My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 21 and 22 – The final

Thursday 7th November 2013

As you would imagine with it being the eve of possibly the biggest game ever for most of the players and staff, it was a bit of a dead day. Training, pre match meeting and press conference all went ahead as scheduled and apart from having to answer a million requests for tickets, it was pretty uneventful.

Friday 8th November 2013 – The Final

Wow! What a day! One of the happiest and most satisfying day in my life, and not for personal reasons but because today proved there was justice in the world and sometimes football does give you what you deserve. The Nigeria Under 17 team won the FIFA Under 17 World Cup! In a dominating performance, they beat the Mexicans 3-0. Also, our best friends, the Swedes thrashed Argentina 4-0 to win the 3rd place play-off in their first ever World Cup Competition.

I was so happy this team won for many reasons. Obviously, it gave me the only opportunity of being on a winning lap of honour on one of the biggest stages, I got to learn an unbelievable amount about event planning and dealing with a variety of people as you would expect from a FIFA event and I got to develop my football coaching by watching some great masters at work. However, the reason for 90% of my happiness was because the coaches and players were rewarded for their sacrifice. Let me explain further. The team arrived in the UAE two weeks before the tournament for practice and for the whole five weeks here, the boys were only allowed out of their rooms on one day; when they were allowed an hour by the pool and later on for an event by the Al Ain royalty. The rest of the time, their day consisted of long passages of resting in their hotel rooms interrupted by breakfast, lunch, dinner, training and team meetings. There was literally no leisure time. I have touched on this in previous blogs but while some of us may see that as harsh or even ‘child cruelty’, it was remarkable that not one player moaned or showed any dissent towards this rule. They just accepted that to win such an event, they had to sacrifice, and that’s exactly what they did. Even when, after the second week, I was told to get all tvs in their room disconnected, there were still no negative comments. I spoke to some of the boys at length about this situation, mainly to compare with the expected reaction were this to be a team of young European or shall I say, English team, and I was just astounded and so impressed by their single mindedness and acceptance and trust that their coaches knew what they were doing. This belief was not unfounded though, as the head coach, Manu Garba had won this trophy as a manager in 2007, and assistant coach Nduka Ugbade was the first captain to lift this trophy in 1985. When I met English Premiership referee Mark Clattenburg, who was one of the FIFA referees for this tournament, by a pool in our Dubai hotel, I used this example to show him how focussed the boys were. It was interesting to hear him suggest that it was a little cruel to the players and that it would mean that they would then ‘go crazy’ once they got a little older and joined professional clubs where the temptations were bigger and shinier. One other alternative is that this professionalism would stand them in good stead and ensure they had the discipline and therefore career of someone like a Steven Gerrard instead of a Gazza.

Only time will tell.

DSC04327 DSC04412

From the five top teams I had the pleasure of seeing on a daily basis in our hotels for a few days at least; Nigeria, Mexico, Sweden, Uruguay and Argentina, it was interesting to note that the most ‘disciplined’ teams contested in the final. I wasn’t at privy to the intimate workings of the Mexican team, but a fellow TLO, who was a friend, would also tell me about how disciplined their coach was. Then you had the Swedes who were definitely more relaxed than the top two teams with their McDonalds and frequent beach and pool visits, but they seemed to know when to do this, plus they needed the sun more than any other team. I have to say I was glad the Argentinians got a thrashing in the last game. I never really took to the team and I still remember them munching on pizzas and chips and glugging bottles of Coke late on the night before a game (which they won to be fair). However, if this was an indication of how they usually were, maybe it’s no surprise they fell so close to the end. However, it’s obvious there are other elements that make a winning side, notably luck. Uruguay were by far the strongest team Nigeria played and they seemed to be very professional in their dealings off the pitch too, but they were beaten 2-0 in the quarter finals. Incidentally, this was the only game all tournament in which Nigeria scored less than three goals! Ask any Nigeria player who or what their toughest match was and they would all say Uruguay. The scene in the dressing room after the game was of a team knowing that they had faced a battle and triumphed and I am certain this win gave them the last shred of confidence they needed to believe they could all the way.

