My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 21 and 22 – The final

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.

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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.

Golden Glove winner Dele Alampasu

Golden Glove winner Dele Alampasu

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.

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Kanu with Golden Shoe winner and Arsenal target Kelechi Iheanacho

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.

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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.

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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 – 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.

Diary of a national traitor at the FIFA Under 17 World Cup – Day 4

Friday 18th October 2013

The day before the first game of their tournament, the teams from group F seem focussed but relaxed. Iraq usually walk around the hotel grounds as a team, Sweden are taking advantage of the warmer climes by tanning up and getting their hair even more blonde, and Mexico and Nigeria are a little more elusive. It’s three time winners Nigeria v current  Champions Mexico tomorrow at 5pm at the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed stadium, Al Ain.  These two are potential winners of this tournament and everyone agrees that the most important thing in a tournament is to win your first game, so it will be an interesting and exciting game to watch.

My day seemed to start a little earlier today with a 1am phonecall from the kit manager. I resisted picking up but after the fifth time, I thought I’d best as it could be an emergency. It wasn’t. He had just run out of iron-on ‘FIFA Fair Play’ patches for the kits. What he wanted me to do at that hour, I don’t know. Maybe I should have reciprocated his courtesy and called the FIFA general coordinator at 1am to ask him to send me some patches. I think this would have been a short diary entry if I had. Needless to say he wasn’t in my good books this morning. That’s another thing. I  originally assumed that all those patches on the short sleeves for matches were produced by the shirt manufacturer along with the shirt, but apparently not. Teams are given these once they arrive for the tournament and then kit man then has to iron on each individual patch on each shirt. Thankfully, FIFA do provide a heat press machine which does each patch in 20 seconds.

Training had its usual high tempo warm up, and I had to leave not long after for the Match Coordination Meeting, which I will explain further in a bit. It was good to see police dogs and the police themselves searching and clearing the training area for any possible foreign objects before we were allowed on the pitch. Of course it is unlikely for anything to happen in one of the safest countries I’ve ever been to and in a youth tournament, but it was once again an example of FIFA’s professionalism and attention to detail. I don’t want to sound like a sycophant but FIFA do get a rough ride, and rightly so in some cases, but you have to admire their organisational excellence. It really is a well oiled machine.

Police and their dog in action

Police and their dog in action

I just wanted to share my experiences about the differences in coaching methods I’ve seen so far against what I’ve generally regarded as ‘good practice’.

For as long as I’ve known, us coaches in the ‘Western World’ have been told about the importance of dynamic stretches before warm ups to get the body ready for the activities ahead amongst other reasons. I have been on numerous courses including the FA Level 3/ UEFA B where we’re encouraged to warm up with a ball whenever possible and definitely undertake dynamic stretches. I was coaching in America in 2006 and met another coach who was doing a project on the importance of dynamic stretches. Andy Murphy, this may be of interest to you! I have seen professional teams like Chelsea do nothing but fast paced dynamic warm ups before games and just two days ago, I saw the Swedish team undertaking some fantastic looking team dynamic warm ups. I assumed the days of jogging around the pitch as a warm up were long gone and now we were all encouraged to get a ball straight away or at least to do something other than ;just run around the pitch’. The thing is, for the last three training  sessions I’ve seen with the Nigeria team, their warms ups have been exactly all those activities we were told were ‘antiquated’.

Warm ups so far have started with a prayer (this part is still accepted, I think…) and then a jog two or three times around the pitch, led by Mr Nduka Ugbade, one of the funniest men I’ve ever met and also the first Nigerian Captain to lift the Under 17 trophy as well as a 1994 African Cup of Nations winner. This is then followed by shuttle runs without and then with the ball before the dreaded dynamic stretches. I hope by saying this, I’m not giving away any national secrets or even judge the methods. In fact, this is the opposite and an eye opener because this is obviously a method that’s been used for years and yet Nigerians have always been one of the powerhouses of African football (not as good as Ghana I must add) and arguably the world if you take into account their exports and performances in World tournaments. Looking at the players, I don’t think I have seen fitter and more athletic young men, and their flexibility is strong too.

