of a great team is the ability to win (sometimes win well) even when the team
does not play well!
In direct response to the American fans, a sea of Ghanaian supporters in yellow, red and
black danced through the streets of Miami Beach, Florida, baying for the ‘blood’ of the
USA, chanting: ‘We want USA, we want USA!’ The prospect of a titanic battle in Brazil
between USA and Ghana is thus set!
There is no such setting for the Super Eagles. Their opponents in their group must be
feeling very cool with themselves monitoring developments in the Nigerian team and camp.
All is not completely well there it seems.
Against the USA, the Super Eagles were a shadow of the once all-conquering team. The
players did not apply themselves enough, and made the encounter that attracted an unprecedented full house of spectators look like a training session.
The players were too cautious, avoiding physical ‘combats’ and the possibility of any last-minute injury to add to the growing number of casualties in the team. Omeruo is carrying an injury from the match against Greece. Echiejile pulled a hamstring that would require three weeks to heal, so he has been dropped and substituted with Ejike Uzoenyi.
Nigeria’s biggest challenge in Brazil would be its bench. Beyond the core of the team, there does not appear to be substitutes of the same level should there be any injuries, suspensions, expulsions, or any unforeseen circumstance.
It is not Keshi’s fault that such a situation exists. His response to me was ‘where are the players?’
There was no rest for the Super Eagles following that defeat. The following day the team was at the Jacksonville Academy grounds training hard.
I was there to observe their mood. The players, rather surprisingly, were in high spirits.
They looked very calm and cool while exuding abundant confidence. It was infectious!
I met and spoke with Stephen Keshi about the psychological state of the team after the USA
match. He told me that the night after the match, the entire squad of players and
technical crew met and did an honest post-mortem of the state of the team and their recent
matches. They told themselves the home truths, he said.
The players had been taking things for granted, were over-confident and disrespectful of
opposition, and did not go hard to avoid injury and lose the opportunity of going to the
World Cup. Everything was sorted out that night, hence the new visible spirit in the team.
As for Keshi, his only slight worry is the glaring lack of time to put the team of his
Finally, let no one underestimate the capacity of the Super Eagles to bounce back and
shine at Brazil 2014. That team can still achieve the impossible dream! My bet is still
recklessly on them!
IN THE GHANA CAMP!
Whilst the Americans were celebrating their unexpected victory over the Eagles, I wondered
what the Black Stars were up to.
So, I flew immediately to Miami to see them and to watch their match against South Korea.
I am so glad I went because I had the rare opportunity of going inside the bowel of the
Black Stars inside St. Regis Hotel in Miami Beach. The confidence they exuded permeated the
whole environment. It was infectious.
The crowd of supporters that flooded the hotel were singing even before they set out for
the stadium: ‘We want USA, we want USA’.
The Black Stars played cautiously against South Korea, taking care not to sustain injuries. They played at half steam, not brilliantly, but with their usual boisterous flair and panache.
The Koreans were entranced. They did not make out what hit them, on the eve of their
journey to the World Cup.
I was honoured by the President of the Ghana Football Federation, who invited me to join him and some members of the GFA in their exclusive suite in the stadium.
Ghana are heading to the World Cup in very high spirit and with sky-rocketing confidence.
CONVERSATION WITH KESHI
We sit by ourselves in a corner of the bar at Hyatt Hotel, temporary camp of the Super
Eagles, in downtown Jacksonville, Florida.
As usual Keshi is looking extremely cool. I wonder where he gets this infectiously calm
disposition from. He wears it like a face-cap. Nothing seems to faze him, not even the
loss to USA on the eve of his greatest challenge.
He tells me:
Of course, he is worried, but it is his job to overcome worry and still build a winning team.
His greatest concern has been the lack of adequate time to work on his team. But time has
not been any coach’s friend going to this World Cup. He appreciates the dilemma is not
peculiar to him. It also affects virtually all the teams.
However, he is not wasting time lamenting about what should have been, instead he is going
to use the rest of the time before his first match on the 16th of June to get his team fully ready.
He is particularly pained about Echiejile, perhaps, his most reliable defender. Why get injured at the last minute. Uzoenyi will replace him.
I ask him: why exchange a striker for a defender?
There are no great left backs around anywhere that he could have called at this last hour.
Nigeria has always had a problem with producing good left backs.
He has brought an attacker to add to the firepower of his team in scoring goals, rather than worry about defending. He will improvise with the experienced defenders in the team.
I tell him what I think of his choice of a few of the players and rejection of some. We speak about Ameobi, Uchebo, Odemwingie, Egwekwe, Offor, and Gabriel. I tell him I have been studying his body language and appreciate what motivates some of his decisions. He looks at me in wonderment, acknowledges my candour and thanks me for all the advice.
We soon rejoin our friends across in the lounge – Paul Okoku, Nathaniel Ogedengbe (both
Keshi’s classmates in school and colleagues in the national team), Francis Moniedafe, Vale
(Keshi’s assistant and long term friend) and Dan ‘the Bull’ Amokachi!
We talk about Bosnia briefly. I share my reading of the Bosnian team with them, their
style of play, their explosive counter-attacking style, and their weakness in defense.
Keshi listens in rapt attention.
Then, i’ts time to go. He gives me a hug with his usual ‘hail’ – ‘Segundo tempo’ (that’s
what Keshi has been calling me since we were both in the national team in the early 1980s
when I was captain. Wow, how time flies!
There is no space for my dairy this week. So much is happening!