There are just so many examples of this team and their ‘simplicity’, caring about nothing else other than doing their business on the football pitch. Take match days for example. Each team had a team coach, a small van for transporting few passengers and a luggage van. During each pre match meeting, we would be asked if we needed the luggage van to transport any equipment to matches. The answer was always no. All the team had was a bag of balls, some cones and bibs for training. This, along with the Coca Cola sanctioned waters all fit in perfectly in the space under the team van, and during match days, the kit man added a bag of folded shirts and shorts in there, which he enlisted the help of the players to search and put on hangers before scrunching into the bag. The players then brought their Adidas boot bags filled with all their match day preparations onto the bus with them. No big massive ‘Beats’ headphones covering their ears like the Swedes or trolleys of luggage enough to open a sports shop like the Argentinians. Just simple and easy. They didn’t seem to care about anything else apart from being on the pitch and playing football good enough to win this tournament.

Out of interest, this was the fourth time Nigeria had won this tournament, and they had all been on Asian ground. It was also their seventh time of participating and they had reached the final each time, so maybe it wasn’t so much of a surprise that they won. The best thing is no one can say they didn’t deserve it because they thoroughly did. Some of the football they played literally made me want to cry it was so good! They scored the most goals, the highest ever, even without their top striker Isaac Success for most of the tournament, they conceded the least, awarding the ‘Golden Glove’ award to their goalkeeper Dele Alampasu who prior to this tournament had never played for the team and    they also won the fair play award. This was really pleasing for me personally as I’m one of the loudest critics of African players’ tackling so it was good to see some defensive intelligence being shown.

Golden Glove winner Dele Alampasu

Golden Glove winner Dele Alampasu

For the match itself, I actually found myself not as nervous as the semi or quarter finals, mainly because I was rushed off my feet with picking up accreditation cards for officials, answering calls for VIP tickets and trying to find a few minutes to see my son and wife who, like all glory hunting fans, had decided to make an appearance for the final only! I was even late for the start of the match and got to my seating area to find a real lack of empty spaces. I had met Arsenal and Nigeria legend Kanu in the VIP area a while back, so whistle looking for a space, he must have felt pity on me and whistled me to him. I actually think he wanted to ask me a question only, but I took this as an invitation and after answering his question, decided to sit in the one remaining space next to him and his friends! Anyway, it all went smoothly, even his friend and I had a disagreement about the number 18, Taiwo Awoniyi. He thought that Taiwo was a little lazy in his running, but I disagreed, telling them all that although he does look awkward running, he was a very fit and hardworking player, a little like a certain Number 4 for Arsenal… Anyway, I was glad that they eventually agreed with me by the end, although this could be due to the fact that I told him Taiwo’s agent was the mighty Ade Akinbyi. Maybe he didn’t want to incur the wrath of the beast that is Ade. He even offered me some tactical tips to give to one of our defenders in the changing room at half time, but of course the coaches had already seen and taken care of that.

DSC04452

Kanu with Golden Shoe winner and Arsenal target Kelechi Iheanacho

Once the match was over, it was time for the trophies and celebration. The guys at FIFA were kind enough to let myself and the other three members of the team with passes to the dressing room but not pitchside (only 8 officials are allowed pitchside) onto the pitch to join the players on the lap of honour, which was an amazing experience. I was lucky enough to get a couple of footballs signed by the players and then I received an awesome gift from my boss at the (Local Organising Committee) LOC who gave me a limited edition replica of the actual trophy. Apparently it is one of only 50 ever made so it’s something to be treasured for sure. This is nothing compared to rumours of the riches awaiting the boys and coaches including gifts of houses and stackloads of cash no doubt.

DSC04471 DSC04497

There was more drama off the pitch than on after the game with missing staff and me ending up in the back of a police car.

We were surprised with a dinner cruise on the Abu Dhabi Corniche  by one of the ambassadors of the team so instead of heading to the hotel, we were to go straight to the boat. The problem was that the police, who I assume are expected to know their way around the city, didn’t know where the port, the only port in Abu Dhabi was. As I have stated, the job of the TLO is non-descript, so that obviously included giving the police directions. Because of the language barriers and the strange occurence of Arab speaking people not knowing their right from left, I ended up in the back of a patrol car giving them directions to the port. We got there and then had the sudden realisation that we had left a player behind at the stadium. It turned out one of the players in the doping room was still in there by the time we left, and in the mayhem and pandemonium of having more than the usual crew in our bus, we all forgot him and the doctor! By the time we realised, the boat had already left on the cruise, so they missed those celebrations, although if it were any consolation, most of us would have gladly switched with them after the first 30minutes,  especially when we realisied the trip was three hours long and we had to be up early morning to get to the airport.

So that was that. At 9am, we had packed up, loaded the luggage and were on the way to the airport to bid  a tearful goodbye to an amazing bunch of people. Funny that when I started this job about three weeks ago, I had apprehensions of a Ghanaian working with Nigerians, but three weeks of living day in, day out with these guys and I can safely say that I love these people like a brother or son. I am so happy for them all. I have never seen anyone more deserving of success and I am even more happy to have proof to show my son that hard work, dedication and sacrifice can and does reap success.

