From Nigeria, Europe and from all over the United States of America, they came. Football administrators of note, members of the National Assembly, diplomats in high offices, former Nigerian international players, football agents and managers, coaches, authors and fans.
The occasion was the international friendly match between Nigeria, ranked 47th in the world, and Mexico, ranked 19th in the world, at the impressive Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons (American football team). Before their clash on Wednesday, March 5, all three meetings between Nigeria and Mexico at full international level had ended in draws after regulation time, the Mexicans winning a third place match at the Intercontinental Tournament for the King Fahd Cup (now FIFA Confederations Cup) in Saudi Arabia in 1995 on penalties.
On arrival at the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, Atlanta on Tuesday morning, football-passionate immigration officials told some members of NFF Management that the Mexicans had arrived, noisy as is their habit, aboard a chartered Mexican airliner, the previous night.
The history of clashes between both teams, the passion and undying spirit of their supporters, and the fact that both teams were using this to prepare for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014, had set the stage for what would be a great game of football. After the match in Riyadh in January 1995, two other clashes had ended in 2-2 draws: a friendly in Mexico in October 2007 and another one in Houston, Texas, USA on the last day of May, 2013.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi and his assistants Daniel Amokachi and Ike Shorounmu were in the squad that lost on penalties to the Mexicans in Saudi Arabia, and on the eve of the game, Keshi told media representatives who had come to watch the team train at the Georgia Dome: “We are here to play the way we know how to play – to win. We are starting our final preparations for the World Cup and the players realise this is as serious a business as it can ever get.”
Stand-in skipper Vincent Enyeama, a 12-year veteran, said: “For us,every game counts. We will play to our strength and ability and we believe we can win.”
On match day, the entire town of Atlanta, and indeed all roads leading to the Georgia Dome, were painted green. Whose green? Is it the Nigerian green or the Mexican green? If the NFF had not unveiled a new jersey for the National Teams in Abuja the previous week, there would have been very little to differentiate the two. It did not matter. The large Mexican community and the sizeable Nigerian community in the city mingled. At pubs, cafes, restaurants and in hotels, each group boasted it would win.
Consul-Generals of Nigeria to USA (Ambassador Geoffrey Tenelaibe, Atlanta and Ambassador Habib Habu, OON, New York), NFF President Aminu Maigari, Chairman of the House of Reps’ Committee on Sports Godfrey Gaiya, NFF Executive Committee members Chris Green and Ayodeji Tinubu, Professor Adebayo Williams, NFF General Secretary Musa Amadu, Director of Technical Emmanuel Ikpeme, Director of Marketing Adama Idris, Director of Finance Jarafu Mamza, Assistant Director of Communications Ademola Olajire, ex-international and PA to NFF President, Nasiru Jibril and former Super Eagles’ coach Samson Siasia were among those in the Nigeria suite on match day. Others, like ex-internationals Ikechukwu Ofoje (youngest player ever to captain Enugu Rangers FC, who now works as Head Coach of University of South Carolina), Paul Okoku, Christian Nwokocha and Totti Okoro Totti, were also around the VIP area. The sizeable Nigerian crowd mingled with the larger Mexican group, but there was no doubt whose voice was louder.
Even before kick-off, the City of Atlanta was already looking forward to the future. Organisers announced that following a record sale of over 68,000 tickets (the record attendance for a soccer match in Atlanta), the City was looking to invite Nigeria and Mexico to open the New Dome (already under construction) in 2017!
On the field, the football did not disappoint. Both teams matched each other strength-for-strength, skill-for-skill, street, wisdom-for-street-wisdom, tackle-for-tackle, guile-for-guile, menace-for-menace, stamina-for-stamina and shove-for-shove. Vincent Enyeama (first half) and Austin Ejide (second half) made remarkable saves, as did Guillermo Ochoa for Mexico.
Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo in central defence did not disappoint, and same can be said for Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile on the wings, though Efe now has a real rival in Leon Balogun, who made quick decisions and imposed himself before going off injured. Effervescent Ogenyi Onazi was his usual huge engine, debutant Uchebo looked promising, John Mikel Obi was firm and led well in the middle, and Emmanuel Emenike, Ahmed Musa and Victor Moses showed flashes of menace.
Azubuike Egwuekwe did well after coming on for injured Balogun, Imoh Ezekiel was enthusiastic and showed energy and Obinna Nsofor and Ramon Azeez weren’t bad either. At the end, it was another draw (0-0), but no one left disappointed as a huge roar of appreciation followed the players to the dressing rooms. Next up for the Super Eagles is a clash with Scotland’s Tartan Army at the familiar Craven Cottage in London on 28 May – another huge party to look forward to.
By Ademola Olajire