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.

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 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 – 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 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.

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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.

My FIFA Under 17 World Cup Diary – Day 6

Sunday 20th October 2013

“It feels like my birthday.”

That’s how one of the Nigerian players described his day to me tonight. This was a day when they were able to leave the sanctuary of their hotel rooms and venture outside to the recreational area where they made full use of the facilities including the pool and table tennis room. I decided to join them and show off my table tennis skills, to which I was sent packing with a 5-0 defeat against the team doctor. I even brought my own bat.

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The day got better for the boys as we had our planned dinner with the rest of the teams, except for one which was  not allowed to attend as punishment after a heavy defeat the night before. We were meant to travel to a the grounds of a Sheikh’s palace but instead, and sensibly, they decided to hold it in the hotel gardens to minimise the effect of travelling and/or a late night. It was a great night filled with everyone being encouraged to partake in the traditional Arabic dance, the ‘Nejdi’. The night then turned very African when the DJ blared out the latest and greatest hit, ‘Azonto’. Literally every player got out of their seats and joined in an impromptu session, which then turned to one man showmanship where one player after another had their turn showing off their swinging hips and upright ‘twerking’. Miley would have been well jealous.

It was brilliant to witness everyone crowd around the boys with their cameras taking videos and pictures. These boys have an unbreakable focus and determination about them but when it’s time to celebrate, they don’t mess around either. I’m starting to think It’s all or nothing with them.

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I got the chance to have a good chat with the boys on my table and the one thing I really wanted to know was how they felt about the methods used by the coaches to develop their focus and mentality. They were telling me how since arriving in the UAE three weeks ago, today was the first time they had been able to step out of their accommodation. They also told me that when they are back home in Nigeria, it’s even more controlled with no access to phones or tv whilst in their academies. The most remarkable thing about this is that they were not moaning about any of this. In fact I would say they were proud of this fact. I could see and hear the conviction and determination in each of them when discussing this matter. They unanimously agreed that to be champions and professional players, it’s a sacrifice they need to make and they were more than happy to do so. I asked the player at Chelsea how he felt since he has more freedom when in his hotel in London and like a trained soldier, explained that he accepted and was happy with the rules of the national team for the same said reasons. Apparently this is the same case with the senior national team too.

Can you imagine Rooney or Ashley Cole happily dropping their phones in the kit man’s tupperware box and locking up their Playstation upon arrival on International duty?

I’m sure many (or the very few) of you that read this will have your own opinions. Talking to the boys took me back to my own childhood. I remember growing up in Ghana and first of all not even having access to TV, a TV that had a metal coat hanger for an antenna and a remote so hefty you could put it behind a car tyre to stop it rolling back, until 6pm because that’s when the GBC (Ghana Boradcasting Coporation) started their broadcast. This meant we only had the option of studying or playing with our friends, and usually we were ‘encouraged’ to pick the former option. It makes me smile fondly thinking of my prized possession at the time; a ‘Casio’ calculator watch! I loved that watch and remember almost crying (I lie, I probably did cry) when I lost it. I also remember my dad constantly reminding me of the importance of hard work when you were young to allow you the enjoyment of an adult life.

In some ways, it’s what the Nigerian coaches are trying to  instill in these boys and it was refreshing to see the boys speak so positively about this, fully understanding the need for sacrifice to achieve your dreams. The top coaches and players have always talked about the need for total sacrifice and dedication if you are going to fulfill any talents you were lucky enough to be blessed with. Gary Neville is a typical example of someone who managed to squeeze the most out of any talent he was given and through hard work and dedication, grew to become the captain of the champions of England. I am wary of saying it’s an African v European way of doing things because there are obvious examples of European players who have sacrificed, in their own way, to achieve success. In fact, add Phil Neville to that list. Maybe we should speak to Neville Neville about his parenting skills, since he also has a daughter that represented her country at netball.

So it’s obviously not necessarily a demographic issue and more of a personal one, although I might ask if there are many young players at English clubs that would gladly accept the notion of a whole season without their Blackberries or iPads. Then again, I would argue if the Nigerian players would be as unanimous in agreeing to this direction were they to be uprooted and moved to a country with technology and distractions at every corner. From personal experience, I’ve tried many times to resist the lure of social media/technology and try to replicate the simple life I used to live. The best I’ve managed so far is take Facebook off my phone!

Perhaps it’s nurture that determines a person’s attitude rather than nature? Or is it the other way round? I’m never sure with this.