My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 16 and 17 – Quarter finals v Uruguay

Saturday 2nd November 2013

Well it’s official. The Nigeria under 17 national team and their ever appreciative Team Liaison Officer will see the FIFA Under 17 World Cup to the end. In a tough encounter tonight, the boys put in a battling performance intertwined with moments of skill and genius to beat Uruguay 2-0 and join Sweden, Mexico and Argentina in the semi finals. This means that the top three teams from our group all made it to the semi finals, which says a lot about the strength of the group. My friend Ade Akinbiyi’s player, Taiwo Awonyi decided the game with two clinical strikes in either half, both goals being set up by ‘Nacho’, the Mexican destroyer.  Of all the games they’ve played so far, this was by far the most gruelling and physical and the boys came through it with flying colours, especially in the face of some  provocation by the Uruguayan staff and players and some questionable refereeing at best.

DSC04126

DSC04123

staying cool under pressure

It was really impressive to see these bunch of young boys stay so calm and composed all match even when they were being pushed and manhandled. Needless to say,I would have found it hard to control myself in such a situation, but maybe that’s why I’m sitting in front of a laptop writing about football instead of having thoughts of possibly getting my hands on a World Cup trophy in a few days.

There was a surprise guest in the team changing room after the game. Former national team captain and legend Sunday Oliseh, who now works for FIFA as part of their technical team, came in to offer some prayers and words of encouragement for the boys. I actually remember his goal v Spain in France ’98 and I could still picture that stretched arm celebration after the goal so it was amazing to see him in the flesh. He told the boys how impressed everyone was with the boys and how they played as well as conducted themselves and I know he wasn’t just saying that because everywhere either myself of the team has been, people have had nothing but good things to say about the boys. Everyone seems to be a Nigerian fan, and this shows in the amount of fans they get for each game. I feel like a proper celebrity groupie following the team around and enjoying scraps of their glory and success, but I genuinely feel like a part of this team and the players and staff have made it feel like so. I really hope and pray that their hard work and dedication gets them all the way to the part when they are the second team up the stage at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium at around 10pm next Friday night, 8th November.

DSC04154

By the way, referring to my earlier posts about training, warm up and diet, the Swedes and Argentinians making it through to the semis proves that it is really whatever method suits you best and there isn’t really a pre-destined method of success. I have witnessed teams with a manager so strict that the players are told where to sit in the restaurant, teams with a manager so loose that players are free to roam the hotel floors late at night, teams with a manager who keeps the players on a short leash and teams with a manager who allows the players to enjoy some sight seeing and days out. All these teams have made it to the semi finals of the World Cup and they couldn’t be more different from each other. Sweden have made it in their first ever finals, and Mexico have made it after suffering an  embarrassing 6-1 defeat in their first game for example, so all this makes for a very intriguing next round of games. I believe the key is in consistency. The methods aren’t important as long as they suit the character of your team and you are consistent with it. However, I can’t help wondering if these methods are adopted through other ages in the national set up all the way to the senior team. I guess the next step is to see if anyone will have me in the senior tournament.

Sunday 3rd November 2013

Travel day today. The boys left Sharjah to go back to our Dubai hotel one of the best hotels I’ve stayed in, made even more enjoyable after experiencing the ‘best’ Shajah had to offer. It’s fair to say that’s not one of my favourite places and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.Thankfully, I had to do some prep work in the Dubai hotel and my family also came down for the day for some very much needed quality time, so it was a great day in all. I feel a little bad for the players and staff at tournaments such as these, especially successful teams as they can go a month or so without seeing members of their families, especially if you add in preparation time with training camps. I am lucky that I’ve only been a 90minute drive from my family and they’ve been able to visit me a few times, but people like the Nigerian players and coaches who have already spent six weeks and thousands of miles away from their families don’t have that luxury. It is part of the job of course, but I doubt this makes it any easier.

I doubt England’s players have this issue though…

Next up, one last training session tomorrow morning before the semi finals with Sweden on Tuesday night. We had an entertaining 3-3 draw in the group game so this will be an interesting one. The Swedes are the most  organised team in the tournament and play very solid banks of 4 and 5 and rely on the counter attacks, so it will be an extremely tough game.

Those fingernails of mine will be shortened even more in a few days time.

