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.

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Day 20 – What does a Team Liaison Officer do?

Wednesday 6th November 2013

It has got to the point, in fact it has gone beyond the point when I don’t know what day it is anymore. Whenever it comes to writing this diary entry, I have been asking myself the same question recently; “What day is it today?” Thankfully my ‘Crackberry’ is always at hand to help out. Three weeks of hotel living and bus travelling has meant that I’ve lost a lot of perspective on ‘real life’ and what is going on around the world. Of course there are newspapers in the hotels but I have found my time being limited to just the sports supplement before I have another duty or the paper is ‘borrowed’ from me, usually by our sneaky media officer! There are also TVs but any viewing time has been restricted to more football watching or catching up on ‘Breaking Bad’. I admit I was a late starter with this show so I’ve been trying very hard to catch up. I am hoping to complete season 5 before I have to go back to reality this weekend. Of course the best time to watch this has been the evenings when everyone is asleep, which means a lot of late nights. With my wife’s threats of getting me back on my ‘morning shift’ in terms of looking after our son, I have a very tough decision to make these next few days; catch up on sleep or catch up on the series.

With today being a travel day, nothing much has happened apart from everyone resting their weary legs and bodies in preparation for one more battle on Friday. Someone asked me today what a Team Liaison Officer (TLO) actually does so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to explain my role as best as I could.

The best answer to this question is ‘everything’ and ‘anything’. In terms of the team structure and organisation, I am a non entity if truth be told, but that’s obvious and expected. What I do do is provide a direct link between FIFA and the team. But first, I’ll provide a brief account of how things are operated.

There is a multitude of people and organisations taking charge of many aspects needed to run a successful and huge tournament such as this. First of all, you have the General Coordinator of every venue who is basically the top person, then you have his assistant, then there are the media, accommodation, marketing managers. All these people take care of the logistical side of things from FIFA’s side. You then have the Local Organising Committe (LOC) manager who is in the Abu Dhabi Office and is in charge of the logistics from UAE’s side. The Team Services Manager from the LOC oversees the Transport Coordinators, whose job is to make sure buses and the police are ready and on time to transport the team to training and matches. On the matches side, FIFA have the referee assessors, doctors and security to ensure a smooth and safe match, and from the LOC, there is the Venue Manager and his assistants to take care of travel to matches, tickets and other match orientated aspects.

In between all these people and the teams themselves is the TLO; people like myself. Each of the 24 teams were assigned a TLO. Some came from abroad, some came with the teams themselves and some, like myself, were local hires. There is no set duty really. On a given day, my main job would be to organise and accompany a team management member to the mall to get some items for the team ranging from energy drinks to medical equipment. On some days, I would be meeting with the General Coordinator to arrange tickets for VIP guests. Some of my responsibilities include relaying training times to the LOC head in the office and Team Services Manager, who will then inform the necessary bodies to organise transport. I am also responsible for relaying pre match meeting times and various training venues to the team management. Prior to arriving at a new hotel, I have to liaise with the accommodation manager to ensure we arrive at our next destination when the rooms are ready to avoid waiting around in the lobby. One of the first things I do after a match, instead of celebrating with the team is to answer calls from the Team Services Manager of the next training and/or travel time. My work phone is rarely from my side. I even sleep with it next to my pillow because I can receive a call at any time. Thankfully we were given enough credit to cater for all the calls we have to make.

In all fairness, it is a pretty organised and fun job if you are organised and lucky enough to get an ‘easy’ team, like I have been blessed with. I know of other TLOs who have had some pretty tough times with their demanding teams, and some who have really had to utilise their knowledge of the country with requests to visit the local tailors to amend some trousers bought earlier. Basically, there is nothing that a TLO can’t do or won’t be asked to do. Take yesterday’s match for example. At half time, I was asked to source some more water for the team dressing room, and at full time I was interviewing the manager on the pitch for millions of viewers around the world! Once again, I feel blessed to have had such a relaxed, friendly and welcoming team to work with because it has been nothing but fun. I have met some awesome people, stayed in fantastic hotels, been fed great meals three times daily, had my laundry washed and pressed on demand, had a driver at my beck and call for 12 hours a day, visited the inner sanctuary of team dressing rooms and stadium VIP tribunes, learnt more about event organising and media productions and above all, greatly increased my football knowledge and coaching skills by watching the most inspirational coaches I have ever seen on a daily basis. Up until this tournament, the coach I admired the most was my old mate and FA Regional Coach Development Manager, Ben Bartlett. I’m sorry Ben, I still love you but you have been overtaken by these geniuses from Nigeria.