Now that’s all done, it’s back to the daily grind. I’m thankful for a wonderful family, who I’ve missed, to go back home to otherwise I’m sure I would slide into a pit of despair at the realisation that one of the most amazing and enjoyable experiences of my life has now ended. Until the next one, God willing.

Advertisements

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 19 – semi finals v Sweden

Tuesday 5th November 2013

YES!! YES!! YES!! The boys have (nearly) done it! WE convincingly beat Sweden 3-0 tonight, moving just one step away from the holy grail of the World Cup final. Interestingly, we play Mexico, the first team we played, again. I have a feeling the result won’t be as convincing as the 6-1 in the first game, although with these boys and their relentless attacking instincts, I wouldn’t put it past them.

I woke up this morning with nothing on my mind apart from the evening’s match. I have found myself getting more and more nervous before matches so I have tended to stay away from the team recently so as not to do or say anything that may upset their plans, including showing my nervousness. You may have guessed I’m a little passionate about football so I worry I’ll end up sitting a player down for an in depth analysis, which is probably not the best idea before a game that has been prepared and planned meticulously by their fantastic coaches. Therefore, I figured staying away until the final whistle is the best method.

By 6pm, the time to depart the hotel, my nerves were so heightened to the point where my breathing was altered and shorter. Waiting outside the team bus for the players to check their accreditation (they must have it or they won’t be allowed into the stadium, which is not something I’d want to deal with on a night like tonight), I noticed how relaxed and confident each player and coach was as they boarded the bus. All this time, my body was having minor spasms. By now, it was clear that Mexico would be in the final as their match started earlier and they were 2-0 up against the coke drinking, pizza and chip munching 10-men of Argentina. I remember the Argentine boys loudly cheering the Mexicans during their quarter final penalty shootout win against Brazil. I doubt they were so forthcoming with their cheers this time. It’s incredible how far they’ve come and the improvement they’ve made after losing their first game 6-1. I remember hearing about how angry their coach was after that result and he has done well to turn them around after such a demoralising result. Ghana losing 6-1 to this Nigeria team in the African qualifiers and they never managed to recover, subsequently missing out on a World Cup place. Obviously, the Mexicans are made of sterner stuff, unfortunately.

Anyway, so back to my nervousness. It was crazy how apprehensive and jittery I was prior to the game. I kept asking myself why I was so nervous and the simplest answer I could come up with was that I just love these boys and this whole team, including the staff and I would just love for them to win this trophy they so desire. In addition, they have played the best football of this tournament by far, scoring 23 goals in six games and literally captured the hearts of the whole UAE football loving community. If there is any justice, they should win this trophy, but we all know football isn’t like that. God willing they will realise their potential and have the luck needed to bring the trophy home.

Traffic!

Traffic!

My rule of not sitting in the team bus on matchdays nearly came back to haunt me today.  I was in a van behind the team coach which was following the usual police escort. My van driver was busy arguing with someone that tried to cut in our convoy and got stuck behind a red light as the police convoy and team bus went through. This was the start of a nightmare journey where a trip that usually takes 10minutes took an hour and 5 minutes due to crazy bumper to bumper Dubai traffic. I’m not sure if it was because of the game (which was a sellout) or just usual traffic but it got a little close to call. We even had to call the police car to come back and help us through the traffic but of course he never made it. I eventually got to the stadium about 40 minutes to kick off when I should have been there 90minutes prior at least. The positive thing is this took my mind away from thinking of the match.

By the way, my earlier post about my fears of how the expected capacity would be handled nearly came through tonight. I heard after the game that some fans were turned away due to the stadium being full to capacity and instead of them calmly leaving, there was a scuffle where the police dogs had to be called in. That was only when they started to quickly disperse, falling over themselves as they ran away apparently. Thankfully, the stadium for the final is a bigger one so there should be no such problems, although with the Nigeria fans here and those expected to fly in, who knows?

This guy turned up with 20 people and sat on a tiger skin

This guy turned up with 20 people and sat on a tiger skin

After the game, the team was given a pep talk by the Federation president who congratulated the team and provided some motivation for them to win. Even the lowly TLO got a special mention, which was nice of the manager and the president. Due to the private nature of the meeting, I won’t divulge what was said, but you can bet I will be shouting it from the rooftops if they are fulfilled. The speech was recorded on various phones so I’m sure I can use it as evidence of a binding contract if my law degree studies serve me right.

