By Ephraim Ikpe
The Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, otherwise christened, the Nest of Champions has come to be noted as a place made for champions. Nobody can run away from this fact. Those who thought out the name may not have been mistaken. Nobody ventures into the Nest of Champion pitch and loses. The game is always won by either of the sides that play or it is won by both teams if it is a draw. At such a time it is a win-win thing. Hence nobody ever loses. So derives the name: Nest of Champions, on a lighter note.
Church goers would atone, ‘if God be for us, who can be against us?’ So if Godswill Akpabio International Stadium houses the pitch of, or for Champions, why the hue and cry about moving the centre of play of the AFCON matches and other mondial to Port Harcourt, Rivers State or elsewhere? Why the noise of anything about the Nest of Champions being jinxed?
Come to think of it, it is this same Nest of Champions that the Super Eagles defeated the Black Meteors of Ghana in an international friendly (U23 tournament)to lift the Transformation Cup in commemoration of the new Akwa Ibom International Stadium (the name then)on that Friday night when the first match was played to open the said stadium.
That victory posited open doors for Nigeria and its national team for future engagements in the Nest of Champions. That night the 30,000 capacity International stadium located on the dual carriage Goodluck Jonathan Boulevard, with a training pitch adjudged as one of the best in Africa, played host to President Goodluck Jonathan, and presidents of Ghana and Ivory Coast, John Dramani Mahama and Allasane Ouattara. That night the Nigerian team was handed the Transformation Cup by President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Godswill Akpabio. That night the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium was not jinxed.
Besides the Super Eagles and Bafana Bafan match that was played and won by the visiting team a week ago, the Nest of Champions played host to two other matches recently which Akwa United was involved and the team won. Why did they win matches on the pitch of Godswill Akpabio International Stadium? Why was the team not over-awed and manipulated to fail or lose by the purported jinx? The Akwa United won their matches because they do their home work well. The coach, the technical crew, the players, the supporters as well do what they were supposed to do. The negative narrative spewed by those envious of Akwa Ibom State can only now be understood from the prism of the hate campaigners who would always remain jealous of the rising profile of the state and its visionary governor.
A good stadium, with over fifty exits that allow free flow of traffic of persons in and out of it, in a serene city of Uyo, with a very peaceful and accommodating people, an amiable and sports loving governor, with no threat to visitors, cannot jinx a Nigerian team to lose a well coveted match like the AFCON 2019 qualifying feat with the visiting Bafana Bafana from South Africa.
Come to think of it, as peace loving as Akwa Ibom people are, not minding the negative news reportage of how Nigerians are allegedly treated by proponents of xenophobia in South Africa, made no trouble during and after the match, even when the Nigerian team lost. That virtue alone should cause Akwa Ibom people, sports lovers and the state governor to be commended for the peace ingrained in the people of this State. That alone should challenge football managers – NFF in Nigeria – to know that Akwa Ibom and indeed the Nest of Champions is the place to go if matches must be played, lost and won and nobody is injured.
Coming back home, the AFCON 2019 qualifying match with Bafana Bafana according to Onazi, while fielding questions from Sports Journalists in Uyo before the match, was a “redeemer for Eagles”. According to him, “we remember that it was in this stadium that we missed the opportunity to play in AFCON 2015, when we drew with South Africa. It is still in our hearts, we have not forgotten it. Though it is not a grudge match but, we are approaching it with all seriousness.
“All we need from Nigerians is their support and prayers because at such times it is only their prayers and support that will help us overcome the challenge”. Onazi also spoke on the new players in the team saying that, both players have adjusted to the assignment on the ground as they are all professionals
While not attempting to apportion blames, there was hope in the new players before the match as observed by Onzi above, but was the needful done by the handlers of the team? What about the divided supporters club that we are told about?
What about studying the previous matches of the Bafana Bafana a night or days to that match? Did the older and newer boys in the team do that? We are told the players, a night before the match, were at a three star hotel in Uyo taking selfies, drinking beer but not visiting the other room(?). We also heard when the Bafana Bafana was training they did not allow anybody to enter to watch them, maybe to avoid their strategy being leaked. We are told that when the Nigerians were training that many dignitaries from the Nigerian side were watching and enjoying them. We have heard many things that happened prior to the match about the Nigerian team. But let us not worry about such things here. Nigerians are always and will always be attuned to the narrative of the blame game. Those who watched those guys play during training, as usual, may have offered a hundred and one pieces of advice. That is Nigerians for you.
Before some people incur the wrath of God for speaking ill against a world class stadium built in the land of God’s own state, lets listen to a
former Nigeria international, Garba Lawal’s reflections on that match. Lawal feels the Super Eagles were without creative midfielders following that 2-0 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier defeat to South Africa.
Having watched Gernot Rohr’s men crumble to second half strikes from Tokelo Rantie and Percy Tau at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, the former Elfsborg midfielder gave his verdict.
“It is very sad we lost such an important game against South Africa,” Lawal said.
“They managed to contain us in the first half, and they came out strongly in the second half to press us and get the goals. We showed no creativity against South Africa. We lack creative midfielders in the team. We had no one to hold the ball, control the game and make those passing. I’ve always complained that there is a big difference between players who don’t play week-in, week-out for their clubs and those who play regularly.
Lawal continued, “For Iwobi, Iheanacho and others, it is difficult for them to play better than those who play week-in, week-out for their clubs no matter how small the team in Europe[is]. They contained us and stopped us from getting into their area. We don’t even have any scoring chances. We were very lucky not to have conceded five or six goals.”
Stop and also listen to Sam Sodje. Former international Sam Sodje said Nigeria was stunned by South Africa at home because they left out several experienced players.
According to a report by one of the online news media, “Injury ruled out skipper Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and Carl Ikeme, while Victor Moses is reportedly due for a toe surgery.
The Eagles also overlooked China-based strikers Brown Ideye and Odion Ighalo
The former Portsmouth defender, Sam Sodje said Eagles coaches led by Gernot Rohr should have opted for more experienced players for a game of such magnitude.
Hear him, “In my opinion, the coach should have played some experienced players for such important game which he didn’t and as always we need coaching for our players to perform better,” .
Sodje stated further, “It is very shocking to me that we lost to South Africa and really hurtful.”
However, Sodje will still not write off the Eagles from clinching an AFCON 2019 ticket.“We have made it hard for ourselves to get the ticket, but we are the Super Eagles so it’s always possible to achieve our aims,” he said.
Arguably, these are testimonies of ex-internationals who know that football is like shorthand, when you leave shorthand writing practice for a day, dexterity leaves you for one week. According to Garba Lawal constant practice is the key. Sam Sodje says it is not only being a professional but being experienced.
Experience is gotten through constant practice. The handlers of the Nigerian team needed experienced midfielders and players to have handled another experienced Bafana Bafana team to win them with a home advantage and not jinx breakers because Godswill Akpabio International Stadium is a blessing to the state and Nigeria and will always remain so, but not jinxed as claimed by hate campaigners and ethnic jingoists. The Nest of Champions is the pitch to be for Nigerian matches doctored by NFF, NPL, or international matches anchored by AFCON, FIFA et al.