NIGERIA VERSUS GUINEA - THE ELEMENTS WILL DECIDE!
I DO not like this match.
Under normal circumstances no Nigerian would lose any sleep over a match against Guinea to be played in Nigeria in the year 2011. The two countries have not belonged in the same league in the past two decades.
Searching through the archives of African football one would find that the Syli Nationale Stars once occupied the top rung of the African football ladder. The team reigned till the middle of the 1980s before drifting into the wilderness.
Until about a year or so ago they belonged to the football planet of minnows. True, since the onset of the ongoing qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations, the Guineans have bounced back into some kind of reckoning, with their slim victory over the Super Eagles in Conakry as their major claim to fame. Even if the Eagles then were a weak and depleted team, a victory over them any day, anywhere, is considered a major feat by any African country. Having said that, most of us know that Guinea in the year 2011 should really not be a big threat to Nigeria. Not with the avalanche of young new players coming through to strengthen the Super Eagles and make them once again one of the teams that is likely to emerge champion from CAN 2012.
Unfortunately, these are not normal times. The circumstances surrounding this particular match against Guinea is far from being normal. Indeed, as some have said, it could be Nigeria's greatest football challenge in 2011 as it will determine Nigeria's fate in the 2012 African Cup of Nations!
For Nigeria to qualify the country has to surmount the boiler-room pressure that is bound to bear on the players and the nation to win this last match on home soil. As the Guineans already lead Nigeria by three points and a one-goal advantage, Nigeria needs to win outrightly to become group winners, whilst the Guineans only need to hold out by any means for 90 minutes, deny the Eagles a glimpse of their goal, snatch a draw and win the group.
Now, lets look closely at the match and hazard a guess what could happen. The challenge in such a decisive match is more psychological than physical. There will be considerable pressure on both teams as the match begins. Who manages the pressure better would likely carry the day.
Secondly, I do not recall any national team match ever taking place at 2 O'clock in the afternoon. In this part of the world this is an ungodly hour to play football. 2 O'clock? That's when the sun is at its zenith, the heat of its rays scorching everything in its path. No one plays football at that time of the day.
In my recollection, a few clubs have attempted to use the harsh 2 O'clock weather in the distant past to gain some advantage over teams from more temperate regions. The sun would wear down both teams, but the 'damage' to the team from North Africa would be much more than that done to the teams from West Africa. Such were the calculations in the epic battles between North and West African clubs then. That was what led to Nigerian clubs playing a few matches against North African opposition in the scotching heat of the 2 O'clock sun. That strategy has been abolished for a long time now because it dawned on all that the damage was more to the match itself than to the visiting teams.
Rangers Versus Mehalla
One such match that readily comes to mind is the 1975 African Club championship match between Rangers International of Enugu and Mehalla FC of Egypt. To offset the two-goal advantage the Egyptians had coming to Nigeria, the Nigerian football authorities decided to take the match to the dreaded Enugu Township stadium, which was then a killing field for Rangers, a pitch where they were simply invincible.
The poor surface and the physically intimidating players led by Christian Chukwu and including 'Biafran Warriors' Stanley Okoronkwo, 'Dan Vadis' Nwabueze Nwankwo, and silky Christian Madu; rampaging wingers Emeka Onyedika, and Ogidi Ibiabuchi; and the original 'Chairman' 'the tallest' Emmanuel Okala, were simply a nightmare for any visiting team. Add to all that playing a match at 2 O'clock in oppressive heat of 'coal city'!
That match against Mehalla FC almost turned out a disaster. Not even the Rangers team that had prepared well by training at noon for days before the match could cope with the effect of the heat for more than 30 minutes. The first 20 minutes were vital as the strategy worked. The Egyptians were gasping for air as Rangers pumped ball-after-high-ball into their 18 yards box and the two goals needed to bring scores to par were quickly scored. The combination of poor pitch and long high balls being pumped from Okalla into the goal mouth area of the Egyptians ensured that the Egyptians were boxed in and had to fight for their lives. But all of that lasted 20 minutes. After the first 20 minutes even the Rangers team collapsed in exhaustion. Neither side could play decently any more until the end of the match.
CAF's Unprecedented Intervention
From the blues CAF has now come up with a directive that Nigeria's last qualifying match be played at 2 O'clock in the afternoon. Such a decision is unprecedented in the history of African football. The greatest victims of this decision would be the Super Eagles and the match itself.
The Eagles, made up of players that are used to playing under the cold conditions of Europe, would find it almost impossible to perform well should the sun bare its 'fangs' on the day! A dreary match is surely in prospect as I do not think the Guineans would fare any better even if their team may include players from their domestic league more at home with harsh conditions.
CAF would not change its mind despite the protestation of the Nigerian football authorities. So, Nigerians are left to pray for fair weather.
I spoke with Samson Siasia about it early this week. He agrees that the heat would be a major issue. He tells me he is also praying for some divine intervention that the heavens open up and send down some rain before the game to reduce the prospect of a scorching day. I believe he is right. I believe that in the end it might be down to the elements which team qualifies after 90 minutes of what may not be a great match simply because of the time it will be played and how the sun 'behaves' at 2 O'clock!