Sunday, May 9, 2021

Approaching the finish line


tiamin rice

Sweden’s players take part to a training session on the eve of the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup quarter final football match between Sweden and England at the Samara Arena on July 6, 2018 in Samara.Yuri CORTEZ / AFP

At the time I am writing this on Thursday night there are eight teams left standing on the podium of the World Cup.By the time you are reading me today or tomorrow morning the number of teams in Russia would have been reduced to four.Between Thursday and Friday, the men would have been separated from the boys at the Russia 2018 World Cup, which is fast approaching the finish line.

In the absence of the Super Eagles, a team I passionately followed and willed to be amongst those that would still be standing at this point, purely based on reckless patriotic optimism, I have thrown the rest of all my weight behind is England.I will be exercising the franchise of that recklessness by believing that England would beat Sweden today.

Sweden, somehow, has always been a difficult team for England to beat over the years. They always struggle against the organised, disciplined play of the Swedish who, during this World Cup, have also played very well and many people think they are the team to spoil my party at the end. I wish England won today!England, definitely not the best team of the eight still standing, somehow, is in a path to the finals, which indicates to me that the conspiracy theorists may be thinking right, that the universe has down on the contributions of England to the game of football and decided to honour the small Island Empire.

On the streets of London now, the message is that the game and the cup are coming back home. It is time to reward the English for the over 50 years of perseverance, commitment and dedication to the promotion of football since playing on home soil for the first time in 1966 and winning the World Cup for their first and only time. We need to celebrate something of that magnitude again.

The English can’t wait to see that happen. I cannot wait either. England may never get a better chance than now. Their national team has not been world-class for decades despite all their investment and developmental projects in their domestic football. They run the best, most followed and most lucrative league in the world. They, more than any other country in the world, have impacted the game as an entertainment and a business model. If points are to be awarded for contributions to the game alone England would be miles ahead of every other country in the world, bar none!

Anyway, the long and short of it is that I am still supporting the Three Lions and tipping them to win their match today against Sweden. They should now be poised to continue in their ‘impossible’ stride in their engagement by overcoming the homeboys, Russia, who are now riding on the crest of the unprecedented support by their home crowd that is lifting their ordinary but hardworking team to the zenith of performance, positioning them as dangerous and most unlikely champion of the 2018 World Cup.

Coming to this World Cup, as the lowest FIFA-ranked team among all the 32 teams would truly make them the most unlikely champion of all time should they miraculously win it.
So, fingers crossed, the stage is set for an England – Russia ‘war’ in St. Petersburg next week.There are other matches that would have been decided by yesterday.Brazil versus Belgium would have been a cracker, probably the most difficult match to predict.

Belgium is presently an exciting team of some exceptional players that can turn the match in their favour.Brazil, with their artistry and total unpredictability, make coaches unable to study and strategise against them. It is always a challenge coping with Brazilian Samba. They always find a way to respond to every kind of opposing team and deliver on the big occasions. Barring any unforeseen ‘tragedy’ such as befell them against Germany in 2014, and with presence of the mercurial Neymar, I believe they would have found a way around a Belgian defence that was exposed for its weakness by Japan in that very entertaining match that saw the Belgians came back from two goals down to beat Japan in the very last second of the extra time.

But Brazil is not Japan.I am assuming of course that Croatia will not survive the vociferous support of the Russian home fans that will make their team soar beyond their normal capacity and capability. In this spirit-mode, Russia has scored goals more than any other team in this World Cup. Croatia’s organised defence will be a hard nut to crack but cracked they will be in the end in my estimation.The match between France and Uruguay may have been the most highly contested of the quarterfinals. The two teams look equally matched in terms of quality and quantity of talent in both teams. This may be France’s new talisman, Mbappe’s biggest test so far. His performance would have determined France’s fate.

I am predicting a very difficult match for both teams but a slim France victory.So, on the podium for the semifinals would be Brazil, Russia, France and England!I know I have also just put my head on the chopping block. So, as you are reading this, how did I fare in my predictions?

The Super Eagles
Now about the Super Eagles.They do not exist any more in the consciousness of people around the world.I tried to raise the Super Eagles as a topic in an English pub with some English fans discussing England’s prospects of their quarterfinal match. It was a big mistake. Super what? They asked if that the name of an animal, place or thing?

The Eagles have disappeared completely from the radar of the ongoing World Cup. So, there is really nothing for me to write about them any more until after.Crisis in Nigerian football and the elevation of Pinnick.Nigerian football is embroiled in crisis that is seriously threatening the future of the game in the country. There is a grand plan to terminate President of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick’s second tenure as president.I have been following from a safe distance in the UK the discussions amongst stakeholders on what should happen to the ongoing crisis.

As all of that was going on, Pinnick was elevated to the position of First Vice President of the Confederation of African football (CAF), following the resignation of the previous occupier, the disgraced president of the Ghana Football Federation.Pinnick has not returned home to face those that want to maintain the tradition of a one-term tenure only for presidents of the NFF. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria to intervene in the issue of elections held in 2014 still hangs over Amadu’s future like an albatross.Incidentally, the current tenure of the board terminates in two months’ time. Emotions are running high in the two contending camps and an interesting but bruising battle lies ahead.

When I return to Nigeria next week I shall give my own humble opinion and prescription to the issue whose genesis lies deep into the story of Nigerian football since 1994 or thereabout.

Mikel Obi – the true patriot
Meanwhile, it was after Nigeria had exited the World Cup that the story of what happened to Mikel Obi surfaced.The country learnt that the Nigerian captain had played the last match against Argentina carrying the heavy burden of news from home that his father had been kidnapped by hoodlums.I don’t know how he did it.I was there in the Super Eagles camp with him on the eve of the match, and he gave no signs that anything was the matter – a baggage that could have broken down any body and negatively impacted the entire team.We thank God that his father was eventually rescued and is now back at home to his family.Mikel wins my vote as a genuine hero of this country.

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