A 'flash interview'

A ‘flash interview’

I was touched today when the media officer, Mr Moraks surprised me by asking me to conduct the flash interview of the Nigerian manager, Manu Garba after the game. This is basically the same thing Geoff Shreeves does after Premiership matches, except it’s done on the pitch directly after the game. I was given a 15 minute warning that I would be the person doing the interview and about five minutes to the end of the match, I went to the media section on the pitch to wait for the full time whistle. At the end of the game, I put on my special press bib and walked on to the pitch to witness the celebrations and commiserations at closer quarters. The Swedish manager was interviewed then it was my turn to interview the victorious manager. I purposely didn’t prepare any questions and just relied on my natural questions based on what I saw and since it was only a ‘flash’ interview of a few minutes long, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, I wish it was longer. I could have talked all day. I remember asking Mr Garba:

“Congratulations. How does it feel to be one step closer to  achieving your dream?”

“How proud are you of the boys?”

“Did you ever get worried when the team started to sit back and invited pressure?”

“What is the one motivation tool you will use to get the boys through the final hurdle?”

Like I said, it was a short interview.

It was a really nice gesture from Mr Moraks and one I will always remember. What a fantastic experience. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a picture of me conducting this interview and I have yet to actually see the interview but if there’s anyone out there that saw it on Eurosport or Al Jazeera or any of those channels, please let me know!

So, after three weeks, stays in Al Ain, Dubai, Al Ain again, Sharjah and Dubai again, we finally travel to our final destination tomorrow; Abu Dhabi, where Nigeria will play Mexico, the current world champions for the under 17 World Cup title. Like I said, football is a funny game and you don’t always get what you deserve but I hope for the sake of this wonderful team that I have grown to love, things go the way they should.

DSC04278

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 16 and 17 – Quarter finals v Uruguay

Saturday 2nd November 2013

Well it’s official. The Nigeria under 17 national team and their ever appreciative Team Liaison Officer will see the FIFA Under 17 World Cup to the end. In a tough encounter tonight, the boys put in a battling performance intertwined with moments of skill and genius to beat Uruguay 2-0 and join Sweden, Mexico and Argentina in the semi finals. This means that the top three teams from our group all made it to the semi finals, which says a lot about the strength of the group. My friend Ade Akinbiyi’s player, Taiwo Awonyi decided the game with two clinical strikes in either half, both goals being set up by ‘Nacho’, the Mexican destroyer.  Of all the games they’ve played so far, this was by far the most gruelling and physical and the boys came through it with flying colours, especially in the face of some  provocation by the Uruguayan staff and players and some questionable refereeing at best.

DSC04126

DSC04123

staying cool under pressure

It was really impressive to see these bunch of young boys stay so calm and composed all match even when they were being pushed and manhandled. Needless to say,I would have found it hard to control myself in such a situation, but maybe that’s why I’m sitting in front of a laptop writing about football instead of having thoughts of possibly getting my hands on a World Cup trophy in a few days.

There was a surprise guest in the team changing room after the game. Former national team captain and legend Sunday Oliseh, who now works for FIFA as part of their technical team, came in to offer some prayers and words of encouragement for the boys. I actually remember his goal v Spain in France ’98 and I could still picture that stretched arm celebration after the goal so it was amazing to see him in the flesh. He told the boys how impressed everyone was with the boys and how they played as well as conducted themselves and I know he wasn’t just saying that because everywhere either myself of the team has been, people have had nothing but good things to say about the boys. Everyone seems to be a Nigerian fan, and this shows in the amount of fans they get for each game. I feel like a proper celebrity groupie following the team around and enjoying scraps of their glory and success, but I genuinely feel like a part of this team and the players and staff have made it feel like so. I really hope and pray that their hard work and dedication gets them all the way to the part when they are the second team up the stage at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium at around 10pm next Friday night, 8th November.

DSC04154

By the way, referring to my earlier posts about training, warm up and diet, the Swedes and Argentinians making it through to the semis proves that it is really whatever method suits you best and there isn’t really a pre-destined method of success. I have witnessed teams with a manager so strict that the players are told where to sit in the restaurant, teams with a manager so loose that players are free to roam the hotel floors late at night, teams with a manager who keeps the players on a short leash and teams with a manager who allows the players to enjoy some sight seeing and days out. All these teams have made it to the semi finals of the World Cup and they couldn’t be more different from each other. Sweden have made it in their first ever finals, and Mexico have made it after suffering an  embarrassing 6-1 defeat in their first game for example, so all this makes for a very intriguing next round of games. I believe the key is in consistency. The methods aren’t important as long as they suit the character of your team and you are consistent with it. However, I can’t help wondering if these methods are adopted through other ages in the national set up all the way to the senior team. I guess the next step is to see if anyone will have me in the senior tournament.

