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.

 

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My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 8. Matchday 2

Tuesday 22nd October 2013

The countdown to match day started around 5.30 and it was a busy one. First of all, a trip to the stadium was needed to drop the kit man, then it was off to the printers to pick up a new banner. The one I had designed came back in the morning and it was perfect apart from one thing. The Nigerian Football Federation had changed its name from ‘Nigerian Football Association’ and in the search for a logo with a high enough resolution for the 3metre x 1metre banner, the printer used ‘Google’ to find it. Unfortunately, the logo he found had the old name, which was an easy mistake to make because it was exactly the same logo and the only change was ‘Association’ to ‘Federation’. This was of course spotted by the eagle-eyed ‘Godlen Eaglets’ media officer so a change was needed. After a phonecall and an email, the task was clear and the printer knew what was needed.

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The boys with the banner designed by yours truly, with the correct logo

Anyway, after dropping off the kit man, we headed to the printer’s to pick up the new banner. At this time, Mexico were on their way to a win against Iraq so security was tight around the stadium and every checkpoint was enforced meticulously. Thankfully, it wasn’t a big enough game to halt traffic too much but it still left things tight because I had to complete these tasks and be back at the hotel by 6.15 to get on the team bus. I managed to make the team bus and get to the stadium on time, then I received another phonecall telling me some Nigerian fans were outside asking for VIP tickets. I went out there and guess who was one of these fans? None other than former Leicester City legend and fans favourite Ade Akinbiyi! I had seen him in my five minutes by the pool earlier in the day and thought I recognised him so when I saw him outside the stadium, I introduced myself and asked him his name. Then I knew it was definitely him. Apparently he is doing some agent work and in fact one of his boys was the Nigerian number 18, Taiwo, who scored the final equaliser. He seemed very friendly and chatty and was happy enough to take my business card, which he will hopefully not use as a coaster, contrary to what my wife believes. I saw him back in our hotel bar after the game watching his rubbish team Arsenal lose, and our conversation ended with ‘I have your card so will text you to give you my number.’ I will be waiting Ade, my new best friend. I will be waiting.

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My mate Ade then

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Ade, first from left, as he is now

Of course, to steal a Dennis Norden phrase, things are always alright on the night and so it proved to be here, apart from the score. A very eventful 3-3 draw between the Golden Eaglets of Nigeria and Sweden means it’s all to play for in the last group games with Nigeria, Sweden and Mexico all in with a good chance of qualifying. In this tournament, the top two plus the top four 3rd place finishes of all the groups go through to the next stage. Nigeria did well to come back from 2-0 and then 3-2 down to grab a draw in the final minutes, especially with my boy Success Isaac coming off midway through the first half with an injury. Nigeria were down 2-1 at half time and I believe the coaches did a great job in picking them up and helping them get this draw. The team talk given by each one of the coaches was extremely positive and constructive, and as a coach myself, it was a boost to hear that the tactical information they gave was the same I would have after seeing the first half. The only difference was they expressed themselves so well and so powerfully. By the end of the speech, I was ready to go out there and bust a gut for the team. And then I remembered that I’m old enough to be some of these kids’ fathers, I have a crocked knee amongst others, and I am extremely unfit. Plus I am not Nigerian.

The referee for this game, a Mr Nestor Pitana from Argentina was a  formidable man. He was massively tall and muscular and looked more of a bodybuilder than a wrestler. In fact, that’s exactly what I asked him when he walked past me before the game. Thankfully he took it in good spirits and was even kind enough to give me his official cards after the game. All the referees here are auditioning to go to Brazil next year so I hope he makes it. He will probably be the one that gives a penalty against England and/or send off Jack Wilshire/Wayne Rooney in the quarter finals.

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The Beast, Mr Pitana

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I couldn’t believe how nervous I found myself in that game. I was kicking every ball and heading every cross away or into the goal, depending on who crossed it. In fact, I was more nervous than I am when watching Man Utd games. Except when we play Liverpool because I hate them so much. Having spent a week with these boys and their friendly and knowledgeable coaches, I am getting really involved in the team. I feel invested in each of them. The fact that they are all so polite and friendly makes the bond even stronger. They are big and athletic boys who look like men, but spend a few minutes talking to them and you realise that they really are just young boys. I almost feel like a father to them, although they probably see me as the guy that takes the pictures and orders KFC for the kit man.

We are off to Dubai in the morning for our next game on Friday against Iraq. A win and Nigeria top the group, meaning we are back to Al Ain on Saturday.