Thursday 7th November 2013
As you would imagine with it being the eve of possibly the biggest game ever for most of the players and staff, it was a bit of a dead day. Training, pre match meeting and press conference all went ahead as scheduled and apart from having to answer a million requests for tickets, it was pretty uneventful.
Friday 8th November 2013 – The Final
Wow! What a day! One of the happiest and most satisfying day in my life, and not for personal reasons but because today proved there was justice in the world and sometimes football does give you what you deserve. The Nigeria Under 17 team won the FIFA Under 17 World Cup! In a dominating performance, they beat the Mexicans 3-0. Also, our best friends, the Swedes thrashed Argentina 4-0 to win the 3rd place play-off in their first ever World Cup Competition.
I was so happy this team won for many reasons. Obviously, it gave me the only opportunity of being on a winning lap of honour on one of the biggest stages, I got to learn an unbelievable amount about event planning and dealing with a variety of people as you would expect from a FIFA event and I got to develop my football coaching by watching some great masters at work. However, the reason for 90% of my happiness was because the coaches and players were rewarded for their sacrifice. Let me explain further. The team arrived in the UAE two weeks before the tournament for practice and for the whole five weeks here, the boys were only allowed out of their rooms on one day; when they were allowed an hour by the pool and later on for an event by the Al Ain royalty. The rest of the time, their day consisted of long passages of resting in their hotel rooms interrupted by breakfast, lunch, dinner, training and team meetings. There was literally no leisure time. I have touched on this in previous blogs but while some of us may see that as harsh or even ‘child cruelty’, it was remarkable that not one player moaned or showed any dissent towards this rule. They just accepted that to win such an event, they had to sacrifice, and that’s exactly what they did. Even when, after the second week, I was told to get all tvs in their room disconnected, there were still no negative comments. I spoke to some of the boys at length about this situation, mainly to compare with the expected reaction were this to be a team of young European or shall I say, English team, and I was just astounded and so impressed by their single mindedness and acceptance and trust that their coaches knew what they were doing. This belief was not unfounded though, as the head coach, Manu Garba had won this trophy as a manager in 2007, and assistant coach Nduka Ugbade was the first captain to lift this trophy in 1985. When I met English Premiership referee Mark Clattenburg, who was one of the FIFA referees for this tournament, by a pool in our Dubai hotel, I used this example to show him how focussed the boys were. It was interesting to hear him suggest that it was a little cruel to the players and that it would mean that they would then ‘go crazy’ once they got a little older and joined professional clubs where the temptations were bigger and shinier. One other alternative is that this professionalism would stand them in good stead and ensure they had the discipline and therefore career of someone like a Steven Gerrard instead of a Gazza.
Only time will tell.
From the five top teams I had the pleasure of seeing on a daily basis in our hotels for a few days at least; Nigeria, Mexico, Sweden, Uruguay and Argentina, it was interesting to note that the most ‘disciplined’ teams contested in the final. I wasn’t at privy to the intimate workings of the Mexican team, but a fellow TLO, who was a friend, would also tell me about how disciplined their coach was. Then you had the Swedes who were definitely more relaxed than the top two teams with their McDonalds and frequent beach and pool visits, but they seemed to know when to do this, plus they needed the sun more than any other team. I have to say I was glad the Argentinians got a thrashing in the last game. I never really took to the team and I still remember them munching on pizzas and chips and glugging bottles of Coke late on the night before a game (which they won to be fair). However, if this was an indication of how they usually were, maybe it’s no surprise they fell so close to the end. However, it’s obvious there are other elements that make a winning side, notably luck. Uruguay were by far the strongest team Nigeria played and they seemed to be very professional in their dealings off the pitch too, but they were beaten 2-0 in the quarter finals. Incidentally, this was the only game all tournament in which Nigeria scored less than three goals! Ask any Nigeria player who or what their toughest match was and they would all say Uruguay. The scene in the dressing room after the game was of a team knowing that they had faced a battle and triumphed and I am certain this win gave them the last shred of confidence they needed to believe they could all the way.
There are just so many examples of this team and their ‘simplicity’, caring about nothing else other than doing their business on the football pitch. Take match days for example. Each team had a team coach, a small van for transporting few passengers and a luggage van. During each pre match meeting, we would be asked if we needed the luggage van to transport any equipment to matches. The answer was always no. All the team had was a bag of balls, some cones and bibs for training. This, along with the Coca Cola sanctioned waters all fit in perfectly in the space under the team van, and during match days, the kit man added a bag of folded shirts and shorts in there, which he enlisted the help of the players to search and put on hangers before scrunching into the bag. The players then brought their Adidas boot bags filled with all their match day preparations onto the bus with them. No big massive ‘Beats’ headphones covering their ears like the Swedes or trolleys of luggage enough to open a sports shop like the Argentinians. Just simple and easy. They didn’t seem to care about anything else apart from being on the pitch and playing football good enough to win this tournament.
