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.

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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 – 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…

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 7

Monday 21st October 2013

“Supergetti” and “roasted bread” are two new phrases I’ve learnt from the boys to describe what we know as ‘spaghetti’ and ‘toast’. That reminds me; does anyone know a situation where you get fed spaghetti and mince for breakfast? That’s part of the buffet meals we receive. It’s not even a Nigerian team request; this is part of FIFA’s sample menus for all hotels, which I find strange. The thought of some ‘supergetti’ along with my muesli and ‘roasted bread’ is just plain odd but there you go.

It was a pretty uneventful day today. We had our usual intense training this morning, then our pre-match meeting where we once again decided on the kits the team would wear, listened to the respective national anthems and checked the positions of the flags. Then we went off for the pre-match press conference at the stadium, which took as much time as it took us to get there. The stadium is very close to the hotel.

The team management decided to make a banner to show the Al Ain fans for their support after tomorrow’s game versus Sweden. We are off to Dubai to play the last group game against Iraq on Wednesday morning so they wanted to do something nice for the fans, which I think is a nice touch and will go down well. The thinking behind this movement to Dubai is that FIFA require all teams in the group to play their last games at the same time, and since there is only one approved stadium in Al Ain, two teams have to play in another stadium to satisfy this criteria. Two teams from those in Dubai will also come to Al Ain so they can have the same agreement.

It was a pretty uneventful drive into the ‘Little India’ of Al Ain until we brought to an abrupt halt on the road when someone that clearly received their driving licence from Oxfam reversed into the side of us. I was in a pretty big van; think the ‘A-Team’ style van so how this driver didn’t see us is beyond me.  We were close enough to the printers so I got out and left the drivers to deal with it. UAE traffic rules state that the police has to be called to every accident so they can provide a form. This form is important because no garage is allowed to touch a damaged car without it. Of course some do, but they’re not supposed to. So law abiding citizens need to stop at wherever the accident happened and call the police, who tend to be ‘relaxed’ at best of times. This means that most accidents end up causing a lot of traffic, especially in congested places because they block the road. So in effect, the probable cause of accidents is a previous accident.

I did see the most amazing thing on my travels though. I saw a car that when its doors were opened, projected the Al Ain team badge on the floor! It’s the car of the future! According to the owner, you can get any image you want projected. I’m thinking of getting one on my car and be the envy of all Man Utd fans worldwide.

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I found out something interesting today: Al Ain have three stadiums. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is the stadium that we play at (yes, I am a fully immersed Nigerian now. For this tournament only mind you), the ‘Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium’, has never been used by Al Ain. Legend has it that it was supposed to be officially opened by the late Sheikh Zayed (‘the father of the UAE’) but he unfortunately passed away before fulfilling this duty. For that reason, Al Ain have regarded this stadium as bad luck and the first team has never played there. Apparently they have been using their old stadium but have now built a new stadium due to be opened soon. Just a brief description of Al Ain. It is a very tiny town with only 350,000 or so people living there and only one professional football team. With three stadiums. I guess when money is no object…

Anyway, pretty chilled day, even with the car accident. The players are getting their 22hours rest before tomorrow’s match versus Sweden. There are even more bus loads of Nigeria fans coming from Dubai so it should be a cracking atmosphere. And look out for the celebration of the tournament. Whenever Nigeria score, the players go to one corner of the pitch, and pump both index fingers up, shouting ‘yes, yes!’ Apparently it’s the winning celebration of a WWE wrestler and seems to be picking up some momentum here already. I took the liberty of making a reference to that on the banner I got printed, so I hope it does become a movement or I’ll just look plain silly.

Diary of a national traitor at the FIFA Under 17 World Cup 2013 – Day One

As a football loving Ghanaian (sometimes Englishman, depending on the situation), it is a bitter-sweet moment to be involved in a FIFA sanctioned event, as a Team Liaison Officer (TLO) for none other than the Nigerian national team! Apart from the fact that Nigeria have been our arch rivals in recent times, they effectively knocked the Ghanaian team out of this tournament with a 6-1 thrashing at the African Cup. However, this is a great opportunity and I guess professionalism is the order of the day… I do feel a little weird supporting the Nigerian team but I keep thinking of it as work and so far have resisted attempts by the team to get me to wear Nigeria branded kit, as nice and fresh as it is!

Say what you want about them, but any football fan would love to work for a massive organisation like FIFA, and in the week or so that I’ve been training and preparing for and undertaking this role, it has been a massive eye opener and a real example of how to organise events!

Here is an account of my experiences thus far.