Sunday 3rd November 2013

Travel day today. The boys left Sharjah to go back to our Dubai hotel one of the best hotels I’ve stayed in, made even more enjoyable after experiencing the ‘best’ Shajah had to offer. It’s fair to say that’s not one of my favourite places and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.Thankfully, I had to do some prep work in the Dubai hotel and my family also came down for the day for some very much needed quality time, so it was a great day in all. I feel a little bad for the players and staff at tournaments such as these, especially successful teams as they can go a month or so without seeing members of their families, especially if you add in preparation time with training camps. I am lucky that I’ve only been a 90minute drive from my family and they’ve been able to visit me a few times, but people like the Nigerian players and coaches who have already spent six weeks and thousands of miles away from their families don’t have that luxury. It is part of the job of course, but I doubt this makes it any easier.

I doubt England’s players have this issue though…

Next up, one last training session tomorrow morning before the semi finals with Sweden on Tuesday night. We had an entertaining 3-3 draw in the group game so this will be an interesting one. The Swedes are the most  organised team in the tournament and play very solid banks of 4 and 5 and rely on the counter attacks, so it will be an extremely tough game.

Those fingernails of mine will be shortened even more in a few days time.

 

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 15 and 16

Thursday 31st October and Friday 1st November 2013 

It’s been a pretty quiet few days overall in preparation for the quarter final game tomorrow v Uruguay, which is probably a good thing because I left my laptop charger in our Al Ain hotel and have very limited battery life! Since arriving in Sharjah, appropriately described as ‘a glorified landmine’ by my good friend BC, on Wednesday, not much has happened here. We’ve had our usual competitive early morning training sessions followed by some much needed down time which has allowed me to catch up with some episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’.

Earlier today, I watched the McDonalds munching, sun loving Swedes, in their first ever tournament, reach the semi final! I have to say I really love the Swedish team. I don’t agree with their brand of football but it obviously works for them and the manager has utilised what he has really well. What I do love about them is the personalities of the players and staff. With them being in the same group as us and therefore in the same hotel, I got to see and converse with them quite a bit and they are really lovely people. Very friendly and approachable. They even gave the Nigerian team a token gift before their 3-3 draw earlier in the tournament. I also managed to have a long chat with a couple of their players including IFK Gothenburg’s Gustav Engvall whilst waiting for them to drink the required gallons of water to enable them to muster the required 90ml of pee for the dope test and they were just really good guys. I’m really happy for them to have made it to the semis and hopefully we’ll see them again as they’re our next opponents if we make it to the semis tomorrow. If we do make it to the semis, it means I’d be in this tournament from start to finish as the top four end up in Abu Dhabi one way or other, either as finalists or in the dead rubber 3rd place playoff. It would be brilliant to extend this experience further so let’s hope the boys bring their ‘A-game’ tomorrow.

I learnt two new things today about FIFA, and probably all football’s organisational protocols. Firstly, do you know that in the usual pre-kick off handshake between captains, it’s recommended that captains shake hands a certain way? They have to shake hands like they are about to start an arm wrestle. That is called the ‘peace handshake.’ Then, and this is minor but all players must leave the pitch at the end of the first half. Even if subs wanted to warm up on the pitch, they’d have to physically leave the pitch and be out of sight before returning to the pitch immediately if they wanted to. It’s something that I’ve seen numerous of times without ever thinking of it but it seems that’s actually a FIFA requirement.

Peace handshake

Peace handshake

There was another example of ‘what works for you’ tonight. During the Brazil v Mexico game, which Mexico won on penalties by the way, making it two teams from our earlier group to go through to the semis, the Argentinian and Uruguay players came in to watch. This was an 8pm kick off, a time which no Nigerian player has seen outside his hotel room unless on matchdays. This in itself was no real deal, as was the fact that the players were all there with their phones and iPads checking and communicating on their social networking sites. It was different from what I’ve seen with the Nigerian boys but as I said, it was no massive surprise, especially considering the fact that the South Americans were probably still on South America time.

