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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 10. Matchday 3 v Iraq

Another matchday, another three points for the ‘Golden Eaglets’ of Nigeria. Some of these players can really play, especially the captain Musa Mohammed and the number 14, Chidibere Nwakali. They are also some of the nicest boys too. Unfortunately their main striker, Success Isaac was injured but hopefully he’ll be back in the next round, who we are yet to find out at the time of writing this. Once again, the stadium was filled with Nigerian fans. I really don’t know where they come from but it’s such a good feeling to see so many fans, and loud ones too, performing the now famous index finger bouncing ‘Yes! Yes!’ celebration. At one point, the stewards were trying to keep the fans apart for some unknown reason, and true to form, the fans just ignored them and carried on joining their counterparts. That all added to a great atmosphere tonight. During this game, I had a brilliant business thought which I won’t mention until I am able to implement, but it could be the start of a great movement!

Yes!! Yes!!

Yes!! Yes!!

What we do know is we are going back to Al Ain, which I am quite looking forward to even though I will be sad to leave this hotel. I feel a lot closer and more comfortable with the staff at Al Ain, probably because we have already spent a week together and I for one am looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and getting out of the Dubai traffic!

Hanging by the pool in our hotel today, I found myself sitting next to Chelsea FC and Jon Obi Mikel’s friend Mark Clattenburg on the sunbeds. He was to referee the Argentine v Canada game after our game. My first impression of him was how much weight he had lost and how skinny he looked. He was a right fatty when he joined the Premiership but had now trimmed to footballer fitness. Apparently they have been up at 5am to train for two-and-a-half hours every day since being here. I found out another two things about Mr Clattenburg today; that he was a Geordie and a Staunch Newcastle United fan, and secondly, that he had a sense of humour.

I remarked that I had met the beast of a referee, Mr Nelson Pitana in our last game (read day 8’s blog) and I was told a funny story about him that either shows Mr Clattenburg to be a fun guy (in my opinion) or a bit of a stitch up (in Chelsea fans’ opinion). Apparently Mr Pitana had asked Mr Clattenburg for some basic English lessons to help him get through meetings and Mr Clattenburg had helpfully told him to reply ‘F**k off’ when asked any question during their meeting. Thankfully, Mr Pitana had yet to follow this advice. Maybe everyone’s too scared to ask him a question, although I’m sure many people would love to see him lamp one on Mr C were Mr Pitana to find out what he’s been taught.

Time to pack again for another trip tomorrow before our game on Tuesday. The green machine rolls on! Yes!! Yes!!

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 9 and 10

Wednesday 23rd October 2013

As usual, post match days are relaxing and chilled as the players spend the time resting and recovering. We had to travel to Dubai for our next match against Iraq and that’s about as far as we stretched ourselves. ‘Stretched’ may be the appropriate word here because after over two hours going at the prescribed snail’s pace in the team bus behind the police escort, that’s all we wanted to do after embarking.

And what a place to do exactly that! Our hotel in Dubai is relatively new and this can immediately be felt, from the comfortable king sized beds in the rooms to the shiny floors in the lobby, so shiny you can use as a mirror. Our hotel in Al Ain was good, only made great by the staff, but this hotel is just…aaaaah. Great views, beautiful looking pool, standalone bath, it has it all. Even better, the boys have to spend a lot of time resting, so I have been able to venture outside and enjoy some of the great amenities! I’m personally not a massive fan of Dubai because of it’s ‘plasticity’ but after a week in the calmer surroundings of Al Ain, it’s good to see some life again.

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You can guess this was a pretty uneventful day, hence the many photographs. In fact, the most eventful thing that happened was me breaking the light switch in my room when I pressed it in haste before rushing out of the room for a meeting. Now you know why Dubai gets its ‘Plastic City’ tag.

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Lights out

Thursday 24th October 2013

Preparations for tomorrow’s match began in earnest at 8am this morning with some tactical set ups and some patterns of play designed to get the better of Iraq tomorrow. Time will tell if they come to fruition.

A quick breakfast of the usual cereal, fruit and omelette, and myself, the team’s administrator, kit man and doctor went off to the usual pre-match meeting with the medical officer, referee assessor, marketing and media managers, match commissioner and general coordinators. This being our third meeting, we were getting used to the process, and the meetings were getting shorter too, which was a good thing. Obviously FIFA have this exact staff in all the other six locations doing the same thing for each match, which amounts to a lot of staff. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I have realised that FIFA have a LOT of staff. Everyone has a job for every conceivable role to ensure such tournaments run smoothly. And then you have all the local staff too who assist the ‘professionals’. No wonder half of all the hotels in all Emirates are booked up.

After the pre-match meeting, there was time for a bit of chill before we went to the pre-match press conference at the Rashid stadium, home of current Arabian Gulf leaders and 2006 World Player of the year Paolo Cannavaro, Al Ahli. There were the usual typical questions and subsequent typical  answers. I did get slightly irked when one journalist asked the Nigerian manager, Mr Garba what he was going to do about the fact that his team ‘struggled’ to score against more organised defences like Sweden’s, refereeing to the 3-3 draw a few days earlier. I wanted to jump on the stage, look him in the eye and comment that if scoring three goals in a game is a sign of struggle, then let’s have more of that! Gracefully as ever, Mr Garba managed to give a more diplomatic answer than I would have. Perhaps I am not made for the Q&A part of football.

Check me out, a Ghanaian, defending the Nigerian team.

In fact, just before sitting down to write this, I got in a lift and a guy in there asked me where I was from. Withoutthinking, I replied ‘Nigeria’. Believe me, I was shocked myself.

After the press conference, I was asked to be an assistant to an Iraqi TV station’s cameraman, so there is anyone in Iraq reading this, that crackly hand you saw on the sports news was DSC03805mine.

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Our BFG

On our return to the hotel, I saw another amazing thing, or actually an amazing person. One of the hotel porters was THE tallest person I had ever seen. And I have worked with the Harlem Globetrotters. I am sure he is in the Guinness Book of Records for his sheer height. He reminded me of ‘Jaws’ fro the James Bond franchise. Anyway, he was kind enough to let me take a picture with him so take a look yourself.

Big match tomorrow versus Iraq to see where Nigeria end up. I have had a look at the format and predicted the scores. The answers were bittersweet. If Nigeria go all the way, I get to enjoy this experience further. However, it means even longer away from home. I was hoping that we’d get to play some games in Abu Dhabi, meaning I’d be able to quickly pop in to see the family, but it seems like the earliest we will be there is two days before the final. Even worse, if we make it through to the quarter finals, we have to go to…..SHARJAH. If you are not familiar with this place, count yourself lucky…