By Ben Edokpayi/Exclusive To The African Times-USA
When then African Champions Nigeria faced Mexico in a friendly in Texas in 2013, the national coach was my friend, the late Stephen Keshi; the currency exchange rate was approximately one US dollar to 164 Nigerian Naira; and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari (now Nigeria’s two-term president) had swapped his Army uniform for the traditional agbada in his attempt to snatch the presidency from the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan.
Both teams ended the duel with a 2-2 draw in a pulsating encounter at the Reliant Stadium in Houston.
On the eve of America’s Independence Day anniversary, the Super Eagles will return to the US to square off with El Tricolor, Mexico’s national team this time, in Los Angeles. Expected to be well attended because of the fanatical support that the Mexicans enjoy in California, the matchup will be at the historic LA Coliseum best remembered by Nigerian sports enthusiasts as the venue for Nigeria’s first ever track and field Olympic medal when Innocent Egbunike anchored Sunday Uti, Rotimi Peters and Moses Ugbisien to a bronze medal thus setting an African record time of 2:59.32, behind Great Britain and USA.
In this pre-Independence Day encounter, Nigeria’s West Germany Coach Gernot Rohr, who initially questioned usefulness of this matchup, had to renege from calling up of his A Team, and will instead parade home-based players as he rebuilds a team he hopes will qualify for the Qatar FIFA World Cup in 2022.
He told ESPN’s Colin Udoh, “To get the Super Eagles in Europe is impossible. They will all be in pre-season with their clubs.”
On June 22nd, the German task master and his assistants Austin Eguavoen and Paul Aigbogun announced a squad of home-based players chock full of talented players in the attack, midfield and defense that sources say could be complemented with MLS stars such as Nashville FC’s Jalil Anibaba, New York City FC’s Sebastien Ibeagha and Vancouver Whitecaps David Egbo.
The team will fly in for their encounter from their Abuja Serob Legacy Hotel, a stone’s throw from the Johnson Whyte Abuja hotel, which used to be former Coach Stephen Keshi’s preferred campsite for the Super Eagles, and where I interviewed him before the 2014 World Cup.
The encounter at the LA Coliseum should be a barnstormer of attacking football with El Tricolor in a familiar turf and on their strongest fan base away from Estadio Azteca. With nothing at stake I foresee both teams, especially Mexico’s Argentinean Coach Gerardo Martino, experimenting with different players ahead of more important World Cup matches.
So far, and because they were in Russia 2018, the Super Eagles have drawn a bye in the early stage of the African Qualifiers, and these international friendlies hopefully will strengthen the team’s foundation and provide an opportunity to experiment with the roster of players. For the first time in decades, the 1996 Atlanta gold medalist will be out of the draw for the Olympics Soccer tournament.
Conversely, the Central American team will be in Japan and will obviously feature members of their Olympic team in Los Angeles.
What most fans do not realize is that there is a bond between Mexico and Nigeria named Bora. The impressive fact about the Serbian is “The fact is that there is no other coach on the planet who can lay claim to having taken charge of five different national teams at five different FIFA World Cup finals, four of which he steered through to the second round.” And the teams include the USA, China and Costa Rica.
In an interview with FIFA Media online, the Serbian Velibor “Bora” Milutinović said “From Mexico to China, my memories are so deep and meaningful. There were always differences between the jobs and the different countries. The problems that players faced in Costa Rica in 1990 were not the same as the players faced in 2002 in China or in Nigeria when I was there. But the beauty of football is that it is the same – in a very meaningful way – all over the world. The game, for me and in my heart, is the same no matter where you go,” The coach who I interviewed at the 1994 World Cup added,” The first job, whether it’s the USA or Mexico, is to get the team confident. First you have to get them to believe. This was difficult in places like the USA and Mexico in those years, and Costa Rica and China too. It was my job to get the players to believe, and when the players believed then they would play like they believed and the people in the country, in the stands, would believe too. It was all part of a process that began with instilling a sense of belief in players. This is the ultimate challenge for a national team coach.”