Tuesday 15th October 2013

Nearly six weeks after our five day training camp with the official draw for the FIFA Under 17 World Cup, the time has come for me to assume my role as a TLO for the Nigerian Under 17 team. Things didn’t start smoothly in many ways, starting with the failure of their delegates to turn up for the official draw on the 28th August. I left the comfortable and plush rooms of Trader’s Hotel, Abu Dhabi at 2am to meet my driver to get to Dubai airport and wait for the manager, captain and another staff from the team to arrive. Three hours of waiting outside the waiting area with my ‘Nigeria’ placard, I got an inkling that something may be amiss. After some navigating around Dubai airport, which I found to be a ridiculously large airport, I eventually got to the desk of their designated airline to be informed that the three members of the team were indeed booked on board but hadn’t taken their flight. However, there was another flight landing in an hour so I should wait  for that. Of course, being keen as mustard, even at that silly hour, I waited. And waited. And still had the same result. I eventually cut my losses after a while and headed back to my bed for an hour’s sleep before our next meeting.

Of course my team was the only one out of the 24 who didn’t have a delegate, however every cloud has a silver lining as I got to go on the official draw stage to represent Nigeria, getting my picture on the FIFA website in the process.

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My moment of glory at the Official FIFA draw

Those five days really opened my eyes to how massive an organisation FIFA really is. And how much money is involved. First of all, all 24 TLOs were put up in the 5 star ‘Trader’s Hotel’ whilst the main staff commandeered the amazing ‘Fairmont Hotel’. With breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’ve ever been to the UAE, you know they don’t mess with their buffets of food in general. That would definitely have cost a fair few dirhams. Then every team had a car and a driver to transport them to the airport for pick ups. And these weren’t just any cars; BMWs, Nissan Patrols, Lexus’ were all on show, depending on how many delegates were being picked up. We were then told that all teams, every single one of them would receive completely brand new equipment. Brand new balls, bibs, medical equipment and kit for every game too. Because of the sponsors, everything had to be branded according to the sponsors. The only drinks that could be consumed in the hotels were Coca Cola branded drinks. Thank God they also make water bottles. As a born and bred African, I have a thing about wastage and it seemed mad to have to throw perfectly good equipment away because they weren’t of the right brand/because there was no need to re-use them. But that’s how things are in this world and it’s interesting to witness.

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The kit room

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My carriage

Anyway, fast forward a few weeks to today, 15th October. I got picked up from my house by a driver in none other than a Lexus to transport me to our hotel in Al Ain where the Nigerian team would be based along with current champions Mexico, Sweden and Iraq. Of course nothing in the  Fabergé-egg of a country I call the UAE would be smooth. It turned out my driver had no idea where the hotel was and after his Sat Nav failed, we resorted to asking random drivers on the road. Then after finally getting directions, I realised he didn’t know his left from his right! I guess it was wrong of me to assume an executive driver would have an idea of his bearings.

The hotel we are based at is fantastic and has amazing facilities, even an English pub! Of course all rooms in the hotel had been booked by FIFA with each team on their own floor and individual rooms for everyone apart from the players who shared as a pair. There was even a room just for equipment! An additional bonus for me was I got to link the room with my Etihad loyalty card so free points for me! No doubt the wife will already have designs on our next trip after reading this! I arrived a little earlier to make sure I was there to meet the Nigerian team as they were coming from Dubai.

My home for the next week or two

To be fair to FIFA, they have everything sorted. There are so many staff looking after all aspects of the team, from training times to transport, lunches to leisure times. Each team is given a team bus, a mini van for short distance travel and another mini van with all seats taken out for any luggage. Plus, all team movements have to be coordinated with the police so they can provide an escort to ensure they are not late for anything!

The team arrived not long after I did and in my eagerness to make a good impression, I walked onto the bus as soon as they arrived and started introducing myself, only to be  politely  told to step out as they were praying…!

Thankfully, we managed to get over that uncomfortable start pretty quickly. Our first major duty was the team arrival meeting where the teams were informed of a few  regulations  regarding match fixing (don’t do it), offsides (confusing as hell) and anti doping (drink a lot of water if you’re chosen). I found this the most interesting. Did you know that at half time of every International game, four players are chosen at random to be subjected to urine tests? Only the first two from the draw will be chosen and the other two are reserves in case one gets injured and has to go to hospital for example. Another example of FIFA’s covering of all angles. At 75minutes into the game, the players are then informed (if on the bench) or watched by two FIFA delegates if they’re playing. From the time the game is over, they do not leave the sight of the FIFA officials and go straight into the medical room here they stay until they can produce the required 90ml of urine. In the England v Ukraine game for the 2014 World Cup, Joleon Lescott and Jake Livermore were the chosen ones for England. I learnt two things after watching the video. Jake Livermore was once called up for England and Lescott has an almost red-like colour pee. It looked like cranberry juice!