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 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

 

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…

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.