Russia 2018: The first week through my eyes
I am writing this on Thursday night. Some three hours ago, I arrived Volgograd with the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, who had specially invited me to come and meet with members of the Super Eagles as part of his strategy to motivate the players, lift their spirit and prepare them for the crucial win-at-all-cost match against Iceland that must have been played by the time you are reading this on Saturday or Sunday.
So, the best I can do at this point, and on this page, is to peer into my crystal ball, into the future, and predict what was likely to have happened against the Vikings of Iceland.
A few minutes ago, the curtains may have been drawn on Argentina and Lionel Messi’s dream to win the World Cup trophy in this generation. Croatia, just walloped Argentina by three unreplied goals in a match they thoroughly deserved to win, and that exposed the underbelly of the Argentine team. Now those doubting Nigeria’s chances in the championship must be having a rethink and recalculating the odds.
Following my visit to the Super Eagles hotel camp, seeing their determination to get back on course their World Cup train, plus my humble speech after their dinner to encourage them, lift their spirits and challenge them to give their very best, I believe that Iceland must have tasted their new venom.
Earlier in the week Pinnick had also come to pay a courtesy visit to the powerful delegation of former Presidents/Chairmen, Secretary-Generals and a few past and current board members of the Nigerian Football Federation in their hotel in St. Petersburg.
It was a cordial meeting during which we learnt that he would soon be sworn in as first vice president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), to replace the disgraced and sacked former President of the Ghana Football Federation, Kwesi Nyantakyi.
The World Cup – more than a football event
The World Cup has been on for the past one week and there have been incredible and shocking results from the group matches – the defeat of Germany by Mexico, the defeat of all but one of the African teams, Ronaldo versus every team Portugal plays against, Brazil’s pedestrian performance, and so on.
Most pundits like us have had to eat humble pie with the unexpected results being recorded.
Many of us are taking a second look at our earlier predictions and re-consulting the oracle of football for review after watching all the teams through the first round.
The poor African teams
Only Senegal (and probably Nigeria after yesterday’s match) have been very convincing in their performance in the first round of matches.
They already look like ‘sure-bankers’ for the second round. They were very impressive and imposing. Blessed with very tall, strong and powerful athletes, they exhibited great individual skills, and looked like a team that could go far in the championship.
North African teams
The three North African teams, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia have gained in spirit what they lost in performance. Their fighting spirit has been phenomenal, to say the least, even though the same cannot be said of their results.
Two of them, as well as Saudi Arabia, were the first teams to end their run here and will surely be heading home by the end of next week.
The Super Eagles of hope still?
For Nigerians, their national team’s first outing here was a big disappointment. The Argentines’ poor performance against Croatia has helped to dampen the pain and disappointment with the Super Eagles. The Croatians deserve more credit than they were accorded after the Nigerian match.
Now, the Eagles may be back on psychological track.
For some strange reasons the usual Nigerian braggadocio about the Super Eagles has been missing here. Even the drums of the supporters’ club members have not largely silenced or subdued by louder drums of other traveling bands of supporters.
I am told that a lot of the travelling band of the Nigerian supporters are distracted by those hard at work to escape into Europe as economic migrants and refugees. What a shame?
Nigerians can’t wait for the result of the match against Iceland. That match is Nigeria’s hope of redemption.
I am glad that I visited the camp of the Eagles, shared their meal with them, as well as my humble words of encouragement.
World Cup – good advert for Russia
There is something different about the ongoing 2018 Russian World Cup.
This World Cup lacks the colour, the energy and the community-spirit that made the South African and Brazilian World Cups of 2010 and 2014, respectively, probably the most memorable in history.
But as showcase for the transformation of this once communist enclave, this is a grand success already.
Entering Russia again, some 38 years after I visited, during the Moscow Olympics of 1980, it is obvious even from the airport that this was a different country.
The militarised atmosphere of those days, of stern-looking soldiers and police, and of intense scrutiny by security agencies during the Soviet Union communist era, created tension for visitors.
All of that is now history, replaced by friendly faces, relaxed scrutiny of people, friendly disposition everywhere, and a liberal spirit reflected right from the reception at the airport at St. Petersburg.
It is a picture of a new Russia.
St. Petersburg is the city chosen by Nigerian football officials as their hub during the World Cup. Most of the officials are staying in this former capital city of the Soviet Union. It is from here that arrangements are being made to travel to and fro match venues throughout the first round of matches.
Last Wednesday, a few friends and I went down town to the city centre to check things out.
It was a great experience – the underground metro line that ran like clockwork; the open roof tourist buses that took us around the city centre; the absence of more black faces anywhere; the canals and small bridges that crisscrossed the city; the rich historical sites, statues, fountains, and architecture of buildings and other massive structures; the wide streets and boulevards; the ocean of visiting tourists; filled shops and malls reminiscent of Western European cities; and the restaurants that lined the side streets.
In our one-week stay so far, and despite roaming the streets, I have seen only two other black persons apart from the Nigerians.
The surprise for me is the information that there are about 6000 supporters of the Egyptian national team that came into Russia on the day they played against the Russian national team here in St. Petersburg. Seven chartered aircrafts with spectators flew in from Egypt on that day.
The Russians made entry into their country very liberal this time around.
IDs were not even checked at the airport. With abroad smiles on their faces, immigration officers simply stamped passports with hardly a glance at faces and welcomed everyone to their country.
If St. Petersburg is a reflection of the rest of Russia, then a real physical as well as political transformation has taken place.
Unlike in 1980 when we could not just stand anywhere and take pictures, and were often warned not to venture far from the Olympic village, Russia 2018 has looked and felt like any other European country.
We freely took pictures of anything and everything. There were no soldiers or police in your face to spread fear.
So far, apart from the first result of the Super Eagles, Russia 2018 has not been a bad experience.
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