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Lights out for African teams


It has been more than week since the light went out for all the African teams in the World Cup.

I am not about to do a technical postmortem. It is belated.

I am also not about to shed any tears for a continent that is imprisoned by its penchant to implode at the wrong times for the wrong reasons!

My only worry at this point is my inability to answer the question: why does the issue of money often have to do with the fall of African countries at the World Cup?

Some African countries seem to have learnt nothing from the past; how players have held their countries to ransom, making financial demands on the eve of crucial matches and losing in the end to the weight of the crisis they precipitate.

It has happened to several of them through the years.

A journalist friend concluded rather harshly, after Nigeria joined Cameroon, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire in exiting the 2014 World Cup under similar, rather shameful, circumstances, that there is something wrong with the African teams. Why do we allow money to take precedence over patriotism, common good and common sense?

That narrative, obviously, is for after the World Cup, not now. For now, attention must shift to the rest of the championship, without Asia and Africa.

THE WINNING EDGE

The 2014 World Cup has been an absolute cracker in terms of the excitement, goals and drama surrounding most of the matches.

In particular, it has also revealed that there is only a very thin line between victory and defeat for the teams.

Most teams have had to dig deep to cross that line, to find that edge that separates the winners from the losers, that moment of magic, or madness!

The difference lies in the small details - that extra ounce of energy, determination, commitment or desperation, a lucky shot, a careless tackle, a moment of brilliance, a lapse in concentration, a second of exhaustion, an injury, the goal upright, the cross bar, …anything, something!

Winning or losing requires those moments - dramatic or drastic. They produce the essential edge.

We have seen it play out often already in this World Cup: when Argentina met Iran, and Lionel Messi’s magical free kick, a few seconds from the end of the match, separated the teams; when Arjen Robben was 'tripped' at the last minute and the resultant penalty kick gave Holland victory over Mexico; when Belgium could not break through the heroics of USA’s Tim Howard until Romelu Lukaku was introduced in extra time and he made the difference; when Nigeria’s Ogenyi Onazi was injured after 70 minutes and the Nigerian team collapsed and lost to France in a match they had controlled completely up to that point.

The margins between teams around the world now are ever smaller. Many results have hung by the fibre of a thread.

What appears to have been missing in all the African teams in Brazil (except, perhaps Algeria) is that critical and essential edge that tips the scale of victory, or defeat, one way or the other.

HOW NIGERIA GOT MONEY AND LOST TO FRANCE

June 30 was Nigeria’s test. The Super Eagles needed to go past France. Considering the traditional styles of play of the two teams I had given the match to the Nigerians. For 80 minutes they fought hard and well and justified my confidence. The French were confused. They did not know how to cope with the pace and physicality of the Nigerians.

Then, in the last 20 minutes, everything that had been wrong with the team since before the start of the World Cup reared its ugly head.

The team had no time to prepare well enough. Some key players were missing through injury, poor form, or were out of favour.

Stephen Keshi's list had not included enough quality players, both in the field and on the bench. Specifically, the team did not have a creative player, an anchor, in the midfield to hold the team together. Onazi, the lone fighter in that area, sustained an injury against France and was replaced in the 70th minute. The players suddenly looked completely exhausted.

Unknown to most observers the team and its officials had spent the better part of the previous night counting and sharing money – bonuses of matches not won, appearance fees that had not been paid by Fifa and other allowances, flown into Brazil by the federal government.

The team had missed a training session, threatened to boycott the second leg match, and so on, to make their point. Under the weight of all these challenges any team would collapse.

The demands may appear to have been a ‘small’ matter, but remember, it is the small issues that make a big difference!

Nigeria, thereafter, lost focus at the critical moment of their greatest challenge and sacrificed what could have been their greatest achievement in World Cup football on the altar of lucre. The players chose, through their acts, to end their chase of the 2014 World Cup at that point.

So, the fire in the team was extinguished. As a friend said after the match: ‘when the fire goes out, it dies!’

Against France, that was the turning point for the Super Eagles, the thin line that took them from the periphery of victory to the depths of defeat.


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