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The GK could be used as a ruler

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So I ask again, does one size fit all or is it a case of doing what works for you? And if it’s the latter, why are we not educated in coaching courses by looking at various nations and their methods to see how different methods work for others? Or is it a case of ‘West is best’ arrogance? I’m really not sure of any of this, hence the questions. Maybe someone can offer an opinion. What I do know though is that this has been an education for me as a coach and a lesson to be more open minded when dealing with players.

I also loved hearing Mr Ugbade motivating the players before every practice match with quotes such as: “Play to our instructions but make your own decisions” and “Don’t shout at your team mates if they make a mistake. Motivate them because they protect you.” However, what I loved best was his insistence that the players  enjoyed themselves. His last words before every practice match is “Enjoy, enjoy!” He repeats this many times and reminds us all that amidst all the police dogs, protocalls, and practices, this is a game of football which is best played with a smile on the face and joy in the hearts.

Anyway, about the aforementioned Match Coordination Meeting.

As per FIFA protocols, before each match, both teams must attend a Match Coordination Meeting where many matters are discussed and decided, from the time of departure from the team hotel to the match and a check on the team colours to where to warm up and the post match handshakes. This is a pretty big deal and is attended by a host of officials including officials from both teams and FIFA’s doctor, security, marketing, media officers and match commissioner.

Many items were discussed but the ones that stuck to mind were:

  • The notion of fair play. Both teams MUST leave the team hotels at the same time to make sure they all arrive together.
  • The timings and detail of the day. From the time the teams enter the stadium, everything is broken down into specific times to the second. Even the length of time taken to take team photos after the national anthems is specified! Unsurprisingly the distance from the advertising boards to the pitch is also specified, as is the size of the branding on the goalkeeper’s gloves. Image is everything.
  • Contrary to what I believed, players are no longer allowed to even cover their jewellery with tape. There must be no jewellery at all on the pitch.

Any undergarments under the kits have to be the same colours as the primary colour on the team kit. Even the sock tape has to be the same colour. I bet Jorges Campos, the legendary Mexican goalkeeper is glad he’s not playing in the modern game.

Do 'Underarmour' have these colours?

Do ‘Underarmour’ have these colours

During this meeting, the most recurring thought in my mind was how little I realised about what it needs for a match to go ahead. The requirements, protocols and organisation is mind boggling. And these have to be repeated for every one of the 54 games in this tournament. However, the rules are very clear and concise, which takes out the notion of ambiguity, especially in such a global tournament. I always think back to the fact that teams can only have the heat press machine for four hours in the interests of fair play play as an example of the preciseness of matters.

I assume there are similar protocols for a Premier League game for example, although possibly not at the same level due to the amount of games each matchday.

It would be interesting to see what the protocol is for Premiership or even UEFA games for example.

Tomorrow is the big day. I was speaking to one of the Nigerian players and possible stars to watch for this event, Idowu, and asked him about his focus and aspirations. He told me about how he cried for days after they lost the final of the African Nations to Ivory Coast earlier this year and how all he’s thinking about is winning this trophy to repay the coach, Mr Manu Garba, for his faith in him and the team. I also asked him about the fact that they’ve seen nothing but the hotel walls for since they arrived four days ago and if he’s going stir crazy. He looked me in the eye and told me that he’s not bothered about doing anything but playing and trying to win this trophy. All they do in their rooms is sleep or watch tv and he and his teammates are more than happy to continue in this vein.

We’re all waiting to see what happens starting tomorrow, but whatever it is, it won’t be due to a lack of focus. Also keep an eye out for the only player playing overseas, Chelsea FC’s Makam Ojuola, the strong and powerful striker, Success Isaac. He’s incredibly powerful and has a real calm eye in front of goal. If his name is anything to go by, he will do well in his career.

Success Isaac, the next, better Yakubu?

Success Isaac, the next, better Yakubu?

Let’s go!