Out of interest, this was the fourth time Nigeria had won this tournament, and they had all been on Asian ground. It was also their seventh time of participating and they had reached the final each time, so maybe it wasn’t so much of a surprise that they won. The best thing is no one can say they didn’t deserve it because they thoroughly did. Some of the football they played literally made me want to cry it was so good! They scored the most goals, the highest ever, even without their top striker Isaac Success for most of the tournament, they conceded the least, awarding the ‘Golden Glove’ award to their goalkeeper Dele Alampasu who prior to this tournament had never played for the team and they also won the fair play award. This was really pleasing for me personally as I’m one of the loudest critics of African players’ tackling so it was good to see some defensive intelligence being shown.
For the match itself, I actually found myself not as nervous as the semi or quarter finals, mainly because I was rushed off my feet with picking up accreditation cards for officials, answering calls for VIP tickets and trying to find a few minutes to see my son and wife who, like all glory hunting fans, had decided to make an appearance for the final only! I was even late for the start of the match and got to my seating area to find a real lack of empty spaces. I had met Arsenal and Nigeria legend Kanu in the VIP area a while back, so whistle looking for a space, he must have felt pity on me and whistled me to him. I actually think he wanted to ask me a question only, but I took this as an invitation and after answering his question, decided to sit in the one remaining space next to him and his friends! Anyway, it all went smoothly, even his friend and I had a disagreement about the number 18, Taiwo Awoniyi. He thought that Taiwo was a little lazy in his running, but I disagreed, telling them all that although he does look awkward running, he was a very fit and hardworking player, a little like a certain Number 4 for Arsenal… Anyway, I was glad that they eventually agreed with me by the end, although this could be due to the fact that I told him Taiwo’s agent was the mighty Ade Akinbyi. Maybe he didn’t want to incur the wrath of the beast that is Ade. He even offered me some tactical tips to give to one of our defenders in the changing room at half time, but of course the coaches had already seen and taken care of that.
Once the match was over, it was time for the trophies and celebration. The guys at FIFA were kind enough to let myself and the other three members of the team with passes to the dressing room but not pitchside (only 8 officials are allowed pitchside) onto the pitch to join the players on the lap of honour, which was an amazing experience. I was lucky enough to get a couple of footballs signed by the players and then I received an awesome gift from my boss at the (Local Organising Committee) LOC who gave me a limited edition replica of the actual trophy. Apparently it is one of only 50 ever made so it’s something to be treasured for sure. This is nothing compared to rumours of the riches awaiting the boys and coaches including gifts of houses and stackloads of cash no doubt.
There was more drama off the pitch than on after the game with missing staff and me ending up in the back of a police car.
We were surprised with a dinner cruise on the Abu Dhabi Corniche by one of the ambassadors of the team so instead of heading to the hotel, we were to go straight to the boat. The problem was that the police, who I assume are expected to know their way around the city, didn’t know where the port, the only port in Abu Dhabi was. As I have stated, the job of the TLO is non-descript, so that obviously included giving the police directions. Because of the language barriers and the strange occurence of Arab speaking people not knowing their right from left, I ended up in the back of a patrol car giving them directions to the port. We got there and then had the sudden realisation that we had left a player behind at the stadium. It turned out one of the players in the doping room was still in there by the time we left, and in the mayhem and pandemonium of having more than the usual crew in our bus, we all forgot him and the doctor! By the time we realised, the boat had already left on the cruise, so they missed those celebrations, although if it were any consolation, most of us would have gladly switched with them after the first 30minutes, especially when we realisied the trip was three hours long and we had to be up early morning to get to the airport.
So that was that. At 9am, we had packed up, loaded the luggage and were on the way to the airport to bid a tearful goodbye to an amazing bunch of people. Funny that when I started this job about three weeks ago, I had apprehensions of a Ghanaian working with Nigerians, but three weeks of living day in, day out with these guys and I can safely say that I love these people like a brother or son. I am so happy for them all. I have never seen anyone more deserving of success and I am even more happy to have proof to show my son that hard work, dedication and sacrifice can and does reap success.
Now that’s all done, it’s back to the daily grind. I’m thankful for a wonderful family, who I’ve missed, to go back home to otherwise I’m sure I would slide into a pit of despair at the realisation that one of the most amazing and enjoyable experiences of my life has now ended. Until the next one, God willing.