What was a surprise, and something I’d love an opinion from sports scientists and doctors on, was that the Argentinian players were busy tucking into pizzas and chips and sipping on one of the 300 Coca Cola branded drinks each team gets per day. Considering they had an important match at 5pm tomorrow, I found it a real surprise to see them gleefully munching into such foods so late and before such an important game. To be fair to them, the South American culture is all about eating late, but I assumed some rice and meat, not pizzas and chips.

I guess things are just different with each team. Not only did the Argentinian players dress and look like ready made footballers who wouldn’t look out of place on ‘Four Four Two’ magazine with their earrings and tattoos to make Beckham proud, they also seemed to have a very relaxed demeanour about them. I even saw one of the players with his girlfriend. Apparently she has been following him with her family since they arrived here. She’s obviously investing well in her future.

However, like I said, this isn’t a judgment point, I’m merely pointing out the differences I’ve seen in how teams approach games. Only time will tell which method works, but it’s just interesting to note these differences in culture.

It’s game time tomorrow. Nigeria v Uruguay, 8pm at Sharjah stadium. Winner gets into the semi finals of the FIFA under 17 World Cup! My excitement and nervousness is building up nicely. I so want these boys to win this cup. I have seen how much effort and dedication they and their coaches have put in so far and it would just be such an amazing feat to see them lift the cup. Plus, I have grown genuinely fond of each and every one of these boys and their totally knowledgeable and fantastic coaches. It would be such a brilliant sight to see their smiling and happy faces when they get their gold medals around their necks on November 8th.

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 14 – Matchday, last 16

Wednesday October 30th 2013

Wow! What a night! I witnessed the effect football, especially a successful team has on its people, fans and just strangers tonight. It has been well established since the first game versus Mexico that the Nigerians have the most fans at this tournament, however this game tonight has shown me that they have an incredible amount of people investing in them.

Usually before a match, I’d be in the changing rooms just soaking in the atmosphere and picking up as much as I could from their top quality coaches, but not tonight. From the time we got to the stadium at 6.15pm until kick off at8pm, I was receiving phonecalls from all sorts of people asking about getting VIP entrance to the match. I had people claiming to be ambassadors, friends of friends, player’s agents and even friends of the president trying to get in the VIP section. Funny thing was, I had no influence on who was allowed in, although I did use my one wild card to get Guardiola’s agent in! It struck me how many people are already sniffing around these players. It must be hard as a kid trying to make it in this game because show one sign of ability and promise, especially in a successful team, and you will find so many people trying to get a piece of you. I saw so many new faces in the VIP areas tonight and just by looking at them, you could sense the lions ready to pounce. Even Asamoah Gyan was there tonight, although we were playing in his ‘home town’. I don’t think he was interested in picking anyone up though, to be fair to him.

DSC03989

We got back to the hotel today after the match and it was total mayhem in the lobby! There were about a hundred people, various cameramen and hotel staff all lined up to welcome the boys in with applause and handshakes. There were so many people here, it was hard to know who was supposed to be here and who was just joining the party. In fact, I was the one who got asked for proof of who I was on more than one occasion. Things got worse when I wasn’t even allowed to enter my own hotel room until I had shown my accreditation pass! This is the same security by my door that I walk past about ten times a day and he suddenly remembers he has a job to do! He will definitely know who I am after tonight.

DSC04007 DSC04006

And this was just a win in the last 16. I shudder to think what will happen if they manage to win this tournament.

Nigeria won by the way. Beat a disappointing Iranian team 4-1 with goals from the left back Okon, captain fantastic Musa, reported Arsenal target Iheanacho and creative midfielder Yahaya. The banner I designed got another day in the sun, which was nice! I’m waiting for some press photographer to print it!

DSC04001

It seems everyone is hoping and praying for a Nigeria v Brazil final and the way that draw has panned out, it could just be so. We have a very tough game against Uruguay in the quarters so the boys will need to be on their guard. I believe that with the coaches they have though, they will be very well prepared. I managed to sit Mr Nduka Ugbade, one of the coaches and the first person the lift the under 17 World cup (1985) to talk coaching philosophies and I left the near-two hour chat with my mind blown. This man is so incredibly educated about football and can express himself so eloquently and enthusiastically. I found myself smiling inwards just listening to him talk about the importance of teaching game intelligence and how to actually do this, and the differences between for example the Brazilian and  European coaching philosophies.