Of course there have been some stressful moments, but that’s not to be expected in a role that is so wide ranging, and because of this bunch of players and staff, who I absolutely love, nothing has ever been too much of an ask. It really is an amazing position and has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If I didn’t have such a great family to go home to, I think I would spiral into a depressing state when this tournament ends in three days! The next step, and the pinnacle I guess, is to be involved in the senior World Cup. If anyone at FIFA or the Brazil 2014, Russia 2018 or Qatar 2022 LOCs is reading this, you know where to find me…

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 18

Monday 4th November 2013

There is definitely some excitement in the air, and not surprising as we are now at the stage where the Nigeria under 17 World Cup squad just need two more wins, against Sweden and either Mexico or Argentina, to be crowned world champions. I’m not sure about anyone else but I definitely feel nervous and more apprehensive with each hour that approaches kick off. Looking at the boys and their coaches, you wouldn’t have thought it though. I know I keep mentioning it but the focus, determination and confidence in the team is amazing to witness. They all seem to be aware of their objective and how they will go about it. They are just waiting for the referee to blow his whistle at 8pm tomorrow night.

This is even more remarkable when it’s obvious (and natural I guess) that there is a lot more interest in the teams left. We had an almost full press conference today, with the bigger newspapers suddenly showing their presence and the normally quick event lasting a whole lot longer. As usual, Mr Garba, the head coach was full of his Gordon Strachan-esque replies that produced more than a laugh or two. There are also more fans around our hotel, more people that recognise anyone in the green of Nigeria – every walking journey takes an eternity with the amount of well wishers wanting to pass on their handshakes and good thoughts, and certainly more demand for tickets. I think half of Nigeria is in Dubai this week! There are so many people who are already here or will be coming to this game, it’s astounding. The result is a massive clamour for tickets and the need for a full phone battery. I counted at one point that I had either made or received 21 calls within a 30 minute period. It’s great to see so many people behind a team, at a great expense too, especially to those who had flown in especially. Not only that, but I never realised how many Nigerians actually resided in the UAE. I have been here for five years and I don’t think I hadn’t met many Africans in general, but introduce a football and suddenly they all come out of the woodwork. I even found out there was an African restaurant in Dubai! That’s the power of football I guess!

Full press conference

Full press conference

Of course having so much demand and interest in this game is fantastic for everyone involved, especially FIFA and the Local Organising Committee as they get to maintain interest in the tournament even after the host nation went out. The unfortunate thing is the semi final stadium, the Sheikh Rashid Stadium where Al Ahli play, is a very small stadium with capacity that Nigeria’s fans alone would fill. I dread to think what would happen if there are more fans than seats. Stadiums and stewards in the UAE are not used to being full capacity so I just hope and pray that they have the resources and plans to deal with such a situation. Thankfully the experienced FIFA security teams are in charge, although it still doesn’t eradicate the fear that the people on the ground may make some monumental error due to inexperience. Having witnessed the power and control, or lack of, that stewards have over a mass of fans in previous matches that have taken place in UAE stadiums, I am not filled with a lot of confidence.

I guess tomorrow will tell how successful the stadium, it’s representatives, and most importantly, the Nigerian under 17 squad were in achieving their objectives.

Just. Two. More. Games

 

Moneyball

I’ve been in the UAE for over four years now and as well as marvelling at their ‘relaxed’ attitude to education (I may share some stories in a later post), their policies and business-like attitude to football ownership and management, or lack thereof, has astounded me.

Let’s take one of the local teams here, Al Jazira, the UAE league winners in 2011 and the team owned by the same people that own Manchester City.