 

Advertisements

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Days 12 and 13

Sunday 27th October 2013

This day can be summed up in two words: dead day. Nothing of interest happened apart from the usual high intensity training and me getting smashed at table tennis again.

Monday 28th October 2013

Today was a busier day with another early rise for training and then the pre-match meeting followed by the press conference for the game with Iran tomorrow, all before lunchtime. I have to say I’m really enjoying the press conferences, especially the answers given by the coach Manu Garba. He has this friendly but serious and witty edge to his answers that leaves reporters with nowhere to go after a question but to accept the answer given. I had some great examples to give here, but I seem to have drawn a blank. I really should start writing some of these down…

Press conference. I should get a pen and pad too

Press conference. I should get a pen and pad too

The guys at the Local Organising Committee were brilliant today in surprising one of the boys with a birthday cake. He’s only 15 but massive, which is good as he’s a goalkeeper. I know Africans have a reputation as ‘generous’ with their ages, depending on which way favours them, but I have been surprised at the sizes of some of the players! Sweden’s number 20, Strandberg is a total giant, as is Brazil’s Mosquito. Yes that’s his name. The boy has a full adult beard and the stature to rival a basketballer. These MRI scans to determine a player’s age seems to have missed the other teams..  Anyway, the cake was a very nice gesture and shows the hospitality and  generosity of the local organisers, especially those in Al Ain, who have been amazing. One way or the other, our last day in Al Ain will be tomorrow and I’m really going to miss those guys. They have been brilliant in making things so easy, especially for TLOs like myself with the amount of transport, ticket and other requests we get each day.

Best birthday cake ever

Best birthday cake ever

I felt a bit bad for the boys today because I was asked to get all the tvs in their rooms disconnected, meaning they had nothing to do now apart from eating, sleeping and thinking of tomorrow’s game. It’s not for me to say whether it’s right or wrong and the coaches are obviously experienced and know what they are doing. It just struck me as another difference in the approach to big games. I was talking to a member of the hotel staff today and she commented on the differences in different countries, citing the smartly dressed and suited Iraqis walking into the hotel in straight, immaculate lines on their first day and comparing them to the Swedes who had tracksuits and t-shirts on, McDonalds cup in hand and headphones on their heads. At the time of writing, Sweden had just made it to the quarter finals in their first ever competition at the expense of the fancied Japanese team, and Iraq went out without a win so once again, it’s a case of whatever works for you.

I also found out that Nigeria’s Chelsea boy, Habib Makanjoula is only 14 and the youngest ever player to play in this tournament. Ivory Coast have a 13 year old in the squad but he has yet to play. It’s crazy to think kids that young are good enough to be playing in a World tournament at such a young age. Then again, if there are 13 year old fathers in some towns in England, why can’t they play in World Cups? I actually bought little Habib some cocoa butter yesterday as per his request, so that could be my claim to fame in a few years. “Son, you see that player who just scored the winner in the World Cup Final? See his soft and smooth skin? Well, that’s because when he was 14, I bought him some ‘Palmer’s Cocoa Butter.’ He’s never looked back since …”

It’s getting to that stage where nerves are a little sharper, patience a little thinner and penalties practiced more  fervently. Everyone knows one mistake and you leave the UAE the next day, so it’s really squeaky bum time. I am hoping and praying that these boys make it all the way. I genuinely do believe they have some fantastic players, especially the captain Musa Mohammed, who is just such a leader and an inspiration, the 14, Chidebere Nwakali, a clever and hard working  midfielder and their number 11 Yahaya, their most creative player in my opinion. Then you have their main man Success Isaac, who is just a fantastic forward who will go places if looked after properly. I heard today that Arsenal are chasing Mexico’s four goal mauler Kelechi Iheanacho, who is an incredibly deadly finisher, so this team has some pedigree. Of course luck and various other things will have to be on the team’s side if they are to return home victorious, but they definitely have the potential.

The road to Abu Dhabi really starts tomorrow.