I left this chat even more angry at the state of African football and the politics involved. This was a guy, who along with Mr Emmanuel Amuneke (1994 African player of the year and ex Barcelona star) and Mr Manu Garba (who lifted the trophy as a coach in 2007 too) is extremely experienced and knowledgeable about the sport, and yet I found that there was some sort of barrier to all of them being able to exert theirs influence on a bigger scale for various, mainly political, reasons in my opinion. Typically, it seems the curse of African dealings, where people have an ‘I’ll look after myself’ attitude is what’s holding us back from really making a name for ourselves and getting African football on the map as one of the truly great nations. With the amount of African players who have and are playing at such high levels, it’s a sad shame that our national leagues and games are not as fruitful. We have the players with the talent, we definitely have the resources in terms of things can generate money; oil, gas, fruitful land, crops etc, yet we still live in almost ‘third world’ conditions. This applies to a wider range of factors other than football, but since I’m talking about football, that is my point of reference.

How great would it be to have one African country decide to invest some of the profits from all their resources into establishing a real, genuine quality grassroots program, run by real sports development departments with no other agenda than to move the country to another level, sport-wise?

Anyway, enough of a rant.

It’s time to get back on the road again tomorrow, to Sharjah this time. For people who don’t know, Sharjah is the place in the UAE where anything bad that could happen always happens. Children falling off balconies? Happened in Sharjah. Cars and buildings on fire? That must be Sharjah. Newborn babies being left in bins? Oh yeah that’s Sharjah. Let’s hope we manage to avoid the curse of Sharjah for the match on Saturday.

The road to Abu Dhabi continues.

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 12 and 13

Sunday 27th October 2013

This day can be summed up in two words: dead day. Nothing of interest happened apart from the usual high intensity training and me getting smashed at table tennis again.

Monday 28th October 2013

Today was a busier day with another early rise for training and then the pre-match meeting followed by the press conference for the game with Iran tomorrow, all before lunchtime. I have to say I’m really enjoying the press conferences, especially the answers given by the coach Manu Garba. He has this friendly but serious and witty edge to his answers that leaves reporters with nowhere to go after a question but to accept the answer given. I had some great examples to give here, but I seem to have drawn a blank. I really should start writing some of these down…

Press conference. I should get a pen and pad too

Press conference. I should get a pen and pad too

The guys at the Local Organising Committee were brilliant today in surprising one of the boys with a birthday cake. He’s only 15 but massive, which is good as he’s a goalkeeper. I know Africans have a reputation as ‘generous’ with their ages, depending on which way favours them, but I have been surprised at the sizes of some of the players! Sweden’s number 20, Strandberg is a total giant, as is Brazil’s Mosquito. Yes that’s his name. The boy has a full adult beard and the stature to rival a basketballer. These MRI scans to determine a player’s age seems to have missed the other teams..  Anyway, the cake was a very nice gesture and shows the hospitality and  generosity of the local organisers, especially those in Al Ain, who have been amazing. One way or the other, our last day in Al Ain will be tomorrow and I’m really going to miss those guys. They have been brilliant in making things so easy, especially for TLOs like myself with the amount of transport, ticket and other requests we get each day.

Best birthday cake ever

Best birthday cake ever

I felt a bit bad for the boys today because I was asked to get all the tvs in their rooms disconnected, meaning they had nothing to do now apart from eating, sleeping and thinking of tomorrow’s game. It’s not for me to say whether it’s right or wrong and the coaches are obviously experienced and know what they are doing. It just struck me as another difference in the approach to big games. I was talking to a member of the hotel staff today and she commented on the differences in different countries, citing the smartly dressed and suited Iraqis walking into the hotel in straight, immaculate lines on their first day and comparing them to the Swedes who had tracksuits and t-shirts on, McDonalds cup in hand and headphones on their heads. At the time of writing, Sweden had just made it to the quarter finals in their first ever competition at the expense of the fancied Japanese team, and Iraq went out without a win so once again, it’s a case of whatever works for you.

I also found out that Nigeria’s Chelsea boy, Habib Makanjoula is only 14 and the youngest ever player to play in this tournament. Ivory Coast have a 13 year old in the squad but he has yet to play. It’s crazy to think kids that young are good enough to be playing in a World tournament at such a young age. Then again, if there are 13 year old fathers in some towns in England, why can’t they play in World Cups? I actually bought little Habib some cocoa butter yesterday as per his request, so that could be my claim to fame in a few years. “Son, you see that player who just scored the winner in the World Cup Final? See his soft and smooth skin? Well, that’s because when he was 14, I bought him some ‘Palmer’s Cocoa Butter.’ He’s never looked back since …”

It’s getting to that stage where nerves are a little sharper, patience a little thinner and penalties practiced more  fervently. Everyone knows one mistake and you leave the UAE the next day, so it’s really squeaky bum time. I am hoping and praying that these boys make it all the way. I genuinely do believe they have some fantastic players, especially the captain Musa Mohammed, who is just such a leader and an inspiration, the 14, Chidebere Nwakali, a clever and hard working  midfielder and their number 11 Yahaya, their most creative player in my opinion. Then you have their main man Success Isaac, who is just a fantastic forward who will go places if looked after properly. I heard today that Arsenal are chasing Mexico’s four goal mauler Kelechi Iheanacho, who is an incredibly deadly finisher, so this team has some pedigree. Of course luck and various other things will have to be on the team’s side if they are to return home victorious, but they definitely have the potential.