Al Jazira won the recently formed UAE Pro League (now Arabian Gulf League) in 2011 amidst a lot of fanfare and wild celebrations, including hiring International producer Timbalandto Dj at the stadium (at a reported cost of 1million AED  – £180k) and various cars being modified to shoot fire from its exhausts, one of which later caught fire outside the stadium. True story. To help them achieve this, they built a great new 40,000 seater stadium, and acquired a team spearheaded by former Milan, Betis and Zaragoza player Ricardo Oliviera. You could say the end justifies the means because they won the league and have won a few cups as well.

Not a bad day's work

1million AED for an hour for Timbaland. Not a bad day’s work

However, I wonder what if your thinking would change if you realised that this is a club that makes absolutely no money at all, not in the conventional way anyway. In fact, they actually LOSE money each game. They don’t charge fans anything to come and watch matches and there is no club shop to even sell merchandise to fans. It is a recurring sight to see busloads of labourers and construction workers ferried to games and fed sandwiches and carton drinks with the intention of giving the stadium some atmosphere.

But it doesn’t stop there.

In the year they won the league, some genius in the marketing department decided that one way to entice fans to games would be to offer them the chance to win a 1millionAED Ferrari . Ten lucky ‘fans’ would qualify to have a chance of winning by having their ticket numbers called out at half time. They would take a shot into an empty net from the half way line. If they scored, not only would their name go into the hat to win the car, they would also take home a share of 25,000AED cash (about £4,500). This competition was held every single home game; seven games. I was never strong at maths but that works out at over £30,000 a season of cash giveaways for a club that doesn’t generate any income. This doesn’t include the random giveaways of Blackberries and laptops every game either! Incidentally, Lee Sharpe was the guest at one of these matches and he actually missed his shot from the halfway line at the first attempt, so I guess it’s not so easy.

Myself and Lee Sharpe with a winner's cheque. The Ferrari is in the background

Lee Sharpe with a winner’s cheque. The Ferrari is in the background.

It is comical and two years later, still unbelievable how they devised the final competition to win this Ferrari (see above). First, all past winners (those that had managed to do what ex England and Man Utd star Lee Sharpe couldn’t) were invited to the pitch on the last game of the season. They then had to kick their numbered footballs as far as they could. The people with the two furthest shots then had a sudden death penalty shootout against each other and the winner was the person that didn’t miss. That was it. That was all you had to do to win a Ferrari. A FERRARI for goodness’ sake! 

The car was actually won by a chemistry teacher from a private school here. He had the option of keeping it or selling it back to the club for about 700,000AED (£125,000) and chose the latter. Who can blame him. Over £120k cash for having being able to kick a ball hard is a pretty good deal. It is worth noting that the next year, fans could still try to win a car, but this time it was a Nissan. They must have hired a new marketing team after reviewing their profit and loss sheet. 

This frivolous use of money isn’t resigned to one team either; everyone is at it. The current champions, Al Ain, who have Ghana’s own and ex-Sunderland ‘star’ Asamoah Gyan playing for them, recently lost their title winning manager Cosmin Olaroiu to bitter rivals Al Ahli of Dubai, the team of World Cup wining captain Paolo Cannavaro.

You can sense that our top professionals have also sensed a theme here…

Rumours are to entice Mr Olaroiu to commit football sacrilege, negotiations began with a ‘gift’ of a car and a villa on the Palm, Dubai. Remember this was even before negotiations had begun! Who knows how far this generosity went in terms of wages and extras? Al Ain meanwhile just sacked Jorge Fossati, the man hired to replace Mr. Olaroiu after just seven weeks and two games into the new season. As naturally would be expected, Mr. Fossati insisted on a brand new car and brand new refurbishment of his villa as they were both used by the previous manager. Now he’s left, no doubt this means having to purchase a new car and new furniture at least to appease their next manager. I hope they got some sort of exchange or return promise on the car.

Remember, these teams make absolutely no money at all. They rely on their respective Sheiks to fund them, but I wonder how long this can carry on before they realise there is a massive non-correlation between expenditure and income. I remember applying for tickets to the 2010 Club World Cup final and finding out they were £5 each! Five quid! You couldn’t even get a can of coke and a packet of crisps for £5 at Wembley but you can watch Barcelona and Leo Messi in the final of a major cup final. It is ironic that in a country where citizens have more disposable income than most, there is so much that is free.

I guess it is true that the more you have, the more you are given.