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 8. Matchday 2

Tuesday 22nd October 2013

The countdown to match day started around 5.30 and it was a busy one. First of all, a trip to the stadium was needed to drop the kit man, then it was off to the printers to pick up a new banner. The one I had designed came back in the morning and it was perfect apart from one thing. The Nigerian Football Federation had changed its name from ‘Nigerian Football Association’ and in the search for a logo with a high enough resolution for the 3metre x 1metre banner, the printer used ‘Google’ to find it. Unfortunately, the logo he found had the old name, which was an easy mistake to make because it was exactly the same logo and the only change was ‘Association’ to ‘Federation’. This was of course spotted by the eagle-eyed ‘Godlen Eaglets’ media officer so a change was needed. After a phonecall and an email, the task was clear and the printer knew what was needed.

DSC03774

The boys with the banner designed by yours truly, with the correct logo

Anyway, after dropping off the kit man, we headed to the printer’s to pick up the new banner. At this time, Mexico were on their way to a win against Iraq so security was tight around the stadium and every checkpoint was enforced meticulously. Thankfully, it wasn’t a big enough game to halt traffic too much but it still left things tight because I had to complete these tasks and be back at the hotel by 6.15 to get on the team bus. I managed to make the team bus and get to the stadium on time, then I received another phonecall telling me some Nigerian fans were outside asking for VIP tickets. I went out there and guess who was one of these fans? None other than former Leicester City legend and fans favourite Ade Akinbiyi! I had seen him in my five minutes by the pool earlier in the day and thought I recognised him so when I saw him outside the stadium, I introduced myself and asked him his name. Then I knew it was definitely him. Apparently he is doing some agent work and in fact one of his boys was the Nigerian number 18, Taiwo, who scored the final equaliser. He seemed very friendly and chatty and was happy enough to take my business card, which he will hopefully not use as a coaster, contrary to what my wife believes. I saw him back in our hotel bar after the game watching his rubbish team Arsenal lose, and our conversation ended with ‘I have your card so will text you to give you my number.’ I will be waiting Ade, my new best friend. I will be waiting.

ade-akinbiyi

My mate Ade then

DSC03758

Ade, first from left, as he is now

Of course, to steal a Dennis Norden phrase, things are always alright on the night and so it proved to be here, apart from the score. A very eventful 3-3 draw between the Golden Eaglets of Nigeria and Sweden means it’s all to play for in the last group games with Nigeria, Sweden and Mexico all in with a good chance of qualifying. In this tournament, the top two plus the top four 3rd place finishes of all the groups go through to the next stage. Nigeria did well to come back from 2-0 and then 3-2 down to grab a draw in the final minutes, especially with my boy Success Isaac coming off midway through the first half with an injury. Nigeria were down 2-1 at half time and I believe the coaches did a great job in picking them up and helping them get this draw. The team talk given by each one of the coaches was extremely positive and constructive, and as a coach myself, it was a boost to hear that the tactical information they gave was the same I would have after seeing the first half. The only difference was they expressed themselves so well and so powerfully. By the end of the speech, I was ready to go out there and bust a gut for the team. And then I remembered that I’m old enough to be some of these kids’ fathers, I have a crocked knee amongst others, and I am extremely unfit. Plus I am not Nigerian.

The referee for this game, a Mr Nestor Pitana from Argentina was a  formidable man. He was massively tall and muscular and looked more of a bodybuilder than a wrestler. In fact, that’s exactly what I asked him when he walked past me before the game. Thankfully he took it in good spirits and was even kind enough to give me his official cards after the game. All the referees here are auditioning to go to Brazil next year so I hope he makes it. He will probably be the one that gives a penalty against England and/or send off Jack Wilshire/Wayne Rooney in the quarter finals.

DSC03775

The Beast, Mr Pitana

DSC03778

I couldn’t believe how nervous I found myself in that game. I was kicking every ball and heading every cross away or into the goal, depending on who crossed it. In fact, I was more nervous than I am when watching Man Utd games. Except when we play Liverpool because I hate them so much. Having spent a week with these boys and their friendly and knowledgeable coaches, I am getting really involved in the team. I feel invested in each of them. The fact that they are all so polite and friendly makes the bond even stronger. They are big and athletic boys who look like men, but spend a few minutes talking to them and you realise that they really are just young boys. I almost feel like a father to them, although they probably see me as the guy that takes the pictures and orders KFC for the kit man.

We are off to Dubai in the morning for our next game on Friday against Iraq. A win and Nigeria top the group, meaning we are back to Al Ain on Saturday.

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.

IMG-20131021-00895

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 – 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.

DSC03512

The GK could be used as a ruler

DSC03516

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!