The road to Abu Dhabi really starts tomorrow.

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 11 – back ‘home’

Saturday 26th October 2013

It’s getting to that stage where I have to constantly check the date because I have no idea what day it is. We left the hotel in Dubai this morning with no problems, unlike two of the other teams who forgot a player and a coach of their respective teams on their way to the airport. By the way, whenever a team is knocked out, they are supposed to leave the hotel the very next day and that also ends the job of the Team Liaison Officer. Hopefully my job will end on 8th November, the final! I had a quick look at Nigeria’s side of the draw and it’s definitely favoured them as teams like Brazil, Mexico, Italy and Argentina are all on the opposite side. We do have Iran, our next opponents and Sweden and Uruguay to contend with though so it’ll still be a tough run to the final.

This job is fun and such a great experience, but I have to say the travelling is starting to get a little tedious. From now on, it will be a few days in a hotel and then move to another one, with Sharjah on Wednesday, Dubai on Sunday, and then Abu Dhabi  on the Wednesday. This is of course based on a smooth path to the final, God willing. At least I’m perfecting my packing. Plus, the bus travel could be more comfortable. The players and staff like their own space during travels so they usually take a pair of seats per man. This leaves me with the option of either squeezing in next to a player or sitting at the front next to the bus driver. I prefer the latter. However, I do wonder if I made the right decision when the blazing midday sun beats down on my face all journey. Even the air conditioning is rendered redundant when faced with such  formidable heat and the leg space is suited for dwarves or children under 10. At least, if things ever went south, I could join a circus as a contortionist. Don’t get me wrong, I realise how lucky and blessed I am to be in this position, but the lack of settlement and travelling is definitely one of the negative aspects. I guess it’s all part of the process though.

Another part of the travelling process is the police escort we receive whenever the team makes a movement, whether it’s for training or to another venue. I noticed a marked difference between the attitudes of Dubai and Al Ain drivers. Basically, drivers in Dubai couldn’t care less if the car in front is a police vehicle or not. The amount of times I saw cars brazenly cut up the team bus or even the police cars themselves was unbelievable. At one point, when stuck in a bit of traffic, a car in the wrong lane waited until the final moments before speeding past a barrier to join our lane. The crazy thing is he managed to do this by blatantly cutting in front of our police escort! To be fair to him, the police didn’t even bother to do anything about it so maybe they were used to it. Every now and then, they remember they have powers and use their hands to signal to drivers to either wait or go past us but it’s usually a free-for-all as usual. Or maybe they don’t notice being cut up, which, judging by today’s actions of our escort, wouldn’t surprise me.

Police escort doing their thing

Al Ain police escort doing their thing

Today, our Dubai police escort got lost when moving us out of the Emirate. Yes, the police escort who was supposed to guide us out of his own city took us on the wrong road and had to do a u-turn in a narrow street. That’s pretty standard when you have a small car or a 4×4, but we were in a massive coach! The poor coach driver had to do about six manoeuvres back and forth before we could move again. It reminded me of Austin Powers. I have to give a lot of respect to bus and coach drivers because the way our driver moves that bus and manipulates it over and through small openings always astounds me. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve winced and tensed up thinking he’s steered too far and will hit a kerb and he hasn’t hit anything yet, although my money’s on him ramming an inconsiderate driver before we leave this tournament, most probably in Dubai.

Tonight, I sat and watched ‘El Classico’ and discussed coaching philosophies with ex Barcelona star and 1994 African player of the year, Emmanuel Amuneke and the first captain to lift the under 17 World Cup and all round funny guy, Nduka Ugbade, both Nigerian coaches. To say I was star struck being in the company of ‘real’ footballers, before the sport got glitzy and showbiz, is an understatement. I even lent Mr Amuneke 200AED. He’s definitely the most decorated man I’ve lent money to. He’s most definitely the only person I’ve lent money to and not expecting or even wanting payback.