My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 15 and 16

Thursday 31st October and Friday 1st November 2013 

It’s been a pretty quiet few days overall in preparation for the quarter final game tomorrow v Uruguay, which is probably a good thing because I left my laptop charger in our Al Ain hotel and have very limited battery life! Since arriving in Sharjah, appropriately described as ‘a glorified landmine’ by my good friend BC, on Wednesday, not much has happened here. We’ve had our usual competitive early morning training sessions followed by some much needed down time which has allowed me to catch up with some episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’.

Earlier today, I watched the McDonalds munching, sun loving Swedes, in their first ever tournament, reach the semi final! I have to say I really love the Swedish team. I don’t agree with their brand of football but it obviously works for them and the manager has utilised what he has really well. What I do love about them is the personalities of the players and staff. With them being in the same group as us and therefore in the same hotel, I got to see and converse with them quite a bit and they are really lovely people. Very friendly and approachable. They even gave the Nigerian team a token gift before their 3-3 draw earlier in the tournament. I also managed to have a long chat with a couple of their players including IFK Gothenburg’s Gustav Engvall whilst waiting for them to drink the required gallons of water to enable them to muster the required 90ml of pee for the dope test and they were just really good guys. I’m really happy for them to have made it to the semis and hopefully we’ll see them again as they’re our next opponents if we make it to the semis tomorrow. If we do make it to the semis, it means I’d be in this tournament from start to finish as the top four end up in Abu Dhabi one way or other, either as finalists or in the dead rubber 3rd place playoff. It would be brilliant to extend this experience further so let’s hope the boys bring their ‘A-game’ tomorrow.

I learnt two new things today about FIFA, and probably all football’s organisational protocols. Firstly, do you know that in the usual pre-kick off handshake between captains, it’s recommended that captains shake hands a certain way? They have to shake hands like they are about to start an arm wrestle. That is called the ‘peace handshake.’ Then, and this is minor but all players must leave the pitch at the end of the first half. Even if subs wanted to warm up on the pitch, they’d have to physically leave the pitch and be out of sight before returning to the pitch immediately if they wanted to. It’s something that I’ve seen numerous of times without ever thinking of it but it seems that’s actually a FIFA requirement.

Peace handshake

Peace handshake

There was another example of ‘what works for you’ tonight. During the Brazil v Mexico game, which Mexico won on penalties by the way, making it two teams from our earlier group to go through to the semis, the Argentinian and Uruguay players came in to watch. This was an 8pm kick off, a time which no Nigerian player has seen outside his hotel room unless on matchdays. This in itself was no real deal, as was the fact that the players were all there with their phones and iPads checking and communicating on their social networking sites. It was different from what I’ve seen with the Nigerian boys but as I said, it was no massive surprise, especially considering the fact that the South Americans were probably still on South America time.

What was a surprise, and something I’d love an opinion from sports scientists and doctors on, was that the Argentinian players were busy tucking into pizzas and chips and sipping on one of the 300 Coca Cola branded drinks each team gets per day. Considering they had an important match at 5pm tomorrow, I found it a real surprise to see them gleefully munching into such foods so late and before such an important game. To be fair to them, the South American culture is all about eating late, but I assumed some rice and meat, not pizzas and chips.

I guess things are just different with each team. Not only did the Argentinian players dress and look like ready made footballers who wouldn’t look out of place on ‘Four Four Two’ magazine with their earrings and tattoos to make Beckham proud, they also seemed to have a very relaxed demeanour about them. I even saw one of the players with his girlfriend. Apparently she has been following him with her family since they arrived here. She’s obviously investing well in her future.

However, like I said, this isn’t a judgment point, I’m merely pointing out the differences I’ve seen in how teams approach games. Only time will tell which method works, but it’s just interesting to note these differences in culture.

It’s game time tomorrow. Nigeria v Uruguay, 8pm at Sharjah stadium. Winner gets into the semi finals of the FIFA under 17 World Cup! My excitement and nervousness is building up nicely. I so want these boys to win this cup. I have seen how much effort and dedication they and their coaches have put in so far and it would just be such an amazing feat to see them lift the cup. Plus, I have grown genuinely fond of each and every one of these boys and their totally knowledgeable and fantastic coaches. It would be such a brilliant sight to see their smiling and happy faces when they get their gold medals around their necks on November